One afternoon last December, Marlene Joyner counted 45 young people hanging around the Lynwood Public Library. They were chasing, chattering and kissing behind the bookcases.
"It was a really bad problem," said Joyner, the children's librarian. "If I told them to go home, they'd say 'nobody's there,' or 'my mom's picking me up.' It was getting so that serious kids couldn't use the library."
Joyner's problem was particularly severe, because Lynwood Public Library is across the street from a junior high school. But she was far from alone, according to most area librarians, who say their experience confirms a county survey last month that showed hundreds of children regularly being left at public libraries while their parents work.
The size of the crowd, the age of the children and the busy season vary from area to area, but children's librarians in Bellflower, Cerritos, Norwalk, Lakewood, Long Beach, Downey, Huntington Park and South Gate agree that they often serve as de facto day care centers for children of working parents.
The problem is not just here in Southern California. This month, at a conference of the American Library Assn. in Chicago, librarians attended a session on latchkey children. A similar session is planned when the California Library Assn. meets in December.
A survey during the week of June 3 to 7 showed that in 175 libraries across Los Angeles County, 825 latchkey children were routinely whiling away their afternoons at public libraries.
By the time that study was done, Lynwood librarian Joyner had her problem under control. She and her staff contacted about 50 parents, telling them that their children either had to settle down or find another way to pass time.
"I said that I am not a day camp and I don't do tutoring. Lots of them were shocked and surprised that their kids were misbehaving," she said.
When she did a recount at the beginning of June, Joyner said, her crowd of "regulars" had dwindled to nine.
Librarians in other Southeast area cities have used other approaches. In Lakewood and Norwalk, they have recruited some of their "regulars" as volunteers.
In Huntington Park and Long Beach, librarians sometimes tell unruly older children to go outside until they are ready to behave.
'Have to Be Careful'
"When it's a young child, we just grit our teeth and take it," said Doris Gyseth, coordinator of children's services for the Long Beach City Library.
Gyseth also approaches parents occasionally. "You have to be really careful, though," she said. "Otherwise, the parent looks at the kid and says, 'You're going to get it when you get home,' and lots of times it's really not the kid's fault. They've been left here for hours."
Five children's service coordinators, representing the Los Angeles County library system, the Los Angeles City system and the Metropolitan system, met earlier this month to search for other solutions. They are considering a standardized policy statement and a brochure for parents which would delineate proper use of the library.
"The main thing we can do is continue to network within our communities to solve the problem," said Penny Markey, children's services coordinator for the Los Angeles County Public Libraries. "We are thinking of dealing with community agencies to build coalitions to provide more child care."
"It is a very difficult problem, and it's going on nationwide," she said. "It cuts across the board in terms of ethnic groups and areas. It's been with us for a long time, but it seems to be getting worse because of changes in our society."
Neighborhood libraries, especially those near schools, seem to be called on most often to fill in for baby sitters, Markey said. The June survey was done before summer vacation started, but Markey estimated that a study at this time of year would show that fewer children are being left at libraries, but for longer periods.
Age information for all 175 libraries which participated in the Los Angeles County survey has not yet been compiled, but a count of 92 county libraries showed that 5% of the children who were left on their own were less than 6 years old; 41% were ages 7 to 9; 33% were 10 to 12, and 21% were over 12, Markey said.
Roger Woelfel, supervising librarian at the Clifton M. Brakensiek Library in Bellflower, said parental response varies when they are contacted about their practice of leaving children at the library.
"Some are kind of embarrassed, like they've been caught at a game they shouldn't be playing," Woelfel said. "Others say that it's our job to entertain them."
Librarians agreed that to some extent it is their responsibility. Most local libraries have recruited scores of children for summer reading programs. Downey City Library has more than 700. At the main branch of Long Beach City Library, 575 children have signed up. At the Leland Weaver Library in South Gate, 270 children have registered.
Libraries also woo children with summer films and crafts. Some even have board games available. Angelo Iacoboni Library in Lakewood has a puppet theater. Across the board, the librarians say they welcome cooperative children.
"In a way, (latchkey children) are a kind of golden opportunity," said Mike McClintock, principal librarian at Huntington Park Regional Library. "We use the time to try to interest the children in reading.
Not Necessarily Safe
"But it's not a positive experience for kids who are put through it day after day," he continued. "Many parents regard the library as a safe place for children to go after school, but really, a public library may not be any safer than any other public place."
Others agree. Lakewood Librarian Verna Dunning happened to notice one day when a pair of 9-year-old boys started to leave the library in the company of a loud, unshaven man wrapped in a dirty tan blanket. "But," she said, "I could have been shelving books."
She stopped the boys, notified their parents and called the Sheriff's Department.
"He (the stranger) told the boys he wanted to show them something," she said. "Maybe he was harmless, but maybe not."
One 10-year-old who regularly goes to Huntington Park Library after school explained that her parents work in Los Angeles garment factories and pick her up after work. She said her family used to have a baby sitter for her and her 6-year-old brother, but it became too costly.
"Now we take care of ourselves at the library," she said.