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Libraries double as unofficial day cares

| Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, 11:51 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
A group of children take part in a cookie making activity at the Braddock Library on Wednesday December 18, 2013.

A group of children chatted and giggled excitedly while making cookies at Braddock Carnegie Library.

Most were not accompanied by parents, but they are regulars every day after school, library staff said.

“In our community, there is a need for the library to serve as a safe place for kids that aren't with their parents in the after-school hours or during day hours in the summer,” said Anita Greene-Jones, director at the library in Braddock, where census numbers show 60 percent of families with children living below the poverty level.

Parents' use of libraries as unofficial day cares has become a common theme nationwide, especially at libraries near schools. The post-recession economy is causing more children to be in libraries because parents' budgets are tighter, said Larry Neal, president-elect of the Chicago-based American Library Association's Public Library Association.

Libraries are welcoming places with free educational resources, but parents need to remember that they also are public places — anyone can walk through the doors, he said.

“You wouldn't send a very young child to a shopping mall unattended,” he said.

Libraries in more affluent communities are experiencing an increase, too. Mt. Lebanon Public Library, which is across the street from a middle school and around the block from an elementary school, gets 50 to 75 youngsters daily, director Cynthia Richey said.

The library is offering several programs, such as Wii Wednesdays and a craft program called Tuesday Crafternoons, in response to the increase in young patrons, Richey said.

“I've always thought that kids could be in a whole lot worse place than a library. What point do we make saying, ‘You need to leave. You've been here too long. You're not allowed in here without a parent,'?” said Jo Ellen Kenney, director of the Carnegie Library of McKeesport.

Braddock library clerk Mary Carey's son Jadon Wilkes, 9, walks to the library from his bus stop after every school day, she said.

Even if she weren't there, she wouldn't have a problem with his being in the library daily, said Carey, 44.

“There are a lot of appropriate, fun things for kids to do. This is a safe place,” she said.

Many libraries added activities such as arts and crafts, Lego clubs, Wii video-exercise games and group board games and puzzles to keep children engaged. They plan to ramp them up more during the school holiday break that starts this week, leaders said.

Some libraries, such as the Wilkinsburg Public Library and the Carnegie Library of McKeesport, sometimes offer snacks and homework help, just as day care centers would.

“They come right after school, and sometimes, they tell me they're not allowed to go home because there's no one there, so their parents are using (libraries) as supervision for them,” said Emily Bryan-Reeder, children's and teens' librarian at Wilkinsburg Public Library.

Munhall-based Carnegie Library of Homestead, which gets an influx of children between 3 and 6 p.m. on weekdays, has used grants to pay for about $40,000 in new technology programs for children and teens, said Carol Shrieve, director of administration.

It plans to use $70,000 in grants to convert a storage area to a digital technology lab for adolescents, Shrieve said.

“We know there is a need for after-school programming in public libraries. The purpose of a public library will always be to provide information …but how we give that information is what's changing society and we have to adapt to the needs of the community,” she said.

Although the library is welcoming, its board enacted an unattended-child policy in fall 2012 because of behavioral issues it was having with some children, Shrieve said.

“It was chaos before the policy. It was absolute chaos,” she said.

The policy mandated that children younger than 11 be accompanied by parents unless they were participating in library programs. It also limited children's library visits to two hours, Shrieve said.

The Carnegie Library of McKeesport has always been a place for children and teens to visit, Kenney said. The availability of computers is drawing more children, but the library ramped up programming to get them involved in interactive activities offline, she said.

It recently started a fundraiser, Food for Thought, to pay for more board games and more frequent snacks, she said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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