The library: After-school haven for children

March 11, 1995|By Harold Jackson | Harold Jackson,Sun Staff Writer

Leery about leaving their children home alone after school, many working parents are turning to neighborhood libraries instead. And, at the Enoch Pratt branch at Pennsylvania and North avenues, staff members gladly accept the role of surrogate family.

On most afternoons, the library overflows with children doing homework or reading to pass the time until they know an adult will be home. "A lot of our youngsters are here because the library is a safe place," said branch manager Betty Boulware. "We don't encourage people to drop their kids off here because they need a baby-sitting service, but we know, for some people, it's the only alternative."

Gilbert Taylor and Christopher Fisher, both 11 years old, have been coming to the library together since they were in preschool. Now in the sixth grade, they are as comfortable there as they would be at home.

They do their homework, read books and magazines, or "just have some fun" looking up topics on the computer. "They showed us how to do that in fourth grade," said Gilbert.

Donte Armstead and Janeene Williams, 8-year-old cousins, are also regulars at Penn/North. Donte can usually be found reading his favorite book, "Don't Tell the Whole World," which involves a cow and a buried cache of gold.

They've been coming to the library after school for about two years. "We stay until 5:30, then we walk home together," said Janeene.

The library is popular with older children, too. "Just the fact that they're here, even if it's just to read a paper or magazine, shows they're trying to avoid getting caught up in things going on in the street," said librarian Scott Hughes.

Mr. Hughes, 25, added, "We try not to turn people away because we realize it's essential for them to be here instead of outside. Sometimes it gets a little noisy, but it's a public place and that's to be expected."

Security, Mrs. Boulware said, must be a concern for a library in Penn/North's setting, at the intersection of two busy inner-city streets that offer an abundance of activities -- legal and illegal. "But we're not always looking over our shoulders," she said. "We're not cringing every time someone walks through the door. That would not be representative of this entire community."

A child doing cartwheels is more likely to be a concern, Mrs. Boulware said. And the librarians know how to handle that.

"Disruptive behavior is not tolerated because it makes an uninviting environment for everyone, and children respect that," Mrs. Boulware said. "They will give us the blues one day and we'll put them out, but they'll be back tomorrow and follow the rules."

"A lot of what we do is helping young people interpret their assignments and talk through a strategy of how to complete those assignments," she said. "You know, the kind of things you might have done with an older sister at home."

Older sister, big brother, mother, father -- libraries such as Penn/North are providing a home away from home for children who don't want to be alone.

"Some parents call here on a regular basis to check on their children," Mrs. Boulware said. "And, if it's getting dark outside and I notice little Tiffany is still here, I tell Tiffany it's time for her to pack up her stuff and start heading home.

"It sounds maternalistic, but as adults . . . who see the children need this kind of security net, we would be remiss if we didn't try to provide it."

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