Children age 6 and under will be eligible to receive their own library cards and will be exempt from overdue charges at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library under a campaign being announced today to encourage reading at the earliest ages.
The young cardholders will get a pass on the 10-cents-a-day overdue fine and other red tape. They also could continue to borrow books if their parents have racked up fines. The program is called First Card, and experts and librarians hope it will encourage parents to make the library - and reading at home - a lifetime habit.
"We wanted to find a way to get rid of all the barriers for the very youngest readers," said Selma Levi, supervisor of the central library's children's department. "Let them have carte blanche."
The initiative comes as a national push toward higher academic standards and early education has lifted expectations of the very young. The goal, librarians said, is to make it easier to get books into the hands of children to help them meet that challenge.
The city library will begin issuing the cards, which can be used at all 22 branches, today. Parents who regularly bring children to storytelling programs at the library said they will consider signing up. Deirdre Hoey, a 32-year-old Baltimore mother, said she has about 30 books checked out at any one time for her two daughters.
"Most of them are kids' books," Hoey said. "There's only one book for me."
More than 31,000 Baltimore children under 14 have cards, and other libraries have created similar programs for young patrons. The Baltimore County Public Library launched My First Library Card last year and has signed up 14,347 kindergartners and preschoolers.
But eliminating fines for children appears to be an unusual step.
Mona Rock, a Enoch Pratt library spokeswoman, said librarians aren't concerned that materials might disappear for good if fines are dropped. The library is owed about $12,000 in outstanding fees for children's material, she said - less than 1 percent of the library's $29.6 million operating budget.
Parents must register for the card, but children will still be able to use it even if parents fall behind on returning their own books. But parents with bad library habits shouldn't get any ideas: First Cards can be used only for children's materials.
Child development experts say reading to children helps motivate them to read on their own when they get older. It also teaches vocabulary, story construction and other important skills as they enter the early stages of an education system that is racing to increase standards.
"A lot of kids, if they're not read to, go to school and think that reading is a chore," said Bette Chambers, vice president of development for the Success For All Foundation. The Towson-based group creates educational programs for high-poverty schools.
"Reading to them early helps prepare them for kindergarten," she said.
Teagan Hoey, Deirdre Hoey's 22-month-old daughter, is already gearing up. Halfway through a story time offered recently to preschoolers at the library, she wandered off the carpet she was sitting on and walked toward a shelf. She stretched out her arm and grabbed. She wanted her own book.
"We are going to make sure that we're giving the children the best opportunities possible to get their hands on books," said Levi, the library supervisor.