Card-Carrying Babies | First Steps

Baby-friendly card policies encourage literacy and library use from birth.

We’ve all experienced those heartwarming moments: A months-old baby comes with Mom to the library. The proud mother applies for her child’s very first library card. An excited kindergartner gets his first library card after diligently writing his name on the application. His verklempt father and the librarian congratulate him and encourage him to take responsibility for the books he’ll check out.

When is the best time for a child to get a card, and what do age policies look like in public libraries? We surveyed 150 library professionals via library listservs and social media. The majority (68 percent) of libraries reported that children can get library cards from birth. The remaining 32 percent reported a variety of policies, usually age or grade limits, including 6.2 percent requiring children to be able to write their names on the application.

Baby-friendly card policies encourage early literacy and library use from birth, librarians report. “We want to remove as many barriers to access as possible, and babies benefit from reading starting at they deserve a library card, too,” says Hannah Killian, youth services manager at the Dauphin County Library System in ­Harrisburg, PA.

Offering cards to babies also sends a powerful message to parents: Reading with them is important. Many libraries offer “Baby’s First Library Card” with child-friendly branding.

In libraries with age limits, staff members want to make the experience memorable. “Getting a library card is a rite of passage for young children, and so we like them to be at an age where they are aware and excited about getting it,” says Kathy Jarombek, director of youth services at Perrot Memorial Library in Greenwich, CT.

Other respondents shared concerns that young children may lack the ability to manage library accounts, questions about privacy issues, or worries that parents may abuse their baby’s cards. Historically, public libraries required kids to be able to write their names to receive a card. New York Public Library (NYPL) even had a special pledge book they signed promising to take care of materials.

While that’s a lovely ritual, thankfully, many libraries, including NYPL, have done away with the name-writing requirement. Children learn this skill at different times, and people of all ages with certain disabilities may not be able to write at all.

Well-intentioned policies can be implemented in ways that are rigid or don’t always reflect the library’s mission. Carrie Banks, head of Brooklyn Public Library’s Inclusive Services Department, recalled that when BPL had a signature policy for juvenile cards, parents complained. “Sometimes it was because a young child had a broken arm in a cast, or an older child had an intellectual disability.”

Flexible card policies can be inclusive in ways that are not as obvious. Many young kids spend their days with nannies and caregivers. If children have cards, caregivers don’t have to check out materials using theirs—and may be more likely to borrow books to read with their charges.

Also, Banks finds that some undocumented immigrants, wary of registering themselves, will get cards for their kids who are citizens, “even their two-month-old baby.” She also sees benefits for children in unstable family and housing situations: “The card follows the person, whether or not they stay in the same family or home.”

The benefits of all-ages cards outweigh the downsides. While receiving a first library card should ideally be a special experience, requiring a child to wait until they’re five or six may not work for all families. Though some adults may abuse children’s card privileges, card abuse happens in all age groups, and we don’t deny access using this logic.

The library is one of the first institutions where a young child can participate as a card-carrying member. As Bethany Klem, head of children’s services at Bedford (MA) Free Public Library, quipped, “Babies are citizens, too!”

Rachel G. Payne is coordinator of early childhood services at Brooklyn Public Library. Jessica Ralli is BPL’s coordinator of early literacy programs.

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