Family Place Libraries: A Timely National Initiative

In September 2012 the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) announced a National Leadership Grant of $450,000 to the Middle Country Public Library (MCPL), located in Suffolk County, Long Island (NY) for Family Place Libraries: A Model for Institutional ChangeThe grant enables MCPL to create a network of 28 libraries across eight states that will implement, evaluate and communicate the value of Family Place Libraries, an early childhood and family service model that  focuses on parents/caregivers as first teachers, is organized around the developmental needs of the whole child, and links library services with other regional and local family support agencies.

By supporting expansion, evaluation, and national communications of the Family Place Libraries service model, IMLS is helping to spotlight libraries that are in the forefront of new research-based practices. The grant to MCPL has added significance given the confluence of factors that are stimulating a national consensus that early childhood learning services are essential for national achievement, equity and economic productivity.                                  

Growing Awareness of the Importance of Early Learning

familyplace7313Recent research on early brain development is one important factor driving increased awareness of the importance of early learning services for all babies and young children.   Researchers have shown that the ways in which adults interact with children between birth and five years dramatically affects the brain, influencing a child’s intellectual, social and emotional development. Researchers have also confirmed that learning is an interactive process and depends on the interwoven development of multiple abilities and skills.  Dr. Jack Shonkofff, Director of the Harvard Center for Child Development, has written:

“Scientific knowledge on this issue is crystal clear – cognitive, emotional and social competence evolve hand in hand.  When a supportive environment is provided, the emergent structure is sound, and all the parts work together.”

The accumulation of interest and support from the business community is another powerful factor affecting national thinking about early learning services and programs.  Art Rolnick, Senior Vice President and Director of Research at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, and James Heckman, Nobel Prize winner in economics from the University of Chicago, are two of the economists whose work has shown that early education initiatives are important public investments and economic development strategies.  Through wide dissemination of their findings and similar findings by other researchers, business leaders across the country are endorsing federal and state investments in early childhood education.

A third factor helping to build a new national consensus on the importance of early learning is the recent emphasis at the federal level.  In 2009 Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a U.S. Department of Education birth through 3rd grade learning agenda, during which he stated:

“This is a unique moment in time when early learning is no longer an afterthought, but has come into its own and is recognized as the first and foremost critical stage in human development.”

At the presidential level, President Obama has made early learning a national priority.  In his State of the Union Address in February 2013 he said: “education has to start at the earliest possible age.  Study after study shows that the earlier a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.”  As a result of the President’s commitment, WhiteHouse.gov now features a major statement on early learning:

“Expanding access to high quality early childhood education is among the smartest investments that we can make.  Research has shown that the early years in a child’s life – when the human brain is forming – represent a critically important window of opportunity to develop a child’s full potential and shape key academic, social and cognitive skills that determine a child’s success in school and in life.”

There are even signs of increased interest in early childhood funding from major philanthropies.  According to Ralph Smith, for example, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and a senior vice president at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “We need to reach these children before they enter kindergarten…Museums and libraries are key partners for our communities.”

Implications for Libraries:  Are We Prepared?

Snapshot 9 (1-17-2013 4-19 PM)Together, the endorsements and recommendations regarding the importance of early learning constitute an important turning point in national consciousness.  The collective authority of leaders in the academic, corporate and public sectors has the potential to bring about increased recognition for libraries’ current early childhood services as well as increased demand for “best practices” that reflect new research on young children and demonstrate developmentally appropriate supports for parents and caregivers.

It is a heartening moment for librarians who have long supported, advocated for, directed or carried out early childhood learning services in public libraries.  It is also a sobering moment, a moment when the profession is facing difficult questions:

  • Are libraries and librarians prepared to assume greater roles as centers for positive child development and early learning?
  • Do children’s librarians understand that literacy skills cannot be achieved without attention to the emotional and social facets of a child’s early development?
  • What are best practices in this area and how are librarians able to achieve these standards?
  • Are children’s librarians who acquire special training in working with parents of very young children given recognition and compensation commensurate with their potential impacts?
  • Are libraries prepared to position early childhood services higher up on their internal agendas?
  • Are current library association initiatives adequate to transform libraries as centers for early learning?
  • Are community agencies, local policymakers and business leaders aware of libraries as potential partners and as key institutions for early learning and school readiness?

In light of these questions, it is not surprising that IMLS should undertake a funding initiative to build     the capacities of libraries to fulfill their potential as centers for early learning.

Family Place Libraries: A Proven Method for Building Librarians’ Capacities in Early Learning and Family Support

Snapshot 18 (1-17-2013 4-28 PM)The 2012 grant to MCPL for national expansion of the Family Place Libraries service model takes on special significance in light of the social context outlined above.  It is a proven model – currently operating in more than 375 libraries nationwide – that can transform libraries wherever it is implemented.  It is a capacity-building model that involves librarian training and technical support, and, it has proven adaptable and effective in libraries of different types, sizes and geographic locations.

