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Pioneering Children's Services

Aug 13, 2009 4:36 PM | 0 comments

Children Reading at the Brownsville Children's Library, 1915

While students enjoy the final days of summer, we're preparing for another year of class visits and research projects.  We get so excited about our plans that we often forget our efforts are based on century-old standards that originated right here in Brooklyn.

In the early 20th century, both Brooklyn Public Library and the Brooklyn Children's Museum were pioneers in children's services.  By creating spaces that uniquely catered to children, they dramatically changed the way young people interacted with cultural institutions. 

In 1899, the Brooklyn Institute (now the Brooklyn Museum) opened the world's first museum for children in Bedford Park.  The museum offered free admission, allowing all of Brooklyn's young residents to take advantage.  The chief curator, Dr. R. Ellsworth Call, was a professor of natural history, and the museum's original collection reflected his interests with plants, specimens in jars and insects in display cases. Over time, other subjects were introduced, including an exhibit on the industries of Brooklyn.  The Eagle commented the exhibit would be helpful for children who would one day work in such industries - providing informal career development for young Brooklynites. 

Children's Museum, 1904 Atlas

The highlight of the museum was the classroom, where children could interact with the artifacts.  Teachers were encouraged to provide a formal lesson in the classroom during field trips.  If Dr. Call was free, he would stop by and help with the instruction.  As a service to adults who worked with children, the museum offered profesional development lectures for teachers who wished to learn more.

At Brooklyn Public Library, librarian Clara Whitehill Hunt was hired to supervise children's service as early as 1903.  Unlike Dr. Call, Ms. Hunt's expertise was children, and she did not wish to confine them to classrooms alone.  Her efforts to provide child-friendly areas and specially trained staff members resulted in the opening of the world's first children's library in 1914.  Although BPL had already offered children's reading rooms, this was the first branch for children only.  The building itself (now the Stone Avenue Branch) was specifically designed with children in mind.  The furniture was smaller, the windows were larger, and references to children's literature were used in the decorations.  A large fireplace surrounded by comfortable chairs was intended to provide a luxury that Brownsville children could not find in their tenement homes.  Upstairs, an assembly room was used as both a classroom for school groups and a meeting space for children's clubs and parent associations. 

Line of Children Waiting to Check out Books, 1914

Librarian Assisting Children, 1915The branch was a place to learn, and librarians rarely gave students the answers to their questions.  Rather, young patrons were shown where in the library they might look for their answers.  The Eagle praised this effort, stating it was important in "this age of intellectual laziness" to teach library skills.  As with the museum, the library offered professional development to adults who worked with children.  New librarians were trained by staff to address the specific needs of children, something that was not yet standardized in library schools. 

Both institutions proved to be immensely popular with school groups and the general public.  By April of 1900, the museum was open seven days a week with visiting hours in both the morning and afternoon.  The Children's Library offered equally intense hours, staying open until 9pm on some nights.  For the first three months of the Children's Library, an average of 1,500 children visited each day.  

The Brownsville Children's Library and the Brooklyn Children's Museum had a lasting impact on the ways cultural instutitons serve children.  Museums and libraries across the world asked them for advice on creating child-centered spaces.  Today, most libraries and museums have education departments that specifically offer object-based learning, personal inquiry and other opportunities that were proudly introduced to young Brooklynites over 100 years ago.