A library for kids

Storytime is more than just books. Even puppets come to play. /Photo: Linda Hackett

Pam Bubenheim is a regular at the children’s library inside the Mt. Lebanon Public Library. She and her boys, Sam, 4, and Tucker, 2, can walk there from their Birch Avenue home. The boys are playing with a few of the library’s puppets. Sam has a battle going on between a dinosaur and an octopus. The dinosaur is winning.

“They’re not real,” he says. “They can’t have real ones here.” Still, it’s realistic to assume that in this fight, especially out of water, the dinosaur would come out on top. Tucker lends me a chameleon puppet so I can join in, but as Sam says, “Maybe you’re too big.” Fair point.

If you haven’t been to a library in a while, you should know there is very little shushing these days. While there is still a lot of quiet reading and studying, libraries also hum with activity and liveliness. There is absolutely no shushing at all in the children’s library. Because what would that do to the puppet shows, the story times, even the scribble area?

Meghan Englehardt, Sylvandell Drive, comes here a lot. With a 4-year-old running around and a baby on the way, she says “It’s nice to come here on a rainy day. Also we like the programs and story times.”

The children’s library has been recognized by the Pennsylvania Library Association (PaLA) four times in the last decade for Best Practices in Early Learning, and last year the PaLA presented librarian Dana Jones with the New Librarian Honors Award in recognition of  “originality, inventive ability and demonstration of promise for continued growth.”

“The dynamics of this room have changed dramatically,” says children’s librarian Connie Mathews, who has been here since 1998. “I’ve moved every item in this library at least twice.”

The library’s pet shows are huge draws for kids. / Photo: Elizabeth Hruby McCabe.

When Mathews started, there was no display space in the children’s library. “Picture a Barnes & Noble with no books except on the shelves,” she says.

Some of the things that made the space appear more welcoming were moving the book stacks away from the windows to let in more natural light, repainting the library, and recovering the black metal shelves with blond wood.

Most recently, the library received a grant from Family Place Libraries, a nonprofit dedicated to making libraries into community hubs for healthy child and family development and for lifelong learning. Part of the grant went toward reconfiguring the part of the children’s library that overlooks the courtyard and scattering comfortable red leather seats around the play space. The changes were also paid for in part by a donation from the Friends of Mt. Lebanon Library.

“We’re kind of like an inside park,” says Mathews.

But the changes are more than physical. One of the benefits of the Family Place grant was money for an annual parent-child workshop with professionals offering resources in nutrition, literacy, speech and hearing, music and movement and child development.

“What we want to do is build community through programs and additional support, in education, literacy and self-directed learning,” says Mathews.

The number of programs has expanded significantly over the years.

“What we had was very good,” Mathews says, “but there weren’t as many programs for the whole family, and the focus was more on summer programs for the kids. Not a lot of school-year programs.”

The library has eight story time sessions, each geared to a different age group, from infant to 8 years old; five book clubs, including Crazy for Comics for third-to- fifth graders, where kids discuss graphic novels and analyze the comic book format; Talking Comics, a club for sixth-to-eighth graders, where members create their own comics and accessories in the library’s maker space; five ongoing school-age programs, and more than 20 annual family programs, such as The Amazing Race, Star Wars Day, the Stuffed Animal Sleepover. Probably the most popular, program is the Halloween-themed Fright Night, held the Friday before Halloween. Crafts, free refreshments and a book sale have proven to be a big hit, drawing as many as 500 children and parents. “It’s like a giant block party,” Mathews says.

Other community outreach programs include visits to preschools and day care centers. In September, which is National Library Card month, librarians visited first-grade classrooms for storytelling and library card sign-up.

The library also has placed an increased emphasis on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math). The library’s maker space, equipped with a 3-D printer, has opened up lots of avenues for creative technology. The library also offers two levels of coding classes, for third-to fifth-graders and for sixth-to-eighth graders.

The photo bomber to the left isn’t sure what to make of this particular pet. /Photo: Elizabeth Hruby McCabe

Some of the librarians have had special STEAM training, by ASSET, a local nonprofit that conducts teacher training. The course taught the librarians the basics of STEAM, best teaching practices, the principles of inquiry-based learning, and how to fold all of those concepts into library programs.

Just like the goal of the summer reading club is to avoid a decline in reading skills, the library has several summer clubs that achieve the same goal with math.

Looking ahead, Mathews would like to focus more on the arts. The library had a very successful Artist in Residence program this summer. Musician Tom Roberts, curator of the Silents, Please! silent film series at the Hollywood Theater, led a three-day workshop for fourth- to sixth-graders that culminated in the production of two-minute silent films for each of the participants.

A year earlier, Roberts partnered with Jonah Winter, author of the children’s book How Jelly Roll Morton Invented Jazz, to combine Morton’s music with readings from Winter’s book.

“These programs were super successful,” says Mathews. “I want to bring in more people like that.”

Learn about all of the Mt. Lebanon Public Library’s clubs, programs and events at www.mtlebanonlibrary.org.