Not Just Book Shelves: Libraries as Key Spaces for Family Engagement

Blog Post
Sept. 1, 2016

The local library in my hometown is filled with positive memories for me. I remember my parents taking my siblings and me to read alouds and circle time with songs led by the librarian when I was young. Then as I got older, going to the library meant playing Number Munchers and Oregon Trail in the computer center with friends and scouring the aisles for the latest Judy Blume book. I especially loved our library’s summer reading program because I could earn prizes and enter raffles as I made progress on my summer reading log. My entire family looked forward to the author talks and other community events held at the library and the opportunity to connect with other families in our community.

A new report Public Libraries: A Vital Space for Family Engagement by the Harvard Family Research Project and the Public Library Association highlights the important roles libraries can play for families as learning spaces. The report demands the attention of lawmakers and policy leaders for at least two reasons: It follows extensive research that shows that family engagement is critical for children’s healthy development and academic success. And it provides a counterpoint to trends in some states and localities to cut funding and hours. A few years ago, for example, the state of Louisiana eliminated funding for libraries from its state budget.

As the authors of the report explain, children spend only 1,000 out of their 6,000 waking hours in school each year, leaving much of the other 5,000 hours per year for time spent with family members. It shouldn’t be surprising then that family engagement is a key predictor of children’s school success and that out-of-school learning spaces have the potential to make a huge difference in children’s learning.

“Libraries are in a prime position to create and reinforce a pathway of family engagement that promotes children’s learning across time and across community and virtual spaces,” write the report authors, M. Elena Lopez, Margaret Caspe, and Lorette McWilliams.

Just as school-based opportunities vary widely across family income levels, so does access to high-quality out-of-school learning. Many families, especially those affected by racial and income inequities, lack access to the resources and opportunities that promote learning.  Libraries have books, digital resources, and expertise available to all families, and enable genuine opportunities for family engagement. Libraries allow children and adults from all backgrounds to learn together.

Some communities have better access to libraries than others. Families living in rural communities may be a great distance away from the closest public library. Because of costs and available connection speeds, rural public libraries often offer lower speeds of connectivity, fewer trained librarians, and less wireless access. Yet the resources libraries provide, such as access to the internet, are necessary to meet for families’ learning, employment, and other information needs in today’s knowledge-based economy. Some communities have found creative ways to address the issue of geographical distance. For instance, the report describes a librarian who reaches out to families living in remote areas of Alaska by setting up satellite book shelves in fire stations.

The report highlights five actions that libraries are taking to engage all families in children’s learning from early childhood and throughout the school years. These five areas include reaching out, raising up, reinforcing, relating, and reimagining.

Reach out- Libraries use partnerships with schools, health clinics and special needs agencies to actively and intentionally reach out to families and invite them to visit and participate in library programs. This is especially important because families from low-income homes are less likely to use the library than high-income households, but can especially benefit from the library’s services.

Raise up- Libraries incorporate family viewpoints into how library programs and services are developed and carried out, which empowers parents and grandparents and gives them opportunities to connect with other families. This is an example of human-centered design or design thinking. (New America’s Family-Centered Social Policy program discusses the importance of prioritizing ideas and input from real families in their preview paper Designed to Thrive, which will be followed soon with a more in-depth report).

Reinforce- Libraries are implementing programs and services that reaffirm family members’ roles and strengthen their feelings of efficacy. They are playing an important role in giving all families access to resources, as well as the knowledge, skills, and confidence to use these resources effectively. This is especially important when it comes to mentoring families around digital media. As explained in the report, when parents use digital media alongside their children, the educational value of the experience is enhanced. New America’s Lisa Guernsey has proposed that every family with young children should have access to a media mentor. As Guernsey explains in her book with co-author Michael H. Levine, Tap, Click, Read, librarians can serve as media mentors by modeling interactive methods for reading print books and e-books with children and by helping parents and children engaging materials that match their interests. Media mentors can also guide families to think critically about their  media choices and can provide examples of techniques for using digital media that reduce negative effects and promote positive ones. A new book out this month from Routledge, Family Engagement in the Digital Age: Early Childhood Educators as Media Mentors, dives into why these practices will be critical for today’s kids.

Relate- Libraries offer welcoming and safe spaces for families to build relationships, social networks, and parent-child relationships. Libraries sponsor adult events that foster social connections such as book readings and parent cafés. “When family members are less isolated and are part of a community,” the authors write, “they are less likely to experience depression and have trouble providing for their basic needs— both of which are risk factors for child maltreatment and child behavior difficulties, especially among families living in poverty.”

Reimagine- Today’s libraries are forming partnerships with schools, social service agencies, and local businesses. This enables libraries to combine resources, extend their range, and link families to new learning opportunities, as well as reach more families and gain the capacity to improve community well-being. Librarians can serve as a platform for creating new ways to engage and support diverse families.

As September is Library Card Sign-Up Month, the release of this report is a perfect time to be reminding policymakers of what public libraries mean to communities and encouraging children and families to take advantage of them.