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Wednesday, August 29, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Libraries becoming reluctant baby-sitters

Seattle Times staff reporter

At the Columbia branch of the Seattle Public Library yesterday, where tables were filled with patrons reading books and magazines, a small child's shrieks could be heard.

Then a baby cried, and a girl of about 10, apparently baby-sitting, took the infant outside.

Two preteens in jeans with the legs fashionably slashed into strips laughed and giggled, played hide-and-seek and occasionally looked at a magazine.

All of it could just as easily have transpired at any of the library system's 22 branches.

Is it acceptable? Should kids be left unattended in libraries? How old should a child be to go to the library alone?

The library system is trying to answer such questions as it works out a policy on the issue. The topic was on the agenda at a library Board of Trustees last night, but it could be months before rules are adopted.

The possible responses to unattended children range from calling parents to waiting with a child to be picked up to involving the police.

"The library is a great place for kids, a great place to do homework, but maybe not for several hours a day," said Chance Hunt, children's-services coordinator. "We're not set up like a drop-in playground."

At the Columbia branch on Rainier Avenue South, young-adult librarian Sarah Webb recalled a 3-year-old who often came with an older sister and then was left alone, or three little girls from 5 to 8 years old who were being left at the library more than six hours a day.

"Sometimes they get bored," Webb said. "They run out of stuff to do. They get antsy. They're here six hours with nothing to eat."

A formal policy would provide guidance for staffers, who have typically been trained in library science, not child welfare.

"It gives us a tool to work with," said Webb. "We can call the parents and say `Your child's been here too long.' "

The problem has arisen with social changes such as the growth of single-parent families and unaffordable day care.

The risk in a policy on unattended children is that such a policy could go against the very values libraries are supposed to instill: a love of reading and feeling secure in a library.

"We don't want to make (children) feel unwelcome at the library," Webb said.

The issue is widespread, and the American Library Association printed a resource guide in 2000 laying out guidelines.

The Seattle library staff also checked with other family-oriented institutions such as the Woodland Park Zoo, museums and parks departments, as well as libraries ranging from San Diego to Fairfax County, Va.

The analysis showed policies are common, but interpretations vary. Zoos and museums often set a minimum age, 10 or 12, below which children must be with an adult.

Libraries have not often set outright age limits but instead discourage parents from leaving youngsters alone.

The King County Library System, for example, has such a policy, set forth in signs and notices to parents, though it sets no formal age limit.

Enforcement is left to the discretion of librarians.

Information on Seattle's proposed policy is available at the temporary main library at 800 Pike St., or at www.spl.org.

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