Serving Latchkey Children

Frances Smardo Dowd
February 8, 1999

Table of Contents


Methodology and Findings of the Survey

Methodology/Procedures of the Interviews

Ideal Library Responses to Latchkey Children

Advice Regarding Service to Latchkey Children

Other Community Services for Latchkey Children

Desirable Community Services for Latchkey Children




There are between two and seven million latchkey children in the U.S. This article describes recommendations made by librarians for serving these children. Ten librarians from Boston; Brooklyn; East Central Georgia; Baltimore; Harford County, Maryland; Hennepin County, Minnesota; Huntsville-Madison County, Alabama; Los Angeles; Pierce County, Washington; and Weber County, Utah respond to four questions. These focus on (1) ideal response, (2) advice, (3) other community programs, and (4) additional desired community response.

Latchkey children -- elementary school youth left without adult supervision after school until a parent returns from work -- have become commonplace. Estimates of the number of children who fall into this category range from 2.1 to 7 million.1,2 The news media has emphasized the problems that result when public libraries are unprepared to deal with large numbers of unattended children who use them as substitutes for child care.3,4 Several recent articles in library literature have focused upon successful strategies that public libraries can implement in regard to this specific clientele.5,6,7 The most significant publication regarding unattended youth, however, is the book "Latchkey Children" and the Public Library,8 which refers to this group of library users as an "unparalleled opportunity" for the profession.9 Research concerning latchkey children is noticeably lacking, however.

Therefore, an initial survey concerning latchkey children in public libraries and follow-up interviews of librarians were undertaken. This article describes the recommendations made in those follow-up interviews. The purpose of both the survey and interviews was to assist public librarians by clarifying their role in serving latchkey children and by developing recommendations for more effective service

Methodology and Findings of the Survey

A preliminary three-part questionnaire consisting of multiple choice and open-ended questions was constructed. The questionnaire addressed the following aspects of service to latchkey children: the description, magnitude of and explanation for their existence in the library; the content and extent of written or unwritten library policy and procedures; and the types of programs and services that respondent libraries provide and/or believe should be provided. After the questionnaire was pretested for appropriate wording and content validity, it was reworded to incorporate recommendations of the majority and mailed to a random sample -- 125 of the 425 public library systems listed in the Coordinators of Children's and Young Adult Services in Public Library Systems Serving at Least 100,000 People directory.10 This sample included randomly selected public libraries in forty-two states and the District of Columbia (eight states did not have children's or young adult coordinator positions listed).

Ninety-one usable questionnaires were returned, approximately one-third responding for one facility and the remainder for between two and eighty-six facilities. The high response rate (73 percent) is due to follow-up with nonrespondents via mail and telephone. Consequently, questionnaires were returned from each of the forty-three geographic areas identified. Responses were analyzed, converted into frequencies and percentages, and reported with the findings, conclusions, and recommendations in professional literature in the field of library and information studies as well as sociology/education.11,12,13,14

Findings revealed that in three-fourths of the libraries, an average estimated number of twenty-one children ten to twelve years of age were unattended three to five days per week between 3 and 6 p.m. Although both younger and older children were identified by respondents as latchkey clientele, participants indicated that ten, eleven and twelve-year-olds were most often utilizing the library in lieu of child care. While many librarians perceived that unattended children provide libraries with an opportunity to develop new methods of effectively serving children, the majority also reported adverse situations, such as inappropriate behaviors, patron complaints, delays in closing the library due to unattended children, and lack of seating.

Less than one-third of the responding libraries currently have written policies and procedures expressly pertaining to latchkey children. One-fifth felt that their library needs to develop these written documents. The majority of public libraries surveyed wrote their policies or procedures after experiencing a problem rather than proactively. Most have followed their policies and procedures regarding unattended youth at least once and find them adequate.

Traditional informational services and programs for latchkey children were more frequently recommended than provided by the responding libraries. Specific examples included tutoring sessions conducted by library volunteers to assist latchkey children in homework and reading assignments, a "warmline" telephone service, and self-help survival skills workshops presented by representatives from community agencies. The service having the largest disparity between recommendations and provisions was that of an on-line computerized resource file listing activities for latchkey children and their families. Although fifty-three percent felt that this service should be available at the library, only seven percent currently have it available. In contrast, more participants provide nontraditional library services than recommend their provision. Two examples are providing security guards/monitors to supervise latchkey children and providing after-school child care services.

