It was 2:55 p.m. and all was quiet in the Boys' and Girls' Section of the San Marino Public Library.
Only one mother and her 7-year-old daughter sat in the spacious, airy room surrounded by book stacks. Window seats around the large expanse of glass that looks out on a grassy play area were vacant, and only a few children came in to return books.
But at 3:05 p.m. on this recent Thursday, more than 50 children descended on the library from two nearby schools. Although some were there for serious study, others were using the library as a day-care center.
Children's librarian Jody Blum was prepared for the onslaught because it happens every school day and she is one of several librarians in the San Gabriel Valley who have found partial solutions to the growing problem of library latchkey children and other youngsters who are left unattended at the library for long periods.
Attention was focused on the problem this summer when an informal survey conducted by the 28-member Metropolitan Library System and the county library system found the problem in libraries of all sizes and in all kinds of neighborhoods.
Of 175 city and county libraries surveyed, 114 reported situations in which latchkey children were a problem. Librarians said that they had counted 968 children who spent four or five afternoons at the library each week, and another 4,422 who spent one to three afternoons there a week.
Since then, libraries all over the county have been considering a variety of policies, including limiting the amount of time an unattended child can spend in the library to ousting those who are disruptive.
Faced with having to deal at times with as many as 70 unattended children who should have been at home or in day-care centers, Blum took her plight to school officials. She met with school Supt. David Brown, three principals and the director of the Parks and Recreation Department. She spoke at PTA meetings and at school assemblies, explaining guidelines for proper behavior in the library.
Letter to Parents
A letter from Blum was sent home to parents stressing that the library was a place to read, not a place to leave unattended children. Huntington Intermediate School Principal Tom Parisi began dropping by the library occasionally to lend his support in heading off disruptive behavior. Students attend his school from 6th through 8th grades.
"I have dealt with a couple of children who were out of line and I have worked with their parents," Parisi said. "Children respond best to rules when they realize adults (school officials and librarians) are working together."
Afternoon recreation programs were begun at the two elementary schools. And Brown said the school system is helping develop such programs as peer tutoring at the library and has started after-school programs through the YMCA and the Recreation Department. The programs will serve children from kindergarten through 5th grade.
While Blum said that she still has as many students to deal with, those who do crowd into the library are generally better behaved than before.
"The situation is under better control than it was last year," she said. "And we have better rapport and closer ties with the schools because our goals are similar."
Other San Gabriel Valley libraries have attempted to control the situation by talking to parents and to the children who misbehave.
"We talk to the parents and tell them this is not the wise thing to do," said Jim Domney, the Arcadia city librarian. "Parents are generally cooperative even if some are not really pleased when we talk to them."
In Pomona, librarians are also trying to crack down on disruptive behavior.
"We have developed a get-tough policy in which we tell problem children they can't come back without a parent," said Hal Watson, the Pomona city librarian. "Generally they don't come back."
"We don't want to turn children off to the library but we can't let them take over our whole library," Watson said.
According to Penny Markey, children's services coordinator for the county public library system, an increasing number of children are being told by their parents to go to the library after school. The children are often disruptive and cannot be adequately supervised, she said.
Markey said she hopes the latchkey bill passed by the state Legislature in September will take some of the pressure off of the libraries.
That legislation will provide $16 million a year, beginning in February, to fund child-care programs before and after school. The legislation will also provide $14 million for construction or renovation of buildings for use in after-school recreational programs. Priority will be given to sites near schools.
"I've told my librarians to go to their school districts and encourage applications for funds," Markey said.
"We may get tough if we have a particular problem with an individual child," said Markey, who oversees children's services in 24 libraries in the San Gabriel Valley.