Librarians constantly face the question: Where's the children's section? But more and more the answer comes from whimsical designs, lively colors, kid-sized furniture and cozy nooks that all but shout: "Over here."
For example, inside the Mid-Valley Regional Branch Library in North Hills, a colorful tepee structure attracts young readers.
If you see floating bubbles, a sailboat full of books and a 600-gallon saltwater aquarium, you've reached the children's room at the Huntington Beach Library.
And at the new Los Feliz Branch Library, a dome-shaped, forest-like storytelling room--with a circular skylight and hanging tree branches--has quickly become a popular spot for youngsters.
These may sound like gimmicks to some book lovers, but librarians and architects say kid-friendly architecture and interior design, seen increasingly in public libraries around the nation, welcome children and send a message that reading can be a pleasure.
The approach also is part of a movement to change libraries' old image as staid places where children are constantly shushed.
"If we can't get kids interested in reading, then our future library patrons and future citizens are really being wasted," said Ron Hayden, director of library services at the Huntington Beach Library. "We have to allow parents to bring their kids to the library and get them excited about it. And the more inviting you make it, the more likely they'll return."
Nationally, there has been a library building and expansion boom propelled by voter-approved bond initiatives. In Los Angeles, a $178-million bond measure that passed last year is expected to fund construction, replacement or renovation of 32 city branches. A 1989 bond issue enables 28 other city branches to be built or renovated.
Library officials insist that, budget and space allowing, the children's reading rooms in those projects be made distinctive and include child-oriented features. These are a far cry from the days of adult-sized, hard maple tables and heavy metal chairs that past generations of youngsters endured.
"What we're trying to do more and more is, when you walk into the children's area, you're wowed by it," said Carmen Martinez, director of branches for the Los Angeles city library system.
Nanci Williams, children's services coordinator at the Huntington Beach Library, attributes the tremendous rise in attendance at story times and other library reading programs for children in part to architectural touches completed in 1994. The children's room went from a small section virtually indistinguishable from the adult area to a marine-themed space with cascading bubbles, produced by a machine, at the entrance.
Children's book circulation, only two-thirds of adult circulation before the library make-over, is now almost equal, Williams said.
Parents and kids used to ask the librarian where the children's room was. "They don't ask me anymore," she said. "They know."
Many library architects say they don't want merely to create rooms with children's books inside.
That's why Clifton Allen's plans for a new library in Commerce feature a children's reading room in the shape of a pyramid, with square windows tilted to appear like diamonds.
"With competition from the home computer and Internet, I think you have to draw people into libraries, and that's particularly important for young kids," said Allen, of Meyer & Allen Associates in Hollywood and the father of twin 7-year-olds.
Architect Barbara Flammang said the message she is getting from library officials from Los Angeles to Las Vegas is: "Make it interesting, different; make it special."
Her firm, Killefer Flammang Purtill Architects, carved out an alcove in the south wall of the Mid-Valley Regional Branch Library in the shape of a tepee and graced it with colors of mustard yellow, green and orange. The tepee is partially enclosed with wood framing and has a carpeted, circular bench.
Some architects and librarians question whether certain designs go too far, creating a theme park atmosphere and taking attention away from the books.
But that wasn't the case for 10-year-old Arthur Munoz. He was recently sitting inside the tepee with a book from the popular series about Arthur the mouse. "It's nice and comfortable to read in," the fourth-grader said of the space.
He also had a theory about the tepee design. "I think they wanted to do that because I've been learning that Indians had more quiet lives inside the tepee and more exciting lives outside the tepee," he said. "So I think they wanted a tepee so we could be relaxed while reading books."
Parents also appreciate the extra touches. "Other libraries just take a different section, shove a bunch of books in them and call it a kids' section," said Marc Pollock, who was at the Beverly Hills Library recently with son Jeff, 10.
At that library, bright yellow ceiling arches get lower and lower along the hallway leading to the children's section. In a room that Pollock described as "a little kids' cubbyhole," child-scaled furniture is painted in shades of yellow, blue-green and red.
Architect Barton Phelps, who designed the recently opened Loz Feliz Branch Library on Hillhurst Avenue, says the key is to make the children's area different, but not necessarily amusing.
"What we tried to make was a space that was distinct from the rest of the building, so when the kids arrived there, they sort of took it over," he said. "And I think that's what's most important."
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