Half of the respondents felt that they are successfully serving latchkey children. An equal number indicated that their role is to provide normal effective service for these children just as is given for any other user group. But one-third stated that their main challenge is to accomplish this without disrupting or diminishing services to other patrons. Many librarians expressed their main challenge and their role in negative terms, stating that librarians are not behavior monitors or child caretakers. A large number also conveyed their uncertainties and need for direction in serving this group. Respondents specifically raised concerns about children's safety, the library's legal responsibility toward unattended children, and the negative image of the library that may be conveyed to patrons

Methodology/Procedures of the Interviews

Ten librarians identified from the questionnaire responses as having valuable and positive insights for service to latchkey children were interviewed via telephone or in person. The librarians selected for interviews met two general criteria. The respondents provided a great deal of information about their various actual or proposed services to latchkey children in the narrative section of the questionnaire and they conveyed a definite willing and enthusiastic attitude regarding service to this clientele. The purposes of the interviews were to obtain in-depth, constructive recommendations from practicing librarians working with latchkey children and to highlight successful endeavors in various geographic areas that could assist public libraries in serving this clientele more effectively. Prior to the interview, participants received a schedule containing the four questions to be addressed. Librarians participating in the interviews represented the following institutions: Boston Public Library; Brooklyn Public Library; East Central Georgia Regional Library; Enoch Pratt Free Library (Baltimore, Maryland); Harford County Library (Maryland); Hennepin County Library (Minnesota); Huntsville-Madison County Public Library (Alabama); Los Angeles Public Library; Pierce County Library (Washington); and Weber County Library (Utah)

Ideal Library Responses to Latchkey Children

The initial question in the interview was:

Ideally, with adequate funding and staff, how could/should public libraries most effectively and appropriately respond presently or in the future years to the needs of unattended/latchkey children who use public libraries as a substitute for child care -- in terms of: services/programs? personnel? physical facilities? materials? policy/procedures?

Interviewees offered a variety of noteworthy recommendations in terms of programs/services. For example, Gretchen Wronka, coordinator of Children's Services at Hennepin County Library (Minnesota), advocated that "libraries adopt a mail-a-book program specifically for latchkey children in which books would be mailed to children at home alone or having no means of transportation to the library, just as is done for physically handicapped patrons." A program that has been very popular with school-age children at the Pierce County Library in Tacoma, Washington, is the "Cinema Sandwich." Kathy Crosby, coordinator of Children's Services, explained that this one-hour event is offered in the afternoon hours on weekdays during Spring break, and that students bring a sack lunch and eat while watching the films.

Three librarians discussed literature-based programs for children in the afternoon. Crosby suggested informal book discussion groups. She noted that because unattended children are a "captive audience," some programs that might not otherwise achieve success actually prove to be effective. This is because latchkey children often need activities to occupy the great deal of time they spend in the library each week. Selma Levi, head of the Children's Department at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, recommended starting an after-school book club for all children. Use a "fun name" and mascot and ask members to create wall murals or string figure to depict books read. Brooklyn Public Library, according to Ellen Loughran, assistant coordinator of Collection Department, sponsors library treasure hunts to teach reference skills, impromptu read-aloud and pop-up book-sharing times, film showings, art and drawing activities, and game and toy periods form 3 to 5 p.m. at several branches.

Homework or reading assistance for children via volunteers was a service recommended in four of the interviews. Christine Schnick, manager of the Wallace Branch Homework Center of the East Central Georgia Regional Library, described a strategy that she has found to be successful. Children receive tutoring in math and reading, as well as homework assistance, since nonreaders often find libraries frustrating. Working parents express their appreciation for this, as it affords them more time in the evenings and the assurance that their children have completed their school assignments. Although applicants for tutoring at the Wallace Branch outnumber tutors three to one, many of those who do obtain homework assistance have improved their standardized test scores at school. Levi suggested identifying latchkey pairs and matching younger children with older ones who will read to them or help them with craft activities.

