Questia Online Library

Library Journal, 1903, P. 164

The following paper embodies practical suggestions for helping to give the children's room a "natural, friendly atmosphere." It was read by Miss Clara W. Hunt before the Long Island Library Club, February 19, 1903. A sketch of Miss Hunt appears on page 135.

So many of the problems of discipline in a children's room would cease to be problems if the material conditions of the room itself were ideal, that I shall touch first upon this, the less important branch of my subject. For although the height of a table and width of an aisle are of small moment compared with the personal qualifications of the children's librarian, yet since it is possible for us to determine the height of a table, when mere determining what were desirable will not insure its production where a human personality is concerned, it is practical to begin with what there is some chance of our attaining. And the question of fitting up the room properly is by no means unimportant, but decidedly the contrary. For, given a children's librarian who is possessed of the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job, the generalship of Napoleon, and put her into a room in which every arrangement is conducive to physical discomfort, and even such a paragon will fail of attaining that ideal of happy order which she aims to realize in her children's reading room. The temper even of an Olympian is not proof against uncomfortable surroundings.

Children are very susceptible, though unconsciously to themselves, to physical discomfort. You may say you do not think so, for you know they would sit through a whole morning and afternoon at school without taking off their rubbers, if the teacher did not remind them to do it, and so, you argue, this shows that they do not mind the unpleasant cramped feeling in the feet which makes a grown person frantic. But while the child himself cannot tell what is wrong with him, the wise teacher knows that his restlessness and irritability are directly traceable to a discomfort he is not able to analyze, and so the cause is not removed without her oversight. While the children's librarian will not have the close relations with the boys and girls that their school-teachers have, she may well learn of the latter so to study what will make for the child's comfort, that, in the perfect adaptation of her room to its work, half the problems of discipline are solved in advance.

Let us suppose that the librarian is to have the satisfaction of planning a new children's room. In order to learn what conveniences to adopt and what mistakes to avoid, she visits other libraries and notes their good and weak points. She will soon decide that the size of a room is an important factor in the question of discipline. Let a child who lives in a cramped little flat where one can hardly set foot down without stepping on a baby come into a wide, lofty, spacious room set apart for children's reading, and, other conditions in the library being as they should the mere effect of the unwonted spaciousness will impress him and have a tendency to check the behavior that goes with tenement- house conditions. We of the profession are so impressed with the atmosphere that should pervade a library, that a very small and unpretentious collection of books brings our voices involuntarily to the proper library pitch. But this is not true to the small arab, who, coming from the cluttered little kitchen at home to a small, crowded children's room where the aisles are so narrow that the quickest way of egress is to crawl under the tables, sees only the familiar sights--disorder, confusion, discomfort --in a different place, and carries into the undignified little library room the uncouth manners that are the rule at home. In planning a new children's room then, give it as much space as you can induce the librarian, trustees, and architects to allow. Unless you are building in the North Woods, or the Klondike or the Great American Desert you will never have any difficulty in getting small patrons enough to fill up your space and keep the chairs and tables from looking lonesome.

The question of light has a direct bearing on the children's behavior. Ask any school teacher, if you have never had occasion to notice it yourself, which days are the noisiest in her school-room, the bright, sunny ones, or the dingy days when it is difficult to see clearly across the room. Ask her if the pencils don't drop on the floor oftener, if small feet do not tramp and scrape more, if chairs don't tip over with louder reports, if tempers are not more keenly on edge, on a dark day than a bright one. I need not say "yes," for one hundred out of a hundred will say it emphatically. So, if you cannot have a room bright with sunshine, do at least be lavish with artificial light, for your own peace of mind.

Floors rendered noiseless by some good covering help wonderfully to keep voices pitched low. I have seen this illustrated almost amusingly in Newark, where frequent visits of large classes were made from the schools to the public library. The tramp of forty or fifty pairs of feet in the marble corridors made such a noise that the legitimate questions and answers of children and librarian had to be given in tones to be heard over the noise of the feet. The change that came over the voices and faces as the class stepped on the noiseless "Nightingale" flooring of the great reading room was almost funny. The feet made no noise, therefore it was not necessary to raise the voice to be heard, and no strictures of attendants were needed to maintain quiet in that room.

Under the head of furniture I will give only one or two hints of things worth remembering. One is that whatever you decide upon for a chair, in point of size, shape, or style, make sure, before you pay your bill, that it cannot be easily overturned. If you have a chair that will tip over every time a child's cloak swings against it, your wrinkles will multiply faster than your years warrant. And reason firmly with your electrician if he has any plan in mind of putting lamps on your tables of such a sort that they positively invite the boy of a scientific (or Satanic) turn of mind to astonish the other children by the way the lights brighten and go out, all because he has discovered that a gentle pressure to his foot on the movable plug under the table can be managed so as to seem purely innocent and accidental while he sits absorbed in the contents of his book. I would also ask why it is that librarians think we need so MUCH furniture, when our rooms are as small as they sometimes are? We seem to think it inevitable that the floor space should be filled up with tables, but, as Mr. Anderson remarked in his paper at Magnolia, if we saw a family at home gathered around the table, leaning their elbows upon it and facing the light, we should think it a very unnatural and unhygienic position to adopt. Why should we, in the library, encourage children to do just what physiologists tell us they should not do? Why provide tables at all for any but those actually needing them as desks for writing up their reference work? For the many who come merely to read, why is not a chair and a book, with light on the page of the book, and not glaring into the child's eyes, enough for his comfort? This is worth thinking about, I am sure, and worked out in some satisfactory, artistic little back-to-back benches perhaps, would change the stereotyped appearance of the children's room, and give the extra floor space which is always sadly needed. It is an axiom in library architecture that perfect supervision should be made easily possible. In a children's room this should be taken very literally. There should be no floor cases, no alcoves in the room, no arrangements by which a knot of small mischief makers can conceal themselves from the librarian for she will find such an error in planning, a thorn in the flesh as long as the room stands.

