WORK WITH CHILDREN AT THE COLORED BRANCH OF THE LOUISVILLE FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY
Many of the generally accepted methods of children's libraries have been adapted to work with colored children, whose particular interests are described in the following article by Mrs. Rachel D. Harris, contributed to the Library Journal for April, 1910.
Mrs. Rachel D. Harris was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1869, and was graduated from the Colored High School in 1885. She taught in the public schools for fifteen years, and was appointed assistant in the Colored Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library when it was opened in 1905. At the time this article was written she was in charge of the library work with colored children.
About five years ago, when it was proposed to establish a branch for colored people, it was regarded apprehensively by both sides. We knew our people not to be a reading people, and while we were hopeful that the plan would be a success, we wondered whether or not the money and energy expended in projecting such an enterprise might not be put to some other purpose, whereby a good result could be more positively assured.
The branch, however, was opened in the early part of the autumn of 1905, in temporary quarters--three rooms of the lower floor of the residence of one of our own people. We began with 1,400 books, to which have been added regularly, until now we have 7,533 volumes on the shelves of our new building, which we have occupied since October, 1908.
The problem at first which confronted us was: How to get our people to read and at the same time to read only the best. We used in a modest way the plans of work already followed by successful libraries--the story-hour, boys' and girls' clubs, bulletins, visits to the schools, and public addresses.
A group of boys from 9 to 14 years of age, who visited our rooms frequently, was organized into the Boys' Reading Club. Their number increased to 27 earnest, faithful little fellows, who were rather regular in attendance. They met Friday afternoon of each week, elected their own officers, appointed their own committee on preparation of a course of reading for the term, the children's librarian always being a member of each committee appointed. There were only a few boys in this number who had read any book "all the way through," except their school books.
The first rule made for the club was, that at roll-call each boy should respond by giving the title, author and a short synopsis of the book read the preceding week. This proved to be the most interesting part of the meeting, and was placed first on the program to insure prompt attendance. Often the entire period was taken up with the roll-call, the boys often calling for the entire story of a book, the synopsis of which appealed to them. This method was thought to be a good way to get the boys interested in the books on our shelves.
Our first course in reading was Lamb's "Tales from Shakespeare." Much profit was derived from the discussion brought about by assigning each character to a different boy and having him give his opinion of the same. We modified the program to include several debates during the term, using the "Debater's Treasury" for topics. The following year we read the plays "Merchant of Venice," "Macbeth," "Midsummer night's dream."
A large per cent of this first club are still patrons of the library. Six of the original number are now in college, and most of those remaining are connected with the Boys' Debating Club.
Shortly after the organization of the Boys' Club the girls of the sixth, seventh and eighth grades insisted upon having a club, and a Girls' History Club was organized with about 30 girls.
At the urgent request of some pupils of the freshman and sophomore classes of the High School a club was formed for them, and also one for the members of the junior and senior classes for the study of mythology. Very few of the members of any of these clubs had read much beyond their class books and the same general plan was followed in each, with the result that the library has been successful in creating a love for the reading of books that are worth while.
The story-hour has outgrown itself and our limited supply of assistants. We started with a very small group of little folks, and now we tell stories to between 150 and 180 children each week in our building. The story-hour begins at 3 p.m., and children who are dismissed at 1:30 p.m., come directly from school and wait patiently till the children's librarian returns from her station work at 3 p.m. The majority of our children have never had stories told to them, their parents being compelled to work out from home all day, and during the evening they have not the time, though they may have the stories to tell, and the little ones have been deprived of every child's birthright--a generous supply of good stories. Boys and girls from the High School have begged for permission to come to the story-hour, and have come from long distances to hear the stories and enjoy them as much as the younger ones do.
Last year when we decided to tell stories from English history to this mixed group of little folks we felt that probably the stories would not be received with the same interest as were the stories of the previous year. Strange to say, these stories appealed keenly to the children, and our number increased weekly and interest did not wane. Many copies of English histories were placed on our shelves, and these were eagerly read. Even now it is difficult to find an English history in our children's room.
A remarkable feature of the work at our branch is the small amount of fiction read, only 45 per cent. We had a decided advantage here, because our children had never learned to read fiction. Having read but very little, their power of concentration was small, and the book that contained a story that "went all the way through" did not appeal to them. Their great regard for "teacher's" opinion helped us at the library to please them by giving them non-fiction. For instance, when the boys came, as most boys do, with a request for a story about Indians, we gave them Grinnell's "Story of the Indian," or Wade's "Ten Big Indians," the binding and high sounding title of which would attract them, and they would find their way to the shelf where the Indian books were and would read nearly all we had there. They were then prepared to thoroughly enjoy our Indian stories in fiction.
Ours is an emotional race, and as religion appeals much to this element in our nature, our parents have always been church- goers, and the reverence for sacred things which our children manifest is inherent. Therefore it is no cause for wonder that the stories of the Old and New Testament find children anxious to read them.
Our children read more biography than would be supposed. That book that will tell them about a boy who, though poor and otherwise handicapped, struggled, overcame and became famous, appeals to them; therefore "Poor boys' chances" and Bolton's "Poor boys who became famous" are called for constantly. There are few of our boys and girls who will not gladly take a copy of the life of Abraham Lincoln, or Booker T. Washington and read them over and over, their parents often having them read the same to them also. The self-made element in the lives of these men strikes a responsive chord in the hearts of our young people. They are easily led from the lives of these to the life of Napoleon, Edison, Washington and others.
During the school months the tables of our reference room are usually crowded. The pupils of the High School, near by, often deluge us, after the closing of school, with anxious requests for information on every topic from "the best mode of pastry making to Halley's comet."
The Library Board has been generous in granting our request for more and more books. Our supply, however, is still far too small for the demand made upon it, our circulation having increased from 17,838 to 55,088 for the present year. We have two library stations and 35 class room collections, all demanding more books.
When we look back now at the time of our beginning we see that our fears were unfounded. Our people needed only an opportunity and encouragement. The success of the branch has exceeded the hope of the most sanguine of those interested in its organization, and we feel justly proud of the results attained.