‘Latchkey’ Children Seek Refuge in Libraries, Book Finds

By Deborah L. Cohen — October 09, 1991 2 min read
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To better tend the flocks of unsupervised children that have been turning libraries into de facto child-care centers in recent years, librarians should be educated about the characteristics and needs of these children and work with community groups to extend appropriate services, a new book advises.

The book summarizes two national surveys, conducted in 1988 and 1990 by Frances Smardo Dowd, an associate professor of library and information studies at Texas Woman’s University, on the phenomenon of unsupervised children seeking refuge in public libraries. Ms. Dowd estimates that as many as 15 million children, or 20 percent of the elementary school-age population, fail into the “latchkey” category--children regularly left without adult supervision after school until an adult comes home from work.

In the 1988 survey, based on a nationwide sample of 125 public library systems serving at least 100,000 people, 76 percent of the libraries reported seeing significant numbers of unattended children after school on weekdays, and 50 percent reported attracting unsupervised children on weekends.

The number of children using libraries regularly for child-care purposes increased with the age level of the child, peaking with the 10- to 12 year-old age group. On average, librarians noted 21 children present at least three days a week from 3 6 P.M.

Asked to describe the main challenge libraries face in serving latchkey children, respondents most frequently cited “their attempts to achieve a balance between meeting the needs of latchkey children and maintaining an effective library climate and service to other patrons,” the book says.

In the 1990 survey, based on a slightly larger sample, nearly 80 percent of the libraries polled said they were serving at least the same number of latchkey children as in 1988, and 92 percent said the impact of unattended children on library personnel and services was “noticeable.”

About 41 percent of the respondents said library policies and procedures regarding latchkey children had improved in the last two years, while 55 percent said they had not changed.

Other Recommendations

In addition to urging more attention to latchkey issues in library-school and in-service training programs, the author says librarians should work with community groups, parents, and schools and serve on interagency panels to improve outreach services for latchkey children and their parents.

“The profession should also make available descriptions of successful experiences libraries have had in serving latchkey children, so that librarians could gain from reading about what works for others,” Ms. Dowd said.

To that end, the book not only examines the history and implications of the growing latchkey phenomenon, it also provides several case studies of projects launched by libraries across the country to address the issue. It also offers an annotated bibliography of videos, films, and books for children on self-care and a list of organizations dealing with latchkey issues.

Copies of Latchkey Children in the Library and Community: Issues, Strategies, and Programs, are available for $24.50 each from the Oryx Press, 4041 North Central, Phoenix, Ariz. 85012-3397; telephone (800) 279-6799.

A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 1991 edition of Education Week as ‘Latchkey’ Children Seek Refuge in Libraries, Book Finds


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