The potential for most effective use of volunteers in programming may be at the Weber County Library in Ogden, Utah, which recently received an intergenerational grant through the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, funded by the volunteer arm of the federal government, ACTION. Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) volunteers perform a variety of tasks, including tutoring children in homework, identifying community personnel who will present special programs, and publishing a monthly almanac of community activities for children after school. The library provides matching funds, in kind, such as the materials, space, and publicity.

Frequently interviewees noted involvement with other community agencies in programming. Schnick related her positive experiences with events that the library cosponsored with the Police Department, Fire Department, and medical professionals. These personnel presented sessions on nutrition, sexual abuse, sex education, and teenage pregnancy. Crosby suggested involving Friends groups, contacting persons in the community to present special programs, and brainstorming with other local agencies to gather ideas. Rocky Weaver, head, General Library, Children's Services, Boston Public Library, remarked that librarians should cooperate with day-care agencies by scheduling caregivers to bring groups of children to the library for booktalks, story hours, film showings, browsing, or quiet reading experiences. Sally Barnett, head of Youth Services, Huntsville-Madison County Public Library (Alabama), utilizes teenage volunteers in an LSCA grant that involves cooperation with schools. She takes deposit collections and conducts programs at sites where school-aged youth are supervised in the after-school hours.

In terms of materials, two persons interviewed felt that, ideally, libraries should have arts and crafts materials available for children to use independently or with others after school. Construction paper, crayons, workbooks and coloring books were among the materials mentioned. Blythe Ogilvie, head of Children's Services, Weber County Library (Utah), explained that the RSVP volunteers in the grant project identify sources for donations of materials and create workbooks and self-programmed learning packets to help children learn math and reading independently. Another librarian interviewed felt that libraries should develop in-house collections of games and toys, while another advocated maintaining a well-stocked paperback collection. Brooklyn Public Library staff hold books at the circulation desk until the following day for children who may not be allowed to check out materials or may not have a library card. This encourages children to finish reading a longer book while they are at the library for several consecutive afternoons.

Concerning the ideal physical facility for unattended children, a separate area of the library was recommended by Levi and Schnick so that children involved in after-school activities would be comfortable and other patrons would not be disturbed. However, Ogilvie specified that she felt that the library facility should serve latchkey children solely in a coordinating capacity, rather that function as a main site for their activities.

In regard to policy/procedures for service to latchkey children, interviewees emphasized that policy needs to be clearly defined, that negative policy should be rejected, and that consistency in procedures is a key to success. Ogilvie remarked that librarians should "check their library's mission statement for fundamental guidance when developing policy." For instance, Weber County Library's mission statement specifies that the library will serve, in particular, "segments of the community whose information needs are of greatest concern because the needs of these special groups are not the primary responsibility of other institutions." Specific groups that the Weber County Library mission statement lists in this category are preschool children, adults, the handicapped and minorities. Although latchkey children are not specifically identified as one of these groups, the mission statement does offer guidance. The Weber County Library mission statement implies that latchkey children should be among those deserving special library attention, in that they comprise a particular segment of the population that is not the designated primary responsibility of other community institutions, such as the public schools.

Schnick advises librarians to create a homework council composed of parents, community members, board of education personnel, teachers, representatives from the library board, and several high school students. The homework council at the Wallace Branch Library Homework Center "functions as a steering committee by helping the library plan goals, policy, programs and changes." The council, which meets quarterly, serves as a means for the library to stay in touch with the community. Levi advised librarians to make certain "their legal responsibility is clearly defined in their library policy" and that "legal counsel is obtained" prior to defining policy.

Other than urging utilization of volunteers, participants made few recommendations regarding the personnel who serve latchkey children. Several interviewees discussed the background and training of librarians working with children who use the library regularly after school in lieu of child care. Frances Sedney, coordinator of Children's Services for Harford County Library (Maryland), recommended that "all librarians receive training (workshops, films, lectures) in age appropriate behaviors and on dealing with children." Ogilvie made a similar recommendation. Crosby advocated that the profession educate library staff regarding services to latchkey children. She suggested that "either state library associations or ALA present a workshop on latchkey children at which participants from around the country could share their problems, procedures, and successes."

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Advice Regarding Service to Latchkey Children

The second question addressed in the interviews was:

In addition to the above, what words of advice would you offer to public libraries having large numbers of children using the library as a substitute for child care?

