Library DrawingThe CONNector

JANUARY 2000Volume 2 Number 1

"As a Rule, They Read Too Much"

Linda Williams, Children's Services Librarian

As we glide, more easily than we had expected, into the 21st century it seems time to reflect upon the road we have traversed in library services to children. Where were we 100 years ago? And where are we now?

The latter half of the 19th century was the time for coming to terms with the fact that children were a unique population requiring different books and a different type of library service. Until the end of that century, most libraries of any kind did not even allow anyone under the age of 14 to cross their thresholds. Most children had access to very few books  and what books were available to them were primarily religious and moral texts available through the "Sunday School" libraries.

Robin Hood & Little John
Robin Hood and Little John retold by Barbara Cohen, illustrated by David Ray (Philomel 1995, cover art reprinted with permission)

Spotty attempts at library service to children took place around New England over the century, but it was only after the formation of the American Library Association in 1876 that serious discussion among librarians rooted the idea. Between 1880 and 1910 many city libraries planned separate rooms specifically for children's materials.

One pioneer in this new library development was Caroline Hewins (1846-1926), daughter of a Boston haberdasher. Hewins was librarian from 1875-78 at the Young Men's Institute in Hartford which merged with the Hartford Library Association in 1878 and in 1892 became a free library - the Hartford Public Library. She was a member of the new American Library Association. In 1882 Hewins's list of recommended reading entitled Books for the young : a guide for parents and children was published. Hewins enticed children to read good books by including clubs, booktalks, storytelling, nature walks, a doll collection and dramatics in library activities. She led in the movement for school/public library cooperation by providing classroom libraries and reading lists for teachers.

In an article written in the 1878 Library Notes Hewins said "Much time and thought have been given to suggesting in this bulletin good books for boys and girls. As a rule, they read too much (emphasis added). Our accounts show that one boy has taken 102 storybooks in six months, and one girl 112 novels in the same time. One book a week is certainly enough, with school studies."

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle (Scribner's 1911, c1883)
The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle (Scribner's 1911, c1883)

This quote provides strong contrast, in attitudes about reading, between the 19th century and the end of the 20th. While the late 19th century found libraries in the early stages of providing service to children who "read too much," the dawn of the 21st finds us struggling to entice them to read because they don't read enough. We who dedicate ourselves to serving children in libraries are committed to the belief, well supported by current research, that children need to read more in order to adequately prepare themselves for life in the 21st century. We do many of the same things innovated by Caroline Hewins  book talks, clubs, storytelling, - for many of the same reasons. But we do them for children changed by decades of "other media." While the children of the latter 20th century have many enticements to keep them from reading, reading was the enticement of the late 19th century.

Our challenge as we embrace this new century filled with the sparkle of "other media" will be to convince children that that sparkle cannot compete with the dazzle they create by combining the reading of books with the sparkle of their own imaginations. In this effort we are still of the same mind as Caroline Hewins was a hundred years ago.

Editor's note: Caroline M. Hewins was noted in the December 1999 edition of American Libraries as one of the 100 most important leaders we had in the 20th century.

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