To get a full sense of that, it’s worth pointing out that a mere 20 years before the Park Ridge Library first opened, more than 70% of public libraries barred young children from entering, in the belief that they had no place in such a “serious” environment. Yet by 1908, circulation of materials to children accounted for nearly one-third of all library lending. What changed the public’s mind?
Part of the answer can certainly be found in the waves of immigrants who flocked to America in the 1890s. The library became a haven for these people (often providing English lessons to those who needed it), and by extension for their children, who had few other places to go.
Libraries found that one of the best ways to introduce immigrant children to the English language was through storytelling. The modern “storytime” probably had its origins in these sessions, where children from Germany, Poland, Italy, Scandinavia, and other areas listened to a storyteller reading American books while acting out scenes with familiar gestures and expressions. The language might be strange, but many of the storylines were universal, and the children picked up new vocabulary words quickly.
Collections devoted to young readers grew in an effort to encourage reading and prepare children better for school. In the Park Ridge Library’s annual report of 1914, the volume of children’s materials withdrawn was slightly less than that of the adults. Yet in less than a decade, that number would more than quadruple (nearly 18,000 juvenile books were withdrawn as opposed to 16,000 adult volumes).
Libraries then, as now, grew out of the belief that they could provide the tools to ensure a literate and informed community. Children became a primary focus. In 1924, when a young woman named Elizabeth Collom came to the Library to assist Frances Holbrook, she helped create the first summer reading program for local children. Called “the Vacation Reading Club,” its purpose was to encourage learning and provide young residents with a little more structure during the summer months – something their harried parents no doubt appreciated.
During WWII the Vacation Reading Club became the Victory Reading Club, with children being encouraged to become members of make-believe United States Army, Navy, or Marine Corps. In this case, the reading clubs went beyond their original goals.
According to a local newspaper account from the period, children read avidly about the war. “The boys and girls not only read the Children’s Room stock of war books, but go upstairs for more,” the reporter noted, adding that another children’s librarian, a Miss Jacob, was very supportive of their interest.
“They’re living through (the war), and they might as well know what’s going on,” she said.
Some interesting anecdotes come out of the Victory Reading Club. While participants needed to read seven books in order to “make rank,” they could advance to the ranks of general and admiral by reading more. A pair of enterprising little girls read so much, they suggested they should each be given the title of Commander-in-Chief!
The WWII period also saw some interesting adaptations in the storytimes. One year, the librarians focused exclusively on folklore from Allied countries, which gave young patrons some insight into how families in the war areas lived.
These days the Park Ridge Public Library has taken the idea of an international approach even further, by offering storytimes to English-speaking children in languages as diverse as Italian, Mandarin, and German. These programs have been enormously popular despite the fact that few of the children understand a word of the spoken language. What draws them is the energy of the storyteller, the familiar gestures, the acting-out of scenes.
In a sense the Library has come full circle, from teaching immigrant children about America to showing local children the world at large, all through the universal power of stories.