How children perceive libraries

Responsive and accessible? Or stressed out, confused and strict? A librarian’s reception can make all the difference in shaping a child’s impression of a library. Caroline Norrby wrote her master’s thesis at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science in Borås about children’s perception of librarians and she was able to put her research results directly to use.

When it came to writing her master’s thesis at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science in Borås last spring, Caroline Norrby knew that she wanted to write about something that encompassed a child’s perception of libraries.

- There are not many who interview children for their theses, so that in itself was an approach I thought was interesting. It was a little trickier than I had anticipated. Sometimes I got very short answers, but I really had to show that I was paying attention and kept on questioning in order to generate something. There were matters that the children simply had not thought of themselves and other things they thought were just too obvious. The point of this paper is that an important factor in whether you become a library user or not, is the impression you form interacting with a library and its staff as a child.

- A library exists in a competitive market where the compe- tition from various media and other forms of entertainment is intense. Children are important users today, but they are also our future users. Therefore, I wanted to make their voices heard, says Caroline. She also says that there is a stereotypical image of librarians and their work in society which prevails; they are a well-read, but geeky and often boring elderly woman who wears glasses and roams the book shelves.

A child’s picture is less stereotyped

For her thesis Caroline interviewed 14 children between the ages of 8 and 12, some in groups, others in pairs or by themselves. She asked questions about their personal experiences of the library and their library visits and about their impressions of librarians and the work they perform. Regarding the image of the librarian, Caroline asked questions about the librarian’s featuresand functions, but she also wanted to know how children would describe what a librarian looks like. – In that area alone the stereo- type of librarians is very clear, and I wanted to examine whether this also was the case among children, says Caroline Norrby.

She simply asked the children what a librarian looks like and the children who wanted to could also do a drawing. The result was a collection of drawings depicting women of varying ages, with or without glasses and with different kinds of clothes and facial expressions. To an extent the drawings complied well with the stereotype, but in combination with the responses Caroline Norrby concludes that children’s images of the librarian’s appearance are less stereotyped than those held by adults. – The spontaneous responses of the children were that librarians looked like everyone else or that they did not appear in any particular way. They reflected mainly on the librarians they had personally encountered. However, they took to the stereotypical image later on in the conversation, and I got the feeling they thought it was expected of them. The same was true regarding the drawings – the children sometimes painted a generally held ‘image’ of a librarian, and not their own image of a librarian, says Caroline. One girl even expressed that she thought it was strange that librarians in films are always strict and hushing everyone when they are not like that in reality.

Caroline Norrby was pleasantly surprised by the answers. Her interpretation is that children’s images of librarians are actually changing as younger librarians enter the profession and that the old, dull stereotype might be on its way to breaking up. – Adults are often the first to adhere to a stereotypical image, which was not the case with children, even if these stereotypes turned up later. They are probably less restricted in their thought processes, says Caroline Norrby.

“Sorting books”

In their drawings it became clear what tasks children felt were clearly associated with librarians. Most of the librarians depicted are holding books or standing by a bookshelf. Librarians sort books, as one girl put it. But the children also mentioned that librarians also work with computers and recommend books, simply what they have seen librarians do. Meanwhile, knowledge about books and authors and the ability to provide good and well-informed book reviews is one of the characteristics of the librarians which were most appreciated by children. They also thought it was important that the librarian was kind and helpful. Their reception was something that took up more space than Caroline Norrby first expected in her thesis, since the children made such a point of it. Caroline knew it was something that was important to them and thus crucial for their perception of the library.

- It’s in the methodology literature that we read during the program that it is important to move about in the library and make oneself available, but I had not realized how much the librarian’s image, mood and behavior influences and determines whether a child dares to come forward and ask for help or not, says Caroline Norrby.

Not just pointing

The children interviewed by Caroline perceived most librarians as being friendly and helpful, but several also mentioned how they often felt it to be difficult to approach a librarian sittingbehind a desk looking busy. They held back from asking questions if the librarianseemed busy or looked surly.A girl describes how she gets stressed when the librarians appear stressed andthey simply “reach for a book just to be nice”, even though the book might not be particularly good. A couple of kids say that a good librarian is a librarian who will show them where to look instead of just pointing in a general direction.

It was one of the things that CarolineNorrby, thanks to the thesis, was able to give extra consideration when she directly after her graduation gained a position during the summer as a children’s librarian at the Public Library of Eskilstuna. – It might take more time initially to show a child where a book is, but on the other hand it makes them more self-sufficient in the future. I also wanted to really focus on the children I spoke to, even though there were more children waiting in the queue and the workload was high. It is important to not appear stressed when meeting with children. It is also important to avoid getting stuck behind a desk and trying not to look too busy when setting up the books, otherwise children hold back from asking. Something I learnt from our talks was that being personally attentive must be given time to evolve.

Paying for books

In her interviews with children Caroline Norrby came across some misunderstandings about the library. One was from an eight-year girl who thought it cost money to borrow books at large libraries, such as the city library. – Presumably, she has seen her parents pay fines for overdue books; it’s kind of funny that she thought that this was always the case. Another eight-year-old girl told a story of how she had felt that a librarian, or ‘bitch’ as she puts it, tried to force her to get a library card during a library visit. The girl obviously felt that it was an unpleasant experience, although it was simply about a very common occurrence in a library. The story shows that it is not clear that children understand how a library works. – Yes, she appeared several times during this conversation and thought that the librarian tried to lure her into something she did not want, says Caroline Norrby.

Although the image of the library and librarians were on the whole positive among the interviewed children, Caroline believes that it is important to clearly communicate to children what libraries and librarians stand for. – I think it might be beneficial if we librarians can demonstrate what we do and what opportunities there are to be found at a library; that it is more than just about borrowing books. It is important to inform in a manner that prevents any further dissemination ofstereotypical images of dusty old books and boring librarians, says Caroline Norrby.

Tove Eriksson
Translated by Jonathan Pearman