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Friday, August 31, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Editorial

Home alone — and at the library alone

It was inevitable that America's child-care dilemma would eventually reach the public libraries.

Libraries are icons of our sense of community. They've long been seen as safe havens where adults and children spend hours immersed in books, maps and videos.

Now they want to limit children. It's not that libraries don't want children. They understand well their role as purveyors of learning. And with more families working long hours and struggling to afford day care, libraries have stepped up to do their part. They've created after-school programs, latch-key programs and Saturday read-a-thons. Libraries are staffed after school hours to handle the influx of children. Working with children is part of any librarian's job.

But libraries are not day cares. Some parents try to turn them into just that, leaving children as young as 5 for eight-hour stretches. Working parents and single parents are forced to make difficult choices. For many, the only affordable day care is free day care. Libraries aren't staffed to watch individual kids. And they are far from safe.

Earlier this year, a young boy was sexually assaulted in a Federal Way library, while his father and library employees were in other parts of the building. To deal with unsupervised children, the Seattle Public Library's Board of Trustees is drafting rules to govern children's access to libraries. Ideas range from calling parents to pick up unattended children to calling police.

Library trustees must not go too far. Libraries handle far more children than they used to, and not all arrive accompanied by adults. Most young people make regular treks to the library because it is the only place where they can do their homework, have access to computers and count on an adult willing and able to help with research.

Common sense rather than strict, confining rules should be the guide for libraries. Children found alone at closing hour should be kept company as they wait for parents to pick them up. It is an annoyance, but less so than if a young child were turned out into the streets alone. Workers who stay late should be compensated and parents warned not to let the problem recur.

Libraries aren't alone in their dilemma. Schools and Boys and Girls Clubs have grappled with the problems of working parents. The libraries' woes should call attention to the child-care issue, not lead to more rules.

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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