Unsupervised Children

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Photo by Ben_Kerckx / CC BY

Going to the library unsupervised was a fairly regular occurrence for me when I was growing up.  Just me, a backpack and my trusty bicycle, and off I’d go.  I was never approached by a stranger in the stacks nor felt the gaze of disapproving librarians.  Speaking of stacks, the only harm that came to me was stacking it on my bike down a steep hill on the way home one time, the entire incident witnessed by one of my male classmates – I was horrified!  In my mind, the library was an awe-inspiring place, a magical mystery tour on each visit.

If I were a child today though, I doubt I would be allowed to journey to the library alone.  Many parents are concerned to let their children go anywhere unsupervised.  There are fewer children playing outside and many more cars on the road than there were 30 years ago. What’s more, parents risk the scorn of others, and possibly the law for letting their children roam unsupervised.

The law on unattended children in Queensland is quite harsh.

Under Queensland Criminal Code Act 1899:

(1) A person who, having the lawful care or charge of a child under 12 years, leaves the child for an unreasonable time without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child during that time commits a misdemeanour.

Maximum penalty—3 years imprisonment.

(2) Whether the time is unreasonable depends on all the relevant circumstances.

Yes, 3 years imprisonment.  Parents and carers beware!  Obviously, the context determines what is considered “unreasonable”.  For instance, an infant left in a hot car for an extended amount of time would be deemed “unreasonable”, however, leaving a 10 year old home alone for five minutes while nipping to the station to pick up your spouse may not be deemed as such.

In terms of child safety in public libraries, ALIA (p. 55) advises libraries to refer to local, state and federal government policies.  A Google search on unsupervised children in public libraries brought up Children’s Policy Guidelines for NSW Public Libraries, with clear explanations and guidelines on “unattended children”, but I could not find a similar document for QLD Public Libraries (please post link below if you find it) – surprising, considering the severity of QLD law.

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Photo by Luis Guillermo Pineda Rodas / CC BY

In QLD, I located the very comprehensive Tablelands Regional Library Service Youth Services Policy and the Mackay Regional Council Child Protection Risk Management Policy which includes a section on unattended children in public libraries.  Their guidelines mirrored parts of the NSW public libraries document I’d found earlier.

Both regional library services allow children 9 years and upwards to attend their libraries alone provided they are not left unattended for an extended period of time.  “Unattended” or “unsupervised” is defined as not being within eyesight of a carer or sibling, and a supervising sibling can be as young as 12 years old.

In all three documents it is noted that unattended children might be harmed, wander off away from the library premises, get lost, become distressed, hungry, bored, or disrupt other library patrons.  They also stated that librarians have a duty of care but cannot fully supervise unattended children for extended periods.

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Photo by my1000words / CC BY

In communities where a significant number of children are coming to their public library unattended, I can see the value of having clear youth service policies like the Tablelands’ example as it conveys to the community that library staff have the best interests of children in mind.  It also increases staff confidence in dealing with unattended children, which might involve confronting carers and notifying the police.

Libraries are playgrounds for young minds.  As in my childhood, the local library can still be a wondrous place for a child to explore on their own provided there is an atmosphere of trust, compassion and respect.

Argue a point: It is not necessary for librarians to possess expertise in particular subject areas in order to adequately support research

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Photo by geralt / CC BY

Subject specialists in academic libraries have been known by different names over the years: Liaison Librarian, Academic Librarian, and Faculty Librarian, to name a few.  Cataldo et al. state Liaison Librarians “focus their work in a particular subject area and provide services to clients in that discipline” and Feather and Sturges cited in Holland and Matthews define a Subject Librarian as a ‘librarian with special knowledge of, and responsibility for, a particular subject or subjects …’  

Whether or not Subject Librarians should have a formal qualification in the discipline they support has been debated for many decades.  Some universities, such as the University of Melbourne, Liverpool and Manchester John Rylands libraries, prefer a degree in both the research area and postgraduate degree in library studies.  What’s more, the University of Melbourne offers an annual professional cadetship program for two Masters of LIS graduates who also have subject degrees.  It is believed that recruiting librarians with a strong background knowledge in the related discipline will improve the university’s capacity for supporting high-level research.  But, is subject expertise necessary to provide satisfactory research support?

In a changing research landscape, Mary Auckland carried out a study into the role and skills required for Subject Librarians to support researchers today and the near future.  Subject Librarians and their managers from 22 RLUK member libraries were given a list of 32 skills and knowledge relevant to their field and asked to indicate their relative importance today and the next two to five years.  Of the 32 skills, “deep knowledge of their discipline/subject” was listed, but surprisingly, it was not considered to be essential.  According to the  results, only 24% thought it was essential now, 55% saw it as desirable, and 28% saw it essential in the next 2 to 5 years and 48% desirable.  The majority of respondents considered, other skills and knowledge as more important, including:

  • Excellent knowledge of bibliographic and other finding tools in the discipline/subject;
  • Excellent skills to design information literacy training (both face-to-face and online) to meet the identified needs of different types of researchers; and
  • Outstanding skills in information discovery, literature searching etc.

So, even those working in the field do not see expertise in the relevant subject area as necessary to carry out their role adequately.

Subject knowledge is important, but not to the extent of needing a formal qualification to meet client expectations.  At the University of Florida Health Science Center (HSC) colleges, which include dentistry, health professions and public health, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, and veterinary medicine, students and faculty were surveyed about the HSC Library’s Liaison Librarian Program.  The majority of respondents were satisfied with the program and their specific liaisons’ services.  In addition, they felt that having a subject background in the client’s field was “important” or “very important”.  This was despite the fact that only 2 of the total 10 Liaison Librarians possessed a tertiary qualification in the discipline they served.  The Liaison Librarians employed a variety of methods to develop subject knowledge, for example, on-the-job training, joining peak medical association mailing lists, and continuing education courses.  So, although subject background is perceived as valuable, in the actual service delivery, lack of formal qualification did not detract from client satisfaction.

The role of Subject Librarian is evolving along with the research environment.  A new set of skills and knowledge will be essential to negotiate the complex world of 21st century academic research.  There has been a “paradigm shift” away from the traditional reactive reference services, such as collection management and responding to reference queries, to proactive research support that positions Subject Librarians as partners in the research lifecycle.  Subject Librarians will need to be innovative and possess the soft skills to collaborate, advocate, and seek advice in this new era of data explosion and research dissemination.  A formal qualification in the discipline area will be secondary to expertise in data management, bibliometrics and open access practices.

As discussed, it is not necessary for Subject Librarians to have subject expertise in a subject area to provide adequate research support.  That is not to say that subject knowledge is not developed whilst in the position.  Furthermore, today’s research environment has changed so other skills and knowledge are considered more important than a deep knowledge of the subject area, such as use of bibliographic tools, literature search and data management.