The baby sitter is cavorting on the beach, grandmother is visiting relatives in Tennessee and the day-care center is closed for the summer. So what are harried parents to do if they have a couple of small kids on their hands and have to rush off to work or go out to shop for the family's groceries?
How about your friendly neighborhood library? It's a nice, quiet place where the kids can while away the time reading their favorite books and maybe sit in on story-telling time or even catch a wholesome movie.
It's safe, too. Nothing bad can happen to the kids in that civilized atmosphere of learning and culture, and the kindly library staff is always willing to keep an eye on them and see that they don't get into mischief.
Wrong, say South Bay librarians who object to parents dropping off their youngsters for hours, or even a whole day, of free baby sitting.
Range of Services
"We provide a broad range of services to the community and we love it when the children come in to use those services," said John Perkins, director of Inglewood's public libraries. "But baby-sitting really isn't our job and it's not best for the kids either."
He said most youngsters left alone among the bookshelves quickly become bored and restless. Inevitably, they start fidgeting and whispering and running around, which can distract serious patrons and monopolize the time of busy staff members, he said.
Perkins and other librarians also caution parents against the notion that their children are safer at the library than at home alone. They point out that a library is a public place where anyone can come.
"We try to be watchful," Perkins said. "But the staff is busy and they're not security guards. Unfortunately, there is the possibility that an unsupervised child could be carried off without anybody noticing."
To deal with the problem, the Inglewood libraries have posted notices restricting the amount of time that younger children can stay at the library unless accompanied by an adult.
A Pomona library, beset by the same problem, is trying a humorous approach. It posted a sign that says, "All children running loose will be towed away and stored at the owner's expense."
The casual use of libraries as day-care centers is by no means a new trend. Bill Poole, head librarian in Redondo Beach, recalls grappling with the problem 10 or 15 years ago, when he had to chide young mothers not to leave their children unattended on library premises.
The problem is not as noticeable today, he added, because of the drastic decline in the juvenile population in Redondo Beach and other beach cities. But librarians in other areas report a growing problem with "latchkey" children of elementary school age or younger who spend long hours at local libraries instead of at home or at day-care centers.
Lack of Child Care
Penny Markey, coordinator of children's library services for Los Angeles County, said an informal survey indicated that the county's 92 branches are providing full- or part-time child care for about 1,000 children daily.
She said an increasing number of working parents and a lack of affordable child-care facilities are forcing more parents to seek what they mistakenly regard as an adequate and inexpensive solution--a seemingly safe, supervised public facility like a library.
"We are adding more programs in libraries where there are a lot of children, but we can't provide full-time after school programming," Markey said. But, he said, "we do provide child-care information for local parents."
Severe financial constraints on public libraries, she said, limit the number and variety of organized activities that can be offered.
Fill Idle Hours
In the South Bay, most libraries sponsor story-telling sessions, summer reading programs and free movies. Sonia Anderson, coordinator of children's services in the Torrance system, said those services, along with programs provided by the city's Parks and Recreation Department, apparently fill the idle hours of many neighborhood children.
"We don't have too many latchkey children," she said. "But it's interesting that the few we get come from all economic levels. In one case, the mother comes by in a Mercedes to pick up her children."
Hawthorne libraries, which are part of the county system, were getting an increasing number of latchkey children until recently, librarian Paula Weiner said. "There has been a fall-off and it may be related to the McMartin case," she said, referring to child molestation charges against a Manhattan Beach preschool. "Parents seem to be more concerned about leaving their kids unattended."
When parents of stray children do show up, Weiner said, a staff member tries to persuade them to make other baby-sitting arrangements. Some are embarrassed, while others appear offended by the idea that their unattended children are not welcome at a public library, she said.
Dorothy Uebele, interim director of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Library District, said latchkey children are a perennial but minor problem at the three branches on the hill.
"Occasionally, someone will drop off their kids for the day," she said. "We've had some younger kids here after the library closes and then someone on the staff has to stay around until the parents show up or can be located by phone. Of course, we aren't going to turn the child out into the street."
Uebele and other librarians said their last resort is to call the police and ask them to take custody of unclaimed children.
"It's a real problem and I can sympathize with parents who are caught in a bind," said the Hawthorne library's Weiner. "I don't know the solution, but I do know that a library is not the place to provide a baby sitting service."
Times staff writer Sue Avery contributed to this story.