Children's libraries -- then and now. Robbins Junior Library celebrates its 150th anniversary

WHEN the Robbins Junior Library first opened here, ``Paradise Lost'' was about the closest thing there was to children's literature. That was in 1835 -- three decades before Lewis Carroll published ``Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,'' and more than half a century before Beatrix Potter's ``The Tale of Peter Rabbit'' first appeared. One hundred and fifty years later, the library is celebrating its clientele with an anniversary show of crafts, music, and more. The library, originally called the West Cambridge Juvenile Library, was not only one of the first free libraries in the country, it was one of the first to be established exclusively for children. Its main distinction, however, is that it has offered ``150 years of continuous library service for children,'' according to Grace Green, head of children's services at Robbins.

During the 1800s there were some children's books, of a sort, but most were not written with the idea of entertaining the child. Dr. Ann Weeks, executive director of library services to children for the American Library Association, argues that ``A lot of [early] children's literature was used entirely for teaching messages. . . . It was not thought that children needed books for enjoyment.''

Dr. Ebenezer Learned, who as a student at Harvard had tutored in West Cambridge, left $100 in his will to the town for the then-unusual purpose of establishing a ``juvenile library.''

In Dr. Learned's will, he specified that the town selectmen choose such books ``as will best promote useful knowledge and Christian virtues.'' The books for the library were chosen by James Brown of the newly formed publishing firm of Little, Brown in Boston. Among the titles were ``Captain Cook's Voyages,'' ``Plutarch's Lives,'' and ``The Familiar Letters of Benjamin Franklin.''

Today's young readers (not to mention older readers) would find many of these books hard going. But in the early 19th century children were not considered a separate reading audience. Nor was there the proliferation of library services for children that there is today. ``The main duty of the librarian was to circulate books,'' says Mrs. Green.

By the end of the 19th century, the availability of children's books had grown enormously. ``As ideas of what was appropriate for children changed, whether they were super little adults or whether they were people whose needs were different, different kinds of material [were considered] appropriate for them,'' says Dr. Weeks. Fairy tales, for instance, were once considered too ``immoral'' for children.

But it wasn't until 1900 that the Robbins Junior Library, which had been expanded to include adults in 1837, designated that there be a children's librarian. Even then, there was little library programming as we know it today.

``The main responsibilities of the first children's librarian were to keep the children out of the way of adults [and] select books that would appeal to children,'' says Green. Storytelling was offered, but it was much more structured then -- children sat in rows of chairs rather than gathered on the floor around the librarian.

As there has been more and more emphasis on education, there has been an increased emphasis on books and library services for children, says Weeks.

It was during the 1960s that major changes in library services came about. ``That was the time of ESEA [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965] money. . . . There was a great deal of federal money that was poured into libraries which made it possible to expand collections,'' says Dr. Weeks. ``As a result, there were more librarians. Prior to that the collections were very small, and the staffing wasn't adequate.''

Today, ``One of the major changes is the fact that library services are being offered now to much younger children. It's not unusual to have toddler story hours, which are actually story hours for toddlers and parents,'' says Weeks. She also mentions one library that presents a program called ``Catch Them in the Cradle,'' aimed at parents of young infants.

Another change is that libraries offer programs for children whose parents may still be at work when school is over, the so-called latch-key children.

Meanwhile, Arlington's 150th anniversary celebration continues. Reading programs have focused on life in the 1800s; a summer program was based on books in which characters travel back through time. The library has also offered programs on the crafts and music of the past century. In one, children learned how to make pomanders and apple fritters. At another they were told the history of America through music, with performers using instruments like the pennywhistle and the washboard.

The Robbins Junior Library's grand finale will take place Nov. 17, the final day of Children's Books Week. Topping the ceremony will be the keynote address by Jean Fritz, the award-winning author of outstanding historical fiction for children.

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