The Littlest Patrons

By mmckale

“If libraries were just for adults, we would have closed a long time ago.” – Jodi Shaw, Children’s Librarian

I visited my local library in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, at naptime. A pleasant time of day there, when the library is as one expects the library to be: quiet. In a few hours, this space would become an explosion of sound, with kids of all ages arriving to read, play, and discover.

The Carroll Gardens branch is under the umbrella of the Brooklyn Public Library, a network of 60 libraries serving over 2.5 million residents [1]. The branch is staffed by Ms. Shaw, three other full-time librarians, four clerks, a part-time librarian and a technical research specialist. It is one of eighteen “Carnegie” branches of BPL, known as such because they were built with funds from a 1901 gift from Andrew Carnegie (previously, the library had “…typically rented retail space to provide local service.”[2]) The Carnegie branches are beautiful, welcoming spaces – though not always organized ideally for a modern library. Stroller parking is an issue at the CG branch, and the bathrooms are not easily accessible via the elevator.

This particular location is also one of several where the children’s section is on the same floor as the main library, which makes for some challenges – generally, from 3 pm on, adults seeking peace and quiet must look elsewhere. But, as Ms. Shaw noted, the under-5 set is exactly with whom she is looking to engage.

Though adults certainly use the library – there were a number there during my observation, many on computers (watching TV! Using FaceBook!) and a few reading newspapers or browsing the stacks – it is children around whom the world of the library revolves. Programming is heavily weighted towards kids, with four weekly storytimes – often with kids and caregivers lining up around the block up to an hour in advance –  an ongoing arts & crafts program, monthly dance party, and frequent workshops like Lego challenges and Library Lab. There are also four computers dedicated just to kids, which offer educational games and programs like ABC Mouse.

Many of the children’s programs are generated by the Central Library for use by the various branches. While this seems like a practical way to organize a vast network, Ms. Shaw has reservations about this “top down” method. As she pointed out, the community served at the Carroll Gardens branch is very different than the community served at, say, the Brownsville branch. So shouldn’t the librarians at each branch have the opportunity to build programming that is most appropriate for their community?

Ms. Shaw did note that there are some ways in which she and the other librarians can get creative. First, any funds raised through events with their “Friends” group – a volunteer library advocacy group [3] – go directly to the branch. The Friends of the Carroll Gardens Library group is robust, and regularly holds book sales and bake sales – including a recent bake sale on Election Day (the library was a polling place) that raised almost $1,000. Second, Ms. Shaw and her colleagues have a fair amount of autonomy when it comes to spending these funds and developing new programming.

Ms. Shaw also recently worked with library manager John Leighton and the office of Congressman Brad Lander to submit a proposal for Lander’s participatory budgeting project, in which neighborhood residents have the opportunity to vote on how to spend their tax dollars.[4] Their proposal, for a dedicated teen space and an after-hours book drop, won $350,000. With these funds, they plan to improve the lighting, add outlets, and free up some open space where they can install comfortable furniture, all of which they hope will encourage teens to use the library as a safe place to hang out after school.

The Carroll Gardens Branch is a special place, and Jodi Shaw is a huge part of that. She is an engaged, excited librarian, committed to her constituents in a way that seems rare. She is an active member of the American Library Association and regularly attends their conferences (BPL pays her way at one conference each year); she hopes to take on a leadership position there soon. She has written several articles for Public Libraries Online [5], exploring topics from collections digitization to figuring out how to manage crowds at storytime. And she is working hard to engage with the Central Library to ensure that her branch is meeting or exceeding its community’s needs.

Any visitor to this branch will note that it is a community hub, where people of all ages come to work, play, and engage with their neighbors. But it is especially friendly to its littlest patrons.

[1] http://www.bklynlibrary.org/locations

[2] http://www.bklynlibrary.org/about/carnegie

[3] http://www.bklynlibrary.org/support/friends-groups

[4] http://bradlander.nyc/PB

[5] http://publiclibrariesonline.org/author/jodishaw/

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