What About the Children?

And the kids shall lead them—to the library

October 29, 2013


After decades of strong leadership, Livermore (Calif.) Public Library, where I am a trustee, now has an opening at the top. Library Director Susan Gallinger has retired and we are faced with the challenge of replacing her.

We spent the last board meeting with the city manager discussing the characteristics of her replacement. We talked about the changing landscape of libraries and how we need someone who is electronically savvy, technologically creative, and politically astute. We wondered, given this new environment, if we were measuring the right things in our attempt to determine whether the community was getting a fair return on its library tax dollar.

While the conversation was interesting and vigorous, it made me a little nervous. Weren’t we ignoring something more important than technology, change, and statistics? In my mind, Susan’s greatest gift to the community was not the beautiful building that she built during her tenure, but the incredibly rich and diverse series of children’s services that she implemented. Without the thousands of kids those programs attracted, our beautiful building would never have been built.

So I blurted out, “I want a library director who doesn’t hate kids. Wait, that came out wrong. I want a library director who values children.”

From my 40 years of laboring in the library vineyard, I have known a lot of library directors who hated kids . . . I’m sorry, who didn’t value children. Kids are not programmable. There is no convenient “kid app.” They are noisy, disruptive, obstreperous, and cantankerous. They pull books off the shelves in droves. They pee, poop, vomit, spill stuff into computer keyboards, destroy books, swallow puzzle pieces, and get lost. Plus, they smell funny.

And they have noisy, disruptive, obstreperous, and cantankerous parents. “My child is gifted and you have nothing to keep him challenged.” “Your story hours are all at the wrong time. Can’t you schedule one at 6:30 a.m. before I have to go to work?” “My child read more books than anyone else in the summer reading program. Shouldn’t he get a special prize?”

Let’s not forget the adult library users who regard children as though they were invasive vermin. Forty years ago I took over a sleepy little village library in rural Wisconsin and made kids a priority. Soon it was no longer a sleepy little library but a beehive of activity. An indignant woman marched into my office and declared, “This was a nice library before you got here and started pandering to children.”

Well, that’s exactly the kind of library director that we need at a time when the raison d’être of libraries is being challenged: someone who will “pander” to children. It’s a very simple formula. Children are the catalysts who get the entire modern family involved in the library: nannies, parents, grandparents, stepparents, step-grandparents—the list goes on and on. We do things for our kids we never dreamed of. Last week I went to the absolute worst ballet in the history of the performing arts. Why? My 5-year-old granddaughter was a flower in the first two minutes of it.

Oh, and there’s one more advantage to a kid-centric library director. If you can manage children, you can manage local politicians.

WILL MANLEY has furnished provocative commentary on librarianship for more than 30 years, has written nine books on the lighter side of library science, and blogs at willunwound.com. Email wmanley7[at]att.net.


Meredith Farkas

Community Creativity

Enabling local publishing in libraries