In June 2018, Lindsey Krabbenhoft at Jbrary wrote on “Community Outreach and the Devaluation of Children’s Librarians.” She expressed concern over recommendations for volunteers to replace paid library workers as outreach librarians, story time leaders, and more. Although some libraries may see volunteers as an easy (and free!) way to expand their services, I agree with Lindsey that replacing paid workers with volunteers can be harmful in the long run. The implication behind such a move is, indeed, that paid library workers are not worth the money–they do not have any specialized skills or training that makes them valuable. And part of the problem is most likely that women’s work–and women’s work with children–is usually under-valued.
In my own library, I have heard a number of teens and parents of teens ask if the teens could earn volunteer hours, not through the regular opportunities offered by the library, but instead by running story time. Simply asking the question indicates that library patrons do not see story time as a program that requires skill or training to run. Instead, anyone can do it. You just show up, read a story, and throw out a craft or coloring pages, right? Simply asking the question, simply assuming that anyone can perform the work of a children’s librarian, reveals that, in fact, the people asking should probably not be running story time–because they know little about it.
Story time involves a lot of knowledge about early childhood development–which books are age-appropriate and read-aloud friendly, what kinds of questions to ask to get children to interact with and anticipate the story, which songs to sing and how often to repeat them for learning. It also requires presenters to know how to read and hold a book, how to control a crowd, and how to adapt if parents bring children who are too old or too young to be interested or stimulated by the program. Additionally, story time librarians are now expected to go beyond a simple (age-appropriate) craft or coloring pages. Many now offer stations with sensory bins and hands-on learning activities that reinforce numerical literacy, fine motor skills, or any other number of skills. Librarians think long and hard about these activities, and will often use a session of story times to have participants build upon skills they are learning.
Story time is never really only about the stories, however. It is also about making connections with patrons. Patrons want to know that they are interacting with an early childhood expert who can discuss their child’s development and who can connect them with resources both in the library and in the community. Often, relationships need to be built over time so patrons feel comfortable discussing their family situation or asking for help. To achieve this, it helps to have regular staff whom patrons see on a regular basis. And it helps to have staff who are knowledgeable about resources.
Patrons at my library have not only asked to run story time in the children’s room, however, but have also offered to do other parts of the job, such as circulation duties. Again, the patrons fail to understand what is entailed in circulation. It is far more than running books under a scanner. First of all, it involves access to personal information–so not anyone can simply be given access to the computers. But it also involves handling money, resolving patron complaints, and occasionally modifying patron or materials records. All of this, again, requires training. If it seems so easy anyone could walk up and do it, perhaps that is because it is largely a customer service job–a job associated with women. So, of course, it can’t possibly require any skill!
I spend most of my time in the children’s room, so I have not overhead patrons asking the adult department if they can do their jobs, too. But I cannot help but suspect that the average patron would not, in fact, offer to volunteer to take on an adult services position. Because, of course, working with adults must require skill and training, while working with children is simple and fun. There really is a lack of respect for children’s librarians and the work they do. And I could not help but find Lindsey’s assessment of the situation accurate and telling.
Children’s librarians are really the foundation of a library. It is through their expertise, their enthusiasm, and their passion that children are often first introduced to the library, taught to love reading, and encouraged to become library patrons and readers for life. Disparaging the work they do is both offensive and damaging. Children’s librarians are truly irreplaceable–no matter how lovely and helpful volunteers can be. They are dedicated to the job for the long run, not just for a few hours or a day, and they are constantly searching for ways to improve their skills and their services. It is high time their good work was recognized.