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Unattended Children – No Easy Answers

by on March 12, 2013

The Jacksonsville (Florida) Public Library as well as Mesa Public Library in Los Alamos, New Mexico,  require children younger than age eight to have an adult caretaker in the immediate vicinity 1. The American Library Association publishes an entire resource guide about developing a policy regarding unattended children at the library and any librarian working in youth services knows that  there are no easy answers regarding the issue.

And there are plenty of questions:

How much responsibility does the library have for the safety of these unattended children?  What standards of behavior will all children in the library be expected to follow?

How will the library determine which children are “unattended” children?  If a child is with an older sibling does that mean that the child is unattended?  What about the child who is with an older cousin?  How will the library determine whether or not the child is actually related to the older child?  Does the library really want to start asking children questions like these?  At what point do we begin to sound like we are asking for “papers”?  For librarians, who pride themselves on protecting intellectual freedoms, the whole procedure starts to be problematic.

The question we face is how to provide safety without prying into a child’s privacy.  The idea that a child might be in danger because the child is unattended is worrisome, but it may also be true that the child is safer when not in his or her home.  In fact, asking the child to leave the library may subject the child to more danger or to parental abuse.  The library may be the safest place for that particular child at that time of day.  As long as he or she is not posing a danger to other children, perhaps it would be best for the community as a whole to keep the child at the library.  We have no way of determining what situation any child lives in even if we can guess the child’s socio-economic level.  In fact, we never want to pick and choose which children we ask questions about based on race or economic disadvantage.

Another important aspect of all these questions is that once a library has determined what its policy will be, the director needs to be sure that the reality reflects the policy.  Casual employees and volunteers must know what the policy is and never cross the lines the library has drawn.  The youth services department must review the policy from time to time and be sure that everyone in the department is walking the walk and not just talking the talk.  As librarians we have to be sure we are acting on our ethical standards, not just paying lip service to them.  I’d love to hear how your libraries are working with unattended children – leave your comments below.


  1. “LibraryLaw Blog.” ‘LibraryLaw Blog’ N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2013. http://blog.librarylaw.com/librarylaw/2007/01/unattended_chil.html