Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mom's Survival Guide to Public Libraries

Confession: I remain intimidated by visiting the public library with my two small children. I have visions of Curious George's visit to the library, careening towards an exit on a cart laden with books. I'm always astounded that the man with the yellow hat continues to leave George alone in public places with nothing but a warning of "don't be too curious"? What is he thinking? Will he never learn?

Fact: My paranoia is justified and rational.

Soren (2) and Annika (4 months) and I visit my childhood library home.  Once a week, my mom would take me, my brother and sister to the library. Armed with thin plastic cards and well worn tote bags, we'd fill our bags with all the wonder of the universe. I was enraptured with castles, my brother with outer space. Other kids who visited the Vanderbilt Beach branch had to get lucky to get their hands on these treasures of ours. (A few years ago, the library confiscated my expired card with my name scribbled on the back. I still miss it.)

Now, I go with my two little ones to the same branch. The magic hangs densely in the air for me. Every trip feels a little like deja vu, except for the nagging suspense of bringing a volatile toddler to a sacred place. Almost every trip we've taken there has gone wonderfully, but nonetheless, I push the stroller to the front door and my palms sweat. We stop before the entrance and recap the library rules. Soren remembers them pretty well and controls himself as best he can. But once in a while, there's an anomaly.

This week's trip, for example, was such an anomaly. We arrived Monday morning as the doors opened to a surprise pre-K story hour. I was not amused. I should have just rolled with it, but I hadn't prepped Soren for how to behave, letting him know what would happen. The cheerful librarian was fantastic, but we weren't ready.  Soren, having discovered how truly awesome the mammalian king of the jungle and desert is, spotted a stuffed elephant on a shelf, and had to have it. With lots of noisy children around, I tried to sneak out and check out our books while my mom stayed with Soren. He perceived my not-so-stealthy departure with baby in tow, followed me out, and proceeded to have a tantrum when we explained that the elephant wasn't up for adoption, that he lived at the library, and he loves his home.

My mom whisked my screaming toddler out of the building, while I stood, surrounded by annoyed retirees who had been disturbed from the placidity of their books. I was mortified. My fears had manifested themselves, and had it not been for my mom, the scene would have escalated from ugly to grotesque.

I am certain that these fears are not unique to me, and that any reasonable parent shares these concerns. Who hasn't seen this face on their own child before?

So what is to be done? Shall we raise the white flag and decide that the public library is not an appropriate place for budding literary enthusiasts? I think not. Truth be told, it's a risk that a good parent must take. That is, unless that parent has the good fortune of an enormous book budget, and in that case, I buy gently used books. Email me.

So, out of solidarity with all other rational and book loving parents out there, here are my pointers for mitigating a chaotic, loud and embarrassing visit to the public library with your toddler.

  1. Practice talking in quiet voices. Explain that the library is a quiet place, and that you have to be quiet to be able to borrow books from the library. I suggest you do this days before your first visit.
  2. Talk about organization. Every book goes in a special place. If they don't go there, they are lost, and if someone wants to read that book, they won't be able to find it. When you arrive, show the cart where books are placed to be properly re-shelved. Encourage them to put the books you read together on the cart for you.
  3. Time your visit well. We go right after a meal, our stomachs full, lots of energy, and well before naptime. Don't take a tired kid to the library, you'll regret it.
  4. Bring one big toy, or two small ones. We bring a large stuffed animal, for example, or I have two matchbox cars tucked into our book bag. If we get out of control taking books off shelves faster than Mommy can put them back, put a toy in each hand and little fingers hit a happy speed bump.
  5. Go with a list. If you read books on a theme like I do, going prepared is the only way to go. My list is separated by fiction (title, alphabetical by author's last name) and nonfiction (call number). I make a note of which books are board books, and may jot down a movie.
  6. Enlist an accomplice. If you have too much kid to control, call someone and ask for help. My mom goes with us almost every week. You could ask a friend to join you, someone with more hands than you. My mom reads with Soren while I scan shelves for the books on my list and random treasures.
  7. Avoid fines. Kids strapped into car seats, I set an appointment with a reminder on my phone's calendar: library books due March 7. I keep all our library books in a bin in the living room. They STAY in that bin. The receipt goes on the refrigerator, and on return day, rounding up library books is easy. Always look under the sofas first for missing books.
  8. Keep videos somewhere safe. Mine stay in the car, where I have a DVD player. They're a life saver on long trips, I don't spend a fortune on movies, and we keep the TV monster at bay: in the car, and out of the house. They're also already in the car when it's time to the return them after just a few days.
  9. Make a date. We go weekly. You could go every other week. If you go regularly, you never incur fines for forgetting to go. Make it a habit.
  10. Librarians have seen everything. They've certainly seen screaming toddlers before. If things go south, leave and come back another day. Most likely, everything will go swimmingly, and you'll leave feeling like the stellar parent you are.

In the end, the important thing is that you do go, that you do read with your kids, and that you do it as often as you can.


  1. I love this post. You have some great tips. Thanks for sharing.

  2. great post! I started taking the kids a while back and I still do the same thing you do...get a little sweaty right before entering but you know we have had a few not so good trips (one where I felt like crying myself) but WAY more good ones!! The kids love it and now they know the rules really well and most of the time pick their books and sit nicely while other kids run around. The other day I watched in amazement as my kids sat and looked at books showing eachother their finds while I picked books for them for the week to take home for school. God definetly blesses moms that keep trying!