In a popular post last month on Motherlode, the New York Times’s parenting blog, Luisa Colón made a surprising admission: she doesn’t like to take her kids to the library anymore. No, not because she is bad parent. But as she notes in her provocatively titled piece, “When Library Time Means Screen Time,” because her branch of the Brooklyn Public Library now has computers for two-to-six-year-olds.
“As a little girl, I loved the hush of the library,” Colón writes. But now the library has become like “an arcade.”
Specifically, Colón is referring to a bank of six “AWE Early Literacy Stations” at her branch. “Like many parents, I obsess over how much screen time is okay for our family,” she writes, admitting that she “can’t stand those computers.”
One thing I’ve learned is never to comment on people’s parenting decisions. But I’ll say this: if Colón is boycotting the library because of a half-dozen AWE computers, which have no Internet access and offer only educational games and gently animated versions of titles like The Berenstain Bears Get in a Fight, then the next decade or so is going to be an awfully rough one for her.
Tech vs. Text
Questions of screen time are of course legitimate for parents of toddlers. But in her post, Colón sounds at times more like a Fox News commentator on a roll than a concerned parent.
“The revelation that Silicon Valley parents (including the late Steve Jobs) make a practice of limiting their children’s screen time confirmed the suspicions of lots of mothers who equate video-game playing and general Internet use with dangers like cyber-bullying and, less specifically, brain-rotting,” she writes. “And the GamerGate scandal has confirmed something concrete that I already knew: I have no idea what the world of gaming looks like beyond Toca Town.”
Really? Suddenly, Arthur’s Birthday is a gateway to harassment, misogyny, and threats of violence?
In fairness, the amount of conflicting information about children and screen time is rivaled only by the kind of reporting we see on diet and nutrition. But it isn’t just technology that has Colón wound up. Her real complaint is that she misses the “hush of the library.” She wants to return to her memory, real or romanticized, of the library as an oasis. “‘I wanted [the library] to be this quiet, sacred space, like what I had experienced as a kid,’” she quotes a friend as saying.
Certainly, parents and caregivers should expect to be able to immerse young children in print books at the library with a minimum of distraction. And I would wager that at all but the smallest libraries, parents can still find that oasis—at least before 3 p.m., when school gets out. But a quiet, technology-free refuge from the world?
That day has long passed.
As public libraries move more consciously toward becoming “third places” in their community, as the urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg termed it, people are coming together at libraries to interact, as well as to create and build. And as jarring as that may be to our memories of the library as a quiet refuge, the results can be exhilarating. And, yes, deafening.
Picture this scenario: it’s 4 p.m., and the children’s room is pumping. A good third of the room is in use by college interns providing homework help. In the adjoining kids’ meeting room, the Lego Club—a high-spirited group—is completing a model of the new Tappan Zee Bridge they’ve been working on for a month.
The AWE computers? They are quiet—there aren’t any preschoolers around. But the dozen or so computers for older kids are all in use. Many of these kids have no Internet access outside of school or the library.
Next door, in the teen room, 30 or so kids are engaged in playing, studying, flirting, reading, and occasionally fighting—all with an array of technology at their disposal. A handful of intense teens are gathered around the newly arrived laser cutter, creating wheels for a robotics experiment, while making their area of the library sound like a hard-hat zone. The two kids using sewing machines aren’t helping the noise level.
It’s no quieter on the adult side of the building. The Mexican consulate has set up shop for the week in the auditorium, meeting with its citizens and processing passports. Since the consulate draws several hundred people a day, organizations like OSHA and the local hospital are also on hand to provide information.
Meanwhile, the First-Monday Knitters, displaced from the auditorium this week, have moved to the smaller meeting room, pushing Book ’Em—a mystery-book discussion group—out to table in the fiction section. They still can’t understand why they can’t have wine at their meeting.
A photography class from the local community college is hanging their fall show around the perimeter of the adult area. Meanwhile, a group from the League of Women Voters has arrived to check out the sound for tomorrow’s candidates’ forum.
An exaggeration? Not at all—this would be a typical afternoon at my library, the White Plains Public Library, and for many libraries around the country. Some may argue that none of this is new for public libraries. And while it is true that libraries have never been merely a container for paper documents, I would argue that the nature (see the laser cutter) and scope (Mexican Consulate) of what we are engaged in are, yes, radically different.
It is not my intention to pick on Luisa Colón. A lot of us share her memories. What’s notable, however, is just how few Luisa Colóns there are in libraries are today. Except for the occasional grousing about noise, most users seems to understand that the public library is now a shared public space, and an active one. And even if their experience doesn’t exactly match their expectation, they adjust, often coming to express wonder at everything going on around them.
That’s the library today. To paraphrase Birmingham (U.K.) librarian Brian Gambles: we are not building a library for the city. We are building the city itself.
Going to the ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting? Wrestling with questions about technology, children’s services, and screen time?
Check out Children and Youth Technology Policy Initiatives, sponsored by the ALA’s Office of Information and Technology Policy (OITP), Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015, 10:30–11:30 a.m., in McCormick Place West, room W185a. And for more insights, there is Young Children, Libraries & New Media Survey, on Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015, 3–4 p.m., in McCormick Place West, room W183b, which will discuss the findings of a recently conducted survey done jointly by the Association for Library Service to Children, LittleeLit.com, and the University of Washington iSchool.
PW contributing editor Brian Kenney is director of the White Plains Public Library in New York and a former editorial director of Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. He writes a monthly column, “The P&L Sheet,” for PW.