Early childhood and librariesI’ve been discarding some old reference books we had in storage, and found a copy of Pre-School Story Hour by Vardine Moore, published by Scarecrow Press in 1966. Over my lunch, I started reading it, to see what the differences were between “story hours” 41 years ago, and the storytimes we do now.

First of all, I learned never to call it a story hour, because certain parents and caregivers let me know that if the library I worked for advertised a story hour, then by gosh, it better not be any shorter. Even in the late 70s, when I started as a 21-year-old-fresh-out-of-library-school librarian, people with young children seemed often to be running late, entering the storytime room as late as the final story unless someone was stationed outside to prevent them. (I learned why quickly once I became a dad myself a decade later.)

Vardine Moore, about whom I know almost nothing except that she also wrote a book called Mice Are Rather Nice: Poems About Mice (Atheneum, 1981), described the preschool storytime for 3- to 5-year-olds at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore as a precious and formal thing. The following sounds like no storytime I’ve ever participated in:

The children began arriving at 10:30 for a conversation period. They watched feeding of the goldfish and got acquainted. When the theme song was played on a record player they took hands and walked softly to the story room. With the children seated on pillows there followed half an hour of stories, games, finger plays and music. Stories were interspersed with activities in connection with the stories, then back to the pillows for finger plays and singing, with the theme song serving as the signal to put pillows away.

And the size of the storytime? “[W]hile a group of 12 – 15 children is ideal, 20 – 30 can be managed with help.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve frequently handled groups of up to 60-70 kids on a regular basis during my career.

What stands out most starkly when I think about storytimes in 1966 and in 2007 is how the ages of the children we serve has changed. In 1966, Moore wrote that children under 3 “have a very short span of attention and are not ready for group activities.” Now, it seems to me that baby and toddler programs are far more heavily attended (at least here in New York City, but I’ve heard the same thing from children’s librarians in other cities) than preschool programs, because most preschoolers here are attending academically formal preschools, or are in all-day childcare.

So many parents feel pressure to get their kids ready to do well in school before they’re toilet trained, and we librarians know it. So we program for younger and younger children. I remember when toddler programs boomed in the early ’80s, and seemed radical at the time. Baby programs boomed soon after, and wow, were the parents who used our libraries ready to bring those kids in, whether the kids were “ready for group activities” or not.

There’s a bibliography in the back of Moore’s book, and it’s interesting to see how many picture books she mentions that we still use 41 years later, such as Swimmy; Harry, the Dirty Dog; The Carrot Seed, and The Snowy Day. It’s good to see that some things haven’t changed.