The Children’s Library: Starting from the Beginning By Phila Rogers Special to the Planet

Friday February 03, 2006

From where I sit on Thursdays in the Friends’ bookstore at the Central Library, I can watch parents and their children streaming into the elevator for the ride up to the Children’s Room on the fourth floor. I remember 50 years ago when my own children and I climbed the endless staircase up to what was then the library’s top floor. They loved hearing their voices and footsteps echoing in the tall space and the exhilarating—and scary—glimpses down the stairwell. 

On my first visit recently—in the new elevator—I was delighted to discover in this grand new space that the old library continues to occupy alcoves along the north wall. The high peaked windows with their window seats, the original fireplace, and even the pint-sized, round oak tables, each with four chairs, remain—though all refurbished and looking as they must have looked when the new library first opened in 1932. 

Then, as now, the Children’s Room and the children’s library section in the four branch libraries, are often a Berkeleyan’s first introduction to the world of books. There will always be an exquisite pleasure to possessing—even for a limited time—one’s own selection of books.  

Senior librarian Elizabeth Overmyer, who is primarily responsible for the various special children’s programs including the summer reading program, points up through the new two-story window wall. “When we’re outside on the sidewalk, I ask the children to look up toward the top of one of the columns and they claim they see nothing special. Then when we are upstairs, I ask them to look again and they discover to their delight, the stern face of a concrete ram seeming to look intently at them through the window.” 

In front of the windows, board books for babies and toddlers are displayed in special low shelves. Kids sprawling on the colorful carpet share the space with two large stuffed bears. 

Across the way is the picture book alcove with hundreds of books. Elizabeth, who moves with the agility and enthusiasm of the very young, tells the story of the quilt hanging on the wall. “Each of the nine squares depicts a beloved children’s book and as one might expect, an illustration from Goodnight, Moon occupies the upper left-hand corner,” she says. “This particular piece was done for us by Olivia Hurd, the daughter-in-law of Clement Hurd, the book’s illustrator,” she adds. Turning over a corner of the quilt, she reveals dozens of signatures. “In the week before we opened the remodeled library, all the staff visited the Children’s Library and each member made a stitch on the quilt and signed their name.” 

At the reference desk, we are joined by librarians Armin Arethna and supervising library assistant Susan Huish. Armin conducts the Wednesday morning “Baby Bounces” and Susan combines time on the reference desk with the behind-the-scenes tasks that keep the department running smoothly. Passing through the area with its wide assortment of books on tape, CDs, videos, and DVDs, we open the heavy door to the Story Room which once served as the library’s art gallery and is still illuminated by skylights.  

Armin gets out the box of mariachis, tambourines, and sticks—always a big moment in the Baby Bounce. “The children and babies range in age from six months to three years,” she says. “To keep them engaged we provide lots of activity including finger plays, very short stories, and the music-making.” 

“Once a month we have a special performer such as a puppeteer or magician,” she adds. 

In a perfect example of serendipity, the east-facing window frames downtown Berkeley’s most charming building—the story-book clinker brick, slate-roofed Tupper and Reed building with its tall chimney topped by the iron silhouette of a prancing piper, horn raised to the sky. The spell of this being a pre-arranged stage set is broken only by stepping forward and looking down onto Shattuck Avenue and seeing the AC Transit buses. 

The Children’s Library isn’t just about spinning delights inside and out, of course, it’s also about education and research. Linda Perkins, the head of Children’s Services points out that they serve kids up through the eighth grade. “Teachers bring their classes and we show them how to use a variety of material, including our on-line catalogs and electronic resources. We also have book collections in several languages and an assortment of magazines.” 

But it’s the summer reading program—one of the many programs sponsored by the Friends—that probably helps most to establish a life-long reading habit. “At the end of the spring semester, the children’s librarians from the Central Library and all the branches go out to the schools to explain the program and invite the children to participate,” Linda says. “Our reward is when teachers tell us they know which children have kept up their reading over the long summer.” 


Photograph by Stephan Babuljak: 

Amanda Bristow reads to her 3-year-old son George at the central branch of the Berkeley Public Library on Wednesday.ô