New Library Space for the Very Young

By Sherri Douglas

Preparations have begun for the new Early Literacy center.
Preparations have begun for the new Early Literacy center.

The idea of libraries serving youth is a relatively recent concept, especially given that the libraries have been around for nearly 4,000 years ago. Although some public libraries had children’s books in their collections in the 1800s, most of them didn’t allow youth in the reading rooms. It wasn’t until mandatory schooling and child labor laws passed at the end of the century that libraries started building collections for the young. By the 1920s and ‘30s, youth librarians joined library staffs, and storytimes for families with preschoolers became a regular feature.

In the late ‘80s, we started offering Lapsit – a story-sharing program for children ages 3 and under and their caregivers. We knew it was important to read aloud to children, but we didn’t know much about the scientific reasons then. What we saw was that reading developed language skills and created a loving bond between parents and children.

Our Lapsit programs are easily the most popular. They are theme-oriented, with a set structure, so kids become familiar with and look forward to the songs and rhymes. Librarians select books to share and add new fingerplays and action rhymes around the theme. Puppets greet the families. Flannel board stories add another dimension. I’ve seen friendships form amongst the parents and caregivers, and overheard plans for play dates.

Over the last decade or so, scientific studies on brain development of the very young have given credence to our intuition about early learning. What a child learns and experiences in his or her first three years has a profound affect on success in school and in later life.

As a result, Anchorage Public Library created a statewide resource for youngest Alaskans – youth age 3 and under, thanks to an Alaska State Library grant. Many communities lack libraries or bookstores to provide board books for babies. Librarian Terrie Weckerle directed the Ready to Read Resource Center, and assembled tubs of board books, theme bags and Read to Me at Home kits to circulate throughout the state. She trained early childcare providers and librarians on the importance of early literacy learning. (Terrie has moved and the new project manager Stephanie Schott joins APL at the end of October.)

Recently, the Public Library Association summarized the early literacy skills a child needs to be ready to learn into a simple formula – Read, Write, Sing, Play and Talk. Loussac’s new early literacy space on level 2, which opens with a ceremony Tuesday, Oct. 22, at 10 am, is designed to share that formula with young children and their caregivers.

You may need to stoop to enter through the archway entry to this unique space. Low, birch shelves contain a refreshed board book collection and a variety of toys. Colorful interactive elements and bright wall art created by Hope Studies attract attention and encourage interaction.

The key here is parents engaging with children as they explore language through play. Join your toddler at the kitchen sink, have tea together, and sing “I’m a little teapot” between nibbles of pretend food. Plop down together beneath the “READ” sign with a board book. Lift your knees so another toddler can drive a truck through your makeshift tunnel.

The era of the shushing librarian is long gone. Friends of the Library is providing funds so every APL neighborhood library can create its own early literacy space. On your next trip to the library, you may hear the joyful sounds of infants, toddlers and their caregivers reading, playing, talking, singing, laughing or crying (an effective form of communication for infants, but hopefully not for adults!). Join us in supporting and celebrating the early literacy development in our youngest Alaskans at our local libraries.

Sherri Douglas was an APL youth librarian for 26 years, the last 12 as the Youth Services Coordinator. Recently she accepted a position as the APL Assistant Director for Public Services.

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