To do or not to do Core competences, new roles and profiles for staff in the children’s library

The classical tradition of mediation in the children’s library is under pressure. Children’s new media habits and a changed ‘play culture’ combine to challenge mediation practice in children’s libraries. At the same time children are more and more perceived as individuals with personal opinions and their own way of expressing these. A change of approach in relation to mediation is therefore absolutely necessary, and generally speaking professional service must rely on dialogue with the children and the opportunities of the actual library space – and not on the collections.

Towards the end of 2006 the Danish minister for culture appointed a committee to consider future library services to children. On the basis of analyses and assessments, the committee were to produce a number of recommendations and suggestions for new concepts and services in the children’s library. The report was published in February 2008, and the conclusion is quite clear: The library continues to be one of the most important cultural resources for children in the local communities – but radical changes are necessary if we want to make sure that the library upholds its status as a central cultural institution for children.

A new basis for innovation Instead of debating whether to prioritize children’s cultural activities or their information needs, books or computer games, we need a new cultural platform which educational institutions, library functions and leisure-time activities should encourage every child to develop. Today most children use the media primarily in their spare time when gaining experiences, information and – particularly – communication via printed and not least digital media. Most children, however, do need adult support over a span of time in order to develop their media competences. Consequently a new cultural concept can form the basis for future library services. The concept includes enlightenment, experience and communication,both intellectual and emotional learning components as well as ‘old’ and ‘new’ media. Staff competences are all-important in terms of establishing this new cultural platform: Employees in the children’s library must augment their knowledge about children and children’s culture – including the cultural activities that form part of children’s every-day lives.

New competences engineer new activities in the library

The committee recommends that library staff emphasize active mediation and facilitation of physical as well as virtual activities for children. The objective is that service and personal dialogue be focused on, both in terms of the individual child and groups of children and families, and that the staff to a greater degree than at present concentrate on what children need in order to experience, know and learn. This requires a thorough knowledge of i.a. all relevant media and genres as well as the ability to mediate content enthusiastically via workshops, online service, games, literary mediation, editing of materials, design of rooms and user inclusion.

It is therefore recommended that educational institutions work more specifically with mediation competences and broader media knowledge in basic staff education.

In order to develop a library staff capable of embracing a broad spectre of children’s cultural needs, the committee also recommends that the libraries consider employing staff with specific competences within the field of children and culture. For the purpose of signalling that several staff categories can easily be accommodated, the report does not use the designation ‘children’s librarian’, but rather ‘people employed in the library’ and ‘library staff ’.

The broad media experience

The library has a long tradition of encouraging children’s cultural development, particularly based on fiction and non-fiction literature. The library’s mediation of literature and happy reading experiences is still important in order to consider the interests of the relatively large group who visits the library to borrow books or other material. In the ‘gemmating’ of new media technologies it is easy to forget the book. It is often described as a traditional medium, but as opposed to other media the content mediates itself to a lesser extent, and a permanent need therefore exists for reading, discussing and rendering the book visible on to-day’s premisses.

Children’s media consumption has changed dramatically within the last decade. Today children collect stories, professional knowledge and experiences from many different sources other than books, e.g. via the Internet, computer games, films and own-produced films. This shakes the classic concept of mediation of children’s culture and the function of the library, among other things because part of the library service now takes place via the net. It is important for children to realise that their adults are interested in those media and genres which are part of children’s every-day lives. The communication in the library around the computer should be a social activity where the adult relates to the content on the screen and assists children in their searches and actively points out net resources and useful links regarding entertainment, information and learning.

Playing in the library

Another recommendation in the report deals with making ‘play culture’ a central part of content and mediation in relation to children and their parents. The library can underpin children’s play culture by looking at different media’s positive contribution to the creation of play as well as supplying toys and games and mediate those actively. The committee’s assessment is that the library – as well as parents – lacks sufficient knowledge of the possibilities and limitations in relation to toys and games – including the electronic ones. It is necessary to know how toys and games can enrich children’s play culture and the friendship culture so vital for children today. This concentration on play means, of course, that staff has to be trained i.a. to assess the quality of toys and to be able to advise and inspire parents and children in connection with all types of material and cultural products for children and to launch activities, where the staff is the driving force in creating games and social activities.

The Alpha and Omega: Competences and resources

It is obvious that great demands are levelled at future employees in the children’ library. In order for the staff to meet these, the recommendation of competence development is repeated again and again as an important Alpha among the various recommendations. No Alpha without an Omega – and in this connection it means the management’s – the library’s and the local authorities’ – prioritisation of resources in the form of staff, money and time in order to renew and locally adapt the library’s service to children.

Ann Poulsen
library consultant

apo AT

Anna Enemark
children’s library consultant
Danish Library Agency

aeb AT

Translation: Vibeke Cranfield

Senior Advisor Agency for Culture and Palaces
New project manager Bookstart: Kamma Kirk Sørensen