Advice focused primarily upon the following areas: cooperation between the library and local child-care personnel, community support, proactive approaches, and public awareness of the dangers of leaving children unattended. Crosby and Wronka remarked that librarians need to become actively involved with child-care personnel by serving on local government or community task forces or coalitions for child care. Barnett suggested that librarians help child-care providers by informing them of resources appropriate for these children. Crosby and Schnick stressed obtaining community support and parental backing regarding service to this clientele. Crosby also advised calling a public meeting to determine how the community could improve the latchkey situation and to ask parents what they would prefer their children do in the after-school hours.

Half of those interviewed stressed the importance of establishing a positive attitude toward latchkey children. Sedney stated that they should be fully recognized as patrons and "have full rights to library service as such - why they are in the library is not our concern." Similarly, Levi emphasized that "there should be no double standards and that all children's services should be equally available to all children -- attended and nonattended." Crosby advised that children "should be treated as other patrons" and made to feel welcome by friendly staff. Virginia Walter, children's services coordinator at Los Angeles Public Library, hoped that the "category of latchkey children would disappear" and that libraries would adopt a more positive attitude toward latchkey children, not "single them out" or treat them "as a stigma."

Sandra Collins, former children's services librarian for Weber County Library, pointed out that, in reality, "sometimes serving unattended children is easier than serving children who come to the library accompanied by parents," since in assisting the former there is "no inference in requests for materials/information" or in regard to discipline. Schnick recommended that librarians "take a proactive approach to unattended children by involving the community, obtaining its support prior to problems, and developing a plan, rather than waiting until problems actually occur to take action."

Ogilvie stressed the necessity of publicizing the fact that "it's not okay" to leave children unattended in the library. She related two specific incidents that had occurred in her library due to children being left unsupervised. One involved a stranger who approached an unattended child and the other involved a staff member who tried to correct an unsupervised child. Documenting instances of disruptive behavior, keeping accurate informal records of numbers of children unattended, and "enlisting the support of staff, administration and the library board in the solution of the problem" were among Ogilvie's suggestions

Other Community Services for Latchkey Children

The third question interviewees were asked to address was:

What community programs/services (other than any specifically sponsored by the public library) are available for this clientele and/or their parents in your geographic area?

Responses to this query revealed that half of the librarians interviewed work directly with community agencies which serve latchkey children. For example, Barnett represents her library on the local latchkey coalition, a United Way Agency providing a supportive network for children home alone and offering a PhoneFriend program. Levi serves on the advisory board of KidsLine. Sponsored by the city of Baltimore and affiliated with the Mayor's Office, KidsLine volunteers answer questions, tell jokes, and read stories to children who telephone. Collins is a member of the advisory board of Oasis, a nondenominational after-school program sponsored by the Lutheran church. Oasis provides homework assistance during the school year and works with the Park and Recreation Department in the summer to take children on field trips to the library. Collins also assisted the League of Women Voters in conducting a study to determine the number and the activities of unattended children in Ogden.

Harford County Library is a member of the state-mandated county task force addressing the problem of inequity in after-school programs in various school districts in that area. Similarly, Hennepin County Library System belongs to a county-wide organization of latchkey providers. Wronka stated that staff present at least four library use workshops a year for child-care providers in conjunction with the county latchkey and day-care licensing department. Additionally, staff have testified concerning bills expanding day-care and latchkey programs. A Hennepin County Library staff member was appointed to the Minnesota Council on Children, Youth, and Families, which serves as a vehicle in support of child related legislation.

Besides working directly with community agencies focusing on latchkey children, the librarians interviewed described several other non-library sponsored services for this audience available in their particular community. For example, in Hennepin County a Homework Helpline is available. Hired teachers and volunteers answer children's questions using curriculum materials and textbooks. Fourteen of the twenty-five elementary public schools in that area provide after-school programs and three are experimentally offering summer programs. Several other interviewees mentioned that in their locality schools offer extended days or after-school programs. However, Weaver commented that while many after-school programs are available in the Boston area, some parents and children choose not to attend these facilities, and that this choice is not related to the expense. While remarking that "some children prefer unstructured after-school times" and "choose not to be herded together in programs and activities," Weaver emphasized that "the public library is the only place a child can come alone to pursue his/her own interests."