So much time devoted to the planning of the children's room, may give the impression that the room is of more importance than the librarian. It is a platitude, however, to say that the ideal children's librarian, with every material condition against her, will do a thousand times more than the ideal room with the wrong person in it. The qualifications necessary to make the right sort of a disciplinarian are, many of them, too intangible for words, but a few things strike me as not always distinctly recognized by librarians.

In the first place, no librarian should compel that member of his staff who dislikes children to do the work of the children's department. While on general principles to let an attendant choose the work she likes to do would be disastrous, since the person best fitted for dusting might choose to be reference librarian, in this one particular at any rate, the wishes of the staff should be consulted. For while all may be conscientious, faithful workers wherever placed, mere conscientiousness will not make a person who frankly says children bore and annoy her, a success in the children's room. Love for children should be the first requisite, and the librarian who puts a person in charge of that work against her will, will hurt the department in a way that will be surely felt sooner or later. While love for children, sympathy with, and understanding of them are all of the first importance in the composition of a children's librarian, some experience in handling them in large numbers (as in public school teaching, mission schools, boys' clubs, etc.) is extremely desirable. To deal with a mob of very mixed youngsters is a different matter from telling stories to a few well-brought up little ones in your own comfortable nurseries. The best qualification for the work of children's librarian is successful experience as a teacher, in these happy days when it is coming to be the rule that law and liberty may walk side by side in the school-room, and where firmness on the teacher's part in no wise interferes with friendliness on the child's.

The children's librarian should have the sort of nerves that are not set on edge by children. This does not mean that she may not be a nervous person in other ways, indeed she must be, for the nerveless, jelly-fish character can never be a success in dealing with children. But I have seen people of highly nervous organization who were really unconscious of the ceaseless tramp, tramp, of the children's feet, the hum and clatter and moving about inevitable in a children's library. Visitors come into the room and say to such a person, "How can you stand this for many minutes at a time?" and the librarian looks round in surprise at the idea of there being anything hard to bear when she hears only the little buzz that means to her hundreds of little ones at the most susceptible age, eagerly, happily absorbing the ennobling ideals, the poetic fancies, the craving for knowledge that are going to make them better men and women than they would have been without this glimpse into the realms beyond their daily surroundings.

To attempt to enumerate, one by one, the qualities that combine to make a wise and successful disciplinarian would be fruitless. We can talk endlessly about what OUGHT to be. The most practical thing to do to obtain such a person, is not to take a raw subject and pour advice upon her in hopes she will develop some day, but to hunt till you find the right one and then offer her salary enough to get her for your library. And this suggests a subject worthy of future discussion, that head librarians should reckon this to be a profession within our profession, just as the kindergartner is a specialist within the teaching body, demanding a higher type of training than is the rule, and PAYING THE PRICE TO GET IT.

Just a word about what degree of order and quiet to expect, and to work for, in a children's room. Are we to try to maintain that awful hush that sends cold chills down the spine of the visitor on his first entering a modern reading room, and tempts him to back out in fright lest the ticking of his watch may draw all eyes upon him?

I should be very sorry to have a children's room as perfectly noiseless as a reading room for adults. It is so unnatural for a roomful of healthy boys and girls to be absolutely quiet for long periods that if I found such a state of affairs I should be sure something was wrong--that all spontaneity was being repressed, that that freedom of the shelves which is a great educator was being denied because moving about makes too much noise, that the question and answer and comment which mark the friendly understanding between librarian and child, and which make a good book circulate because one boy tells another that it is good, were done away with in order that no slight noise might be heard. If there were such a thing as a meter to register sound to be hung in a children's room beside the thermometer, I should not be alarmed if it indicated a pretty high degree, provided I could look around the room and observe the following conditions: a large room, full of contented children, no one of whom was wilfully noisy or annoying, most of them being quietly reading, the ones who were moving about asking in low tones the children's librarian or each other, perfectly legitimate questions that were to help them choose the right thing. It is inevitable that heavy boots, young muscles that have not learned self-control, the joyous frankness of childhood that does not think to keep its eager happiness over a good "find" under decorous restraint, will result in more actual noise than obtains in the adults' reading room. And yet, while the "sound meter" of the children's room would register farther up, it might really be more orderly than the other room, for every child might be using his room as it was intended to be used, while the adult department might contain a couple of women who came in for the express purpose of visiting, and yet who knew how to whisper so softly as not to be invited to retire. We must remember that, if children make more noise, they do not mind each other's noise as adults do. The dropping of a book or overturning of a chair, the walking about do not disturb the young student's train of thought; and while I do not wish to be quoted as advocating a noisy room, but on the contrary would work for a quiet one, day in and day out, I do feel that allowances must be made for noises that are not intended to be annoying, and that we should not sacrifice to the ideal of deathly stillness the good we hope to do through the child's love for the room in which he feels free to express himself in a natural, friendly atmosphere.

Library Work with Children

Next Section: