Blogger Eva Mitnick

Librarians then and now – passion and questions

One of my favorite books about our field is Library Work with Children, reprints of papers and addresses by children’s librarians, selected and annotated by Alice I. Hazeltine and published by H.W. Wilson in 1917.

From programming to discipline to reference to “values” – it’s all here, the work we’ve been doing for over a century.  It’s clear from these essays that children’s librarians have been passionate, opinionated and outspoken from the very beginning.

Take “Story Hour.”  Way back in the dawn of children’s librarianship, this meant something far different than it does now.  If you could step back in time to 1905 or 1930 or even 1965, you’d see a group of kids, most of them no younger than 8 or 9, seated around a librarian.  This librarian would be telling a story.  Not reading a story – telling it.  It might be a Hans Christian Andersen tale, a Greek myth, or a legend of King Arthur or Robin Hood.  The librarian may be using an adaptation she borrowed from another storyteller or she may have adapted it herself.  She probably spent many hours learning the story and getting her delivery just right.

It’s likely, especially in New York City, that she lit a candle at the beginning of her story session.  At the end, she or a child will blow it out, and children who remained silent and still will get their wish granted.

While library storytelling had started as early as the late 1890s, this form of Story Hour first took hold in a big when Anne Carroll Moore heard Marie Shedlock tell stories in 1902; she, as well as other librarians, was enchanted by the magical spell the stories cast over children and by the way they flocked afterwards to the books upon which the stories were based.

Within a decade or two, most large library systems and many small ones offered Story Hour series.  It was generally accepted by most librarians that this was a valuable library service, as it broadened a child’s interest in literature, led them to the best books, introduced them to cultural works with which they should be familiar as American citizens, strengthened English skills, and (last but not least) was hugely entertaining for the kids and rewarding for the children’s librarians.

Children’s librarians had lofty goals in mind with their Story Hours.  In 1905, Edna Lyman Park of the Oak Park Public Library, wrote:

And what is the use of story telling?  Is it merely to amuse and entertain the children?  Were it simply for this, the time would not seem wasted… The story hour is intended to…give the child a glimpse beyond the horizon which hitherto has limited his life, and open up to him those vast realms of literature which are a part of his inheritance… To arouse and stimulate a love for the best reading is then the real object of the story hour.

Not everyone was so enamored with the idea of telling stories in libraries.  In 1908, John Cotton Dana, then Librarian of the Free Public Library of Newark, wrote in Public Libraries, “Story-telling to groups of young children is now popular among librarians.  The art is practised [sic] chiefly by women.”  After this sneer, he goes on to summarize the reasons for this popularity (“It must be a delight…to feel that you are giving the little people high pleasure and at the same time are improving their language, their morals, their dramatic sense, their power of attention and their knowledge of the world’s literary masterpieces.”).  But…:

A library’s funds are never sufficient for all the work that lies before it.  Consequently, the work a library elects to do is done at the cost of certain other work it might have done….Now, the schools tell stories to children, and it is obviously one of their proper functions…It is probable that the schooolmen know better when and how to include story-telling in their work…than do the librarians.”

Mr. Dana’s solution?

If, now, the library by chance has on its staff a few altruistic, emotional, dramatic and irrepressible child-lovers who do not find ordinary library work gives sufficient opportunities for altruistic indulgence, and if the library can spare them from other work, let it set them at teaching the teachers the art of storytelling.

Rather than a librarian reaching 40 kids with a story, she could teach 40 teachers how to tell a story, who could then each reach 40 children – well, you get the idea.

In 1909, Alice Blanchard, also at the Free Library of Newark (though only until 1910, after which she moved to the Seattle Public Library. Perhaps she found it a bit difficult to work with Mr. Dana?) gave this reasonable response at ALA:

We say that the function of public library work with children is to give them an intelligent love for the best books, and in trying to do this we must reach the greatest number of children at the least expense.  If story telling can be an effective tool…then it has a legitimate place in library work.  If it cannot do this we should let it alone.

Ms. Blanchard then goes on to counsel librarians that they must:

  • Keep the purpose of storytelling in mind at all times when planning and implementing story hours – to bring kids and good books together
  • Not try to accomplish too many things at once, especially things that others (teachers, playground directors, etc) are already doing
  • Assess whether storytelling really is the best tool for their particular library and situation.  Small libraries may not have the staff to offer a regular Story Hour in the library – so maybe those librarians could tell a story while visiting school classes instead.
Does this all sound familiar?  We’ve been assessing our own programs and services for decades.  What are we doing?  Why are we doing it?  Could we do it better?  Should we be doing something else instead?
We’ve always been a flexible and nimble profession, eager to change to fit the times.  Our ideas about what library service to children must consist of have shifted accordingly.  But one thing has remained a constant.  Children’s librarians are passionate about this profession and are determined to offer the best service possible to our communities – even if it means discussion, argument, self-evaluation, and change.

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