Walter shared the fact that in the Los Angeles area there is an information clearinghouse advocacy agency known as the Crystal Stairs. She also noted that an 800 number is available with a computerized service, entitled the Child Care Connection, sponsored by the Junior League

Desirable Community Services for Latchkey Children

The fourth and final question of the interview was:

What community programs/services (other than those specifically sponsored by the public library) would be desirable for this clientele and/or their parents in your geographic area (assuming your area has a large number of unattended children after school during the week)?

Two persons interviewed, Wronka and Ogilvie, advocated better use of school buildings via extended day programs and summer enrichment. Ogilvie felt that after-school care in these public buildings should be a cooperative effort among volunteers, school staff, child development specialists, and Parks and Recreation Department staff.

Sports programs, such as intermural athletics, were recommended by Crosby and Barnett. Barnett made note of the fact that "the big need is for programs for twelve- to fourteen-year-old-children" since they are too young to drive but too old to be in child care. Walter suggested the creation of a clearinghouse hotline for after-school care in individual communities. Since children frequently use the spending money parents give them on junk foods, Schnick believes that an ideal service would be to provide students with a bag of healthy nutritional snacks when leaving school


Responses from ten interviews indicated that public librarians in geographically diverse locations are meeting the challenge of serving latchkey children by implementing innovative services and activities. Moreover, librarians are responding in a positive and creative manner via volunteers, direct contact with child-care personnel, and cooperative community endeavors. Interview findings also revealed that various local communities provide exemplary services for children home alone after school and that librarians have additional noteworthy recommendations. Children's librarians interviewed offered sound advice concerning programs, materials, policies/procedures, personnel, and the physical facility for youth using libraries in lieu of child care.

Findings from the national survey -- the questionnaires -- suggest that a significant percentage of the ninety-one respondent librarians do not feel that they are successfully and effectively serving this clientele.15 Those data indicate that continued efforts and insightful planning are needed. In the meantime, perhaps it may be helpful to keep in mind the comments of one interviewed librarian: "Try to think positively; at least these children are using the library!"

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  1. U.S. Census Bureau, After-School Care of School-Age Children: December 1984, Series P-23, no. 149 (Washington, D.C.: Govt. Print. Off., 1985).
  2. Thomas Long, "Advice for Parents of Latchkey Children," Paper presented at Nova University, Ed.D. Program on Early and Middle Childhood Summer Institute, Washington, D.C., July 14-20, 1985.
  3. Kenneth Noble, "Library As Day-care: New Curbs and Concerns," New York Times, Feb. 15, 1988, p. 1A+.
  4. Ken Kashiwahara, "ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings: Library Latchkey Children," Los Angeles, Mar. 14, 1988.
  5. Judy Card, "Staff Development at Memphis/Shelby County Public Library and Information Center," Public Libraries 27:103-5 (Summer 1988).
  6. Christopher Fuqua, "Unattended Children: An Engagement Policy That Works," Wilson Library Bulletin 62:88-90 (June 1988).
  7. Charlene Strickland, "Young Users," Wilson Library Bulletin 62:98-99 (June 1988).
  8. Assn. for Library Services to Children and Public Library Assn., "Latchkey Children" in the Public Library (Chicago: American Library Assn. 1988).
  9. Diana Young, "Services to Children and Young Adults," Public Libraries 27:196-98 (Dec. 1988).
  10. Assn. for Library Services to Children, Coordinators of Children's and Young Adult Services in Public Library Systems Serving at Least 100,000 People (Chicago: American Library Assn., June 1984).
  11. Frances Dowd, "Latchkey Children in the Library," Children Today 17:5-8 (Nov./Dec. 1988).
  12. Frances Dowd, "Latchkey Children: A Community and Public Library Phenomenon," Public Library Quarterly 10 (Winter 1989).
  13. Beverly Goldberg, "Survey of Large PLs Helps Define Latchkey Challenge," American Libraries 19:836 (Nov. 1988).
  14. Frances Dowd, "Latchkey Children in Public Libraries: A National Survey Research Report," School Library Journal 35 (July 1989).
  15. Ibid.

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Frances Smardo Dowd is Assistant Professor at the School of Library and Information Studies, Texas Woman's University, Denton.