Children's Libraries

Inspired by Progressive social reform movements in the late nineteenth century, public librarians in the United States and Britain established children's services that emphasized outreach and programming as well as the creation of special collections of books for young readers. These collections and services are meant to complement those in school libraries whose goal is to support the curriculum. Although children's collections in public libraries do attempt to meet educational needs, public librarians have always focused on promoting the joy of reading as well as fostering the emerging LITERACY skills of children. Scholars note that over the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries American children's librarians have developed a number of "articles of faith." These include: a belief in the uniqueness of each child; a belief in the crucial importance of each child's personal selection of reading materials; a belief in the children's room as "an egalitarian republic of readers;" and a belief in literature as a positive force for understanding, not only between individuals, but also between groups and nations. Similar ideals have been articulated in the United Kingdom where the Library Association's guidelines for service to children identify four areas of child development in which libraries are vitally important: intellectual development, language development, social development, and educational development.

In many countries the national library association has a special section for children's librarians, and it is often this group that advocates for both the improvement and extension of services; among children's librarians in Japan there is a popular slogan: "Like lampposts in town, we need children's libraries on every corner." Although children's libraries are found throughout the world, their development is quite varied and is influenced by educational priorities, funding, and legislation. The general development of public libraries and the availability of children's books in the local languages are also important.

By the 1890s many public libraries in the United States began to set up special sections with books for children, but it was not until 1895 when the first library was constructed with a specially designed room for children–a practice that became the norm during the period of widespread library construction in the early 1900s. American librarians also took the lead in establishing the first round table for children's librarians in the American Library Association (ALA) in 1900 and in 1901 a special two-year training program for children's librarians was opened in Pittsburgh. The American tradition of children's librarianship that emphasized school visits, book talks, story telling, and other programs had a great influence on the development of children's work in other parts of the world. Prior to World War I a number of European librarians came to the United States for special training, but interest in American practices dramatically increased when children's libraries were given to the cities of Brussels (1920) and Paris (1923) by a group of wealthy American women who wished to promote postwar "educational reconstruction"; they chose a model children's library as their philanthropic focus because they viewed it as "a truly American creation … contributing to the program of self-education." Following World War II the Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek in Berlin was likewise credited with having great influence on the development of youth services in Germany.

While most countries integrate children's services into their public library systems, other models also exist. In India a number of university libraries have children's sections, and some developing nations, such as the Ivory Coast, offer children's services as one of the functions of the national public library. In contrast, Iran provides children's services through an extensive system of free-standing children's libraries. France, Germany, Japan, Jordan, and Russia serve children through their public libraries, but also have a number of free-standing children's libraries. Among the most notable children's libraries are the International Youth Library in Munich, L'Heure Joyeuse in Paris, and the Library of the Children's Book Trust in New Delhi. Development of children's services has been promoted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) through the construction of model public libraries in developing countries and through its publications and conferences. UNESCO also works closely with the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), which has an active subsection on Library Work with Children, organized in 1955.

During the last half of the twentieth century, public library services to children spread throughout the world, along with the expansion of primary and secondary education and the growth in children's book publishing. Nonetheless, children's librarians faced challenges obtaining adequate funding for audio-visual materials and access to Internet resources as well as books. Librarians also faced challenges in maintaining the child's right to access information and in adapting their services to changing social conditions. Virginia Walter, past president of the Association for Library Service to Children, emphasizes the importance of person-to-person outreach and calls on children's librarians to design services for "the child in the community" as well as providing appropriate Internet access and communicating "the importance, the relevance, and the excitement of reading" (p. 93).

See also: Children's Literature; Children's Spaces.


Elkin, Judith, and Margaret Kinnell, ed. 2000. A Place for Children: Public Libraries as a Major Force in Children's Reading. London: Library Association.

Hearne, Betsy, and Christine Jenkins. 1999. "Sacred Texts: What Our Foremothers Left Us in the Way of Psalms, Proverbs, Precepts and Practices." Horn Book 75: 556–558.

Maack, Mary Niles. 1993. " L'Heure Joyeuse, the First Children's Library in France: Its Contribution to a New Paradigm for Public Libraries." Library Quarterly 63: 257–281.

Walter, Virginia. 2001. Children and Libraries: Getting It Right. Chicago: American Library Association.