Perhaps most importantly, Family Place Libraries is evidence-based, drawing on the newest research on early brain development and family support.  It uses the trusted library-based setting to apply findings that confirm the importance of parent-child interaction, play and supportive environments for healthy development and reading readiness. State and regional evaluations to date have all indicated the value of the model in changing librarians’ knowledge and skills, and in shifting the culture of the library to acknowledge young children and their parents as key stakeholders and patrons.

Key components of the Family Place model are:

  • Developmentally Appropriate Collections and Interactive Spaces 
  • Parent/Child Workshops with local specialists in healthy child development and early literacy
  • Partnerships and Coalition-Building with Community Agencies that serve young children and families
  • Outreach to New and Non-traditional families, especially parents with very young children (beginning at birth)
  • Developmentally appropriate programming for very young children and their parents/caregivers
  • Library staff trained in family support, child development, parent education, outreach, communications and best practices

MCPL’s Family Place Libraries staff work with staff of local Family Place sites to prepare and support them in implementing these core components.  Local staff attend an intensive staff 3-day training at MCPL, participate in follow-up webinars, and benefit from a site visit by MCPL/Family Place staff   They receive technical assistance in all aspects of planning and implementing the program.

Although Family Place Libraries is a proven and transformative model, there has  been no consistent national evaluation, nor has there been a strategic regional or national effort to communicate the value of the library as a center for early learning and early child development.  With the IMLS award MCPL will be able to address these issues by implementing and evaluating Family Place simultaneously in 28 libraries and by working with host libraries and other partners to document and disseminate information on the program locally, statewide and nationally.  Through a national communications plan the project envisions significant impact not only on members of the library profession but also on policymakers, educators, business leaders, social and health services professionals, and leaders of community agencies.

Partners in Change

Family Place Libraries: A Model for Institutional Change (FPL) involves a network of 28 partner libraries that are functioning as a national laboratory, demonstrating how the Family Place Libraries model is an innovative and effective strategy for altering and strengthening children’s services in the public library. MCPL selected partner libraries in Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas to include varied types and sizes of libraries serving communities in varied socioeconomic and geographic settings.  One participating library, Cayahoga County (OH) Public Library, suggests the diversity of participating libraries and the expertise they are bringing to the overall network.

Cuyahoga County (OH) Public LIbrary (CCPL), in Northeast Ohio serves 47 communities with a total population of 1.265 M.  Like other libraries in the new Family Place network, CCPL brings assets to the project that will benefit all participating libraries. CCPL is well regarding nationally for its programming and its high standards of service.  It was the first library in the country to offer residents the opportunity to renew books via text messages, and for four years in a row it has received Library Journal’s highest quality rating based on high program attendance and the highest circulation per capita in the country.  CCPL is also known for the quality and extent of its services for children and teens, with interactive programs for young children at nearly all of its 28 branches and a popular circulating collection of learning toys.  CCPL Executive Director Sari Feldman sits on the County’s Family and Children First Council and has advocated for stronger literacy services and children’s programs throughout the county.

The timing of Family Place Libraries: A Model for Institutional Change (FPL) was fortuitous for CCPL, which is in the midst of a $110 M project to replace or renovate 18 of its 28 branch libraries. Many of these were slated to incorporate interactive spaces for very young children; some will benefit from the Family Place recommendations for developmentally appropriate space development.  The program will also strengthen staff skills in parental support and help expand public perceptions of the library as a center for early learning.

The El Paso Public Library serves a border city of 700,000 in West Texas.  The city’s population is relatively young, with 50,000 children under the age of 5.  A high percentage of these children are cared for by family members.  For Library Director Dionne Mack, there is a huge need here for early childhood education and family support.  We need to make sure that young children are prepared to read when they enter school and that our overall population is prepared with the skills to be successful in the workplace”.   Since arriving at the library in 2010, Mack has increased educational programs, including Ready to Read programs for very young children, and has attracted many more families to its 13 locations.  She is now spearheading a major initiative to renovate the main library and branches, which will result in new spaces and collections all across the city.  

The Family Place Libraries service model aligns with Mack’s priorities, providing a framework for strengthening the library’s capacities to advance educational opportunities for young children.   With the nearest urban library more than 400 miles distant, El Paso is relatively isolated from other institutions and colleagues.   Family Place will help to bring El Paso Public Library staff into a supportive network of library colleagues concerned with early learning. The Family Place training will expose children’s librarians to recent research on early brain development, play, and family learning that they can apply in their local settings.  The program will also help communicate the essential educational role of the library to public and private leaders concerned with the city’s economic future.

Looking Ahead

The IMLS National Leadership grants are for projects that

“address challenges faced by the museum, library, and/or archive fields and that have the potential to advance practice in those fields…seek innovative responses to the challenge(s) identified….and to have national impact.”

The IMLS grant to MCPL affirms the significance of Family Place Libraries as an innovative, adaptable service model with the potential to impact early childhood practices in public libraries. It also affirms Family Place Libraries as a framework for practices that aligns with the emerging consensus on the importance of early learning.  As such, Family Place Libraries: A Model for Institutional Change has the potential to re-position libraries with policymakers, business leaders, educators and child services professions.  Over the next two years we will report periodically on this important project and its impact.