A packed room of cherubic, wide-eyed babies sit spellbound as singing finger puppets perform an animated version of Five Little Ducks. Parents and nannies bounce the babies and join in with the singing.
It’s story time at the Beverly Hills public library. The lead act for the babies: librarian, Ginny Kovner.
Across the hall in the polished library’s newly renovated children’s theater, another librarian is setting up a second story time for two-year-olds that would blow anyone’s mind.
Marilyn Taniguchi, an early literacy specialist and 20-year story time veteran, is cueing up multimedia elements on a big screen embedded at the back of the theater’s stage. She’s planning to end the story time with a DVD and music video. Her assistant is setting up a marionette theater for an added story element.
While it might appear that restless toddlers are not paying attention to the story, she is convinced that most are listening, even as they are moving around.
“They’re hearing the words, they’re picking up the things we want them to pick up,” she said.
These read aloud events play a special role in a child’s development, experts said. While most literacy strategies directly teach reading and writing, story time at the library has always involved so much more. Small children are transported to a world of imagination that not only entertains, but also secretly lays the building blocks of literacy.
“Literacy is definitely more than reading and writing,” said Linda Clinard, a retired UC Irvine professor and leading Southern California expert on early literacy.
Clinard has spent her professional career teaching educators how to work with small children on early literacy acquisition. Too often parents and teachers get frustrated when a child won’t sit still to read an entire book, she said, failing to recognize the child has developed strengths in listening or speaking.
“We have to see how important listening and speaking and thinking are as foundations for reading and writing,” she said.
Because of that, she believes library story time holds a unique place in children’s development. What makes it a wonderful early literacy opportunity is that it's playful and interactive. Very good librarians have a gift for making the learning effortless and teach parents tricks to help the process at home.
Yet library programs are among the first services cut when state and municipal budgets shrink. Over the past several years, library hours have been reduced, branches closed and staff members laid off.
Peter Persic, with the Los Angeles Public Library, said that during the recent budget reductions, the greatest impact to children’s services was not related to the book budget, which remained stable. What occurred was a “reduction in hours, which reduced children’s access to library services, and a cut to staff, which reduced school visits, programming and one-on-one interaction with parents and children.”
Those reductions may seem invisible, but they have an effect, said Suzanne Flint, an early literacy specialist with the California State Library.
"In some communities, there’s the sense that we’ve been able to cut costs and the libraries are still able to operate,” she said.
As part of her job, Flint travels across the state training librarians in early childhood development.
In her visits, she doesn’t see many well-funded libraries, like the one in Beverly Hills, with its three full time and 12 part time children’s librarians. Most children’s sections in California libraries are underfunded and under-staffed, she said.
“Many staff are doing above and beyond what they would normally do,” Flint said. They're working extra hours for no pay or contributing supplies and resources without reimbursement.
Flint is talking about librarians like Sada Mozer, the sole children’s librarian at the Junipero Serra branch in South Los Angeles.
At Junipero Serra, the children’s books look worn, kids have access to three dated computers, and the kiddy armchairs and tables are fading. And yet, the children’s section is a wonderfully vibrant place – because of Mozer and her infectious energy and enthusiasm.
“The library can be the place in a community that doesn’t have a lot of outlets where the kids can come and do fun things,” Mozer said.
Growing up poor, Mozer learned firsthand the value of what a library can offer. She accessed books and programs at the library that her parents could never have afforded to buy, Mozer said. She has never forgotten it, and she wants children today to realize they too can get a lot of these things “for free.”
Mozer, or “Ms. Sada” as everyone calls her, has an instant connection with kids. In the library, she’s quick to help a wandering child find a fun book or activity.
But she doesn’t think her job begins and ends in the library. She regularly visits neighborhood elementary schools, preschools and head start programs, where she captivates kids with a story, then follows it with information on how the library works.
She entices kids to come to the library to draw or play. “And then they see the books,” she says with a conspiratorial smile.
With a small budget, Mozer has had to be creative and resourceful to increase the library’s offerings for kids and make it the “oasis” she thinks libraries can be in low-income communities.
She recruited specialists from museums and colleges to visit, bringing with them new and fun ways to engage children and families in literacy. She recently put on a week of science themed activities conducted by staff from the California Science Center for Spring break.
Mozer also formed a partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to provide a teacher and art supplies for weekly art classes at the library. Art might not seem like a traditional literacy activity, but Mozer said it all comes back to reading.
She offered a recent example where the art instructor used Chinese New Year and the museum’s art supplies to get kids to care about books at the library. The instructor, Mozer says, “had all the snake books [displayed] and then she taught the kids the qualities of the personality of a person who was born in the year of the snake. And then they made these snake collage things.” After that class there was a rush on borrowing the snake books.
Mozer became a children’s librarian in 2008 at the Washington Irving Branch in Mid City, her neighborhood library. Two years later, she was laid off due to budget cuts. Afterward, Mozer would regularly bump into children and parents who would ask why she no longer worked there, and why services had been cut.
“I would be in the market and the parents and the kids would come up to me and say, ‘Ms. Sada, why did they close the Library on Mondays? That’s the only way I can get my homework done. I don’t have a computer,’ ” she recalled.
The tide has turned a little for libraries. Los Angeles city voters passed Measure L in 2011, restoring money to public libraries. Mozer was rehired–this time at the Junipero Serra branch, which needed a children’s librarian.
Flint, of the California State Library, is worried that too many librarians like Mozer are the engine behind good children’s programs. What happens if they’re cut? Or, more likely, burn out?
“I just don’t know how long people can humanly sustain that level of putting in extra work because this is their passion, they believe so much in serving their community,” she said.
Beverly Hills City Librarian, Nancy Hunt Coffey, hopes her well-funded children’s library can set an example.
“I think that if we can help to influence the profession in a positive way that makes libraries relevant into the future then we’re all successful," she said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the year Los Angeles' Measure L passed. The measure passed in 2011. We regret the error.