Library as Place of Refuge – the not so obvious role of libraries in serving children and teenagers.
Where do you go if your life is in turmoil, and you need somewhere to hang out that feels safe and has things to do that take your mind off your troubles? For many children the answer is the library.
Libraries play a not so obvious role in the lives of many children and teens – that of refuge. Agosto, Paone and Ipock identified the physical space provided by the library as one of three major roles the library plays for teenagers. Some of the teenagers surveyed for their research stated that they used the library as a safe refuge from a dangerous home or neighbourhood environment, although they do not indicate the frequency of this response. Martin Gray conducted a survey of school librarians and found that libraries were commonly used as safe spaces for students with 84% of respondents saying that their school recommended spending break times in the library to some of their students. He also found that many students who found the school playground situation difficult would choose to spend their breaks in the library.
Examples of libraries as refuges for young people are numerous and varied.
In Japan, the Kamakura Public Library reacted to high teenage suicide rates by appealing to troubled teens with the following messages – “The second semester is about to start. For you kids who’re dreading it so much you could just die, take the day off from school and visit the library” and “To those of you who are carrying painful emotions, we would like the library to be a place where you feel like you belong … You just might find a book that comforts your exhausted heart.” Comments responding to this article also confirm the role of the library as a refuge for young people –
“Really good initiative from this library. I had a library refuge in my teenage years. It was important to me, and helped me through a difficult time, and books have continued to be refuges and mentors throughout my life.”
“I was a library kid for one year during my teens, when my domestic situation was in upheaval and I didn’t feel able to talk to my friends about it. The school library was a haven for me.”
In times of disaster and civil unrest, libraries are often the places that offer refuge to children and families. Princeton Library was able to offer wi-fi, electricity, non-stop family movies and, of course, books after Hurricane Sandy and Ferguson Municipal Library was able to provide activities for children when schools were closed due to riots following a police shooting in that town. The list is long. A number of libraries have also offered support to refugees around the World.
The John Hopkin’s Children Centre library identifies its role as providing refuge for parents and families from the medical environment of the hospital. Kevin Smith writes about the UCLA providing a refuge for students during a shooting incident at this American University.
This is obviously a vital role that libraries can play in our communities, but how can we ensure that we are up to the task?
Buron et al. offer the following suggestions based on their experience of creating a safe haven for the community at the Queens Public Library in South Hollis (USA)…
- Physical Solutions – think about the layout of the library and consider rearranging shelving and furniture to ensure safe spaces for different users.
- Programming and customer interactions – a personal greeting at the door creates a sense of connection, and strong programming for the younger years creates an early positive experience which continues as the child grows.
- Staff Training – staff training and support helps staff to deal with the demands of social situations while also taking care of their own needs. Library policies and guidelines can also act to support staff.
This is a very brief outline – I think this would be a great area for future research. Do you have any ideas you could share in a comment below? Perhaps you have seen something in a library you have visited that you think helps to make it a safe refuge for young people?
Let me conclude with a quote from a sign posted outside the Ferguson Public Library during the riots in that city…
During difficult times, the library is a quiet oasis where we can catch our breath, learn, and think about what to do next.
(feature image is a public domain image CC0 sourced from www.pixabay.com)