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What Makes a Great (and Bad) Library Story Time

Jen Sherman

Staff Writer

Jen is an urban and cultural geographer who did a PhD on public libraries and reading. As a researcher, her interests are focused on libraries, reading, book retailing and the book industry more broadly. As a reader, she reads a lot of crime fiction, non-fiction, and chicklit. And board books. All the board books. You can also find her writing about books for children and babies at Instagram: shittyhousewife / babylibrarians Twitter: @jennnigan

Baby story time at the library is great. There are stories, songs, chances for social interaction and, best of all, half an hour where I’m not the one in charge of entertaining my baby. My baby and I have been to a few different story times at a couple of different libraries, and I’ve noticed that each story time follows a slightly different format.

What makes or breaks a great library storytime?   storytime | libraries | library programs | library programs for kids

Baby story time 1: This was held in the community room of the library, a large room with a stage that is used for various events. The story time leader sat on a chair, and the audience sat in a row of chairs facing her, holding our babies on our laps. The leader read a couple of picture books, including one large format book so the illustrations were easy to see. We sang a few songs. The singing and reading took about twenty minutes, and the remainder of the story time hour was devoted to play time. We moved away from the chairs, the leader put out a large blanket and brought out toys for the babies to play with.

This was the first story time that we went to, when my baby was about four months old. She was too young to appreciate the play time at the end because she couldn’t sit up by herself (let alone crawl or play with toys), and I remember thinking that only reading two books seemed a bit short, as we could read four or five books at home in one sitting. In hindsight, I see why there were only two books—now that my baby is older and won’t just sit there being enthralled by my voice, we make it through about half a book before she starts crawling off or trying to eat the book.

This story time is no more—it disappeared from the library’s events calendar for a few months, and the library brought back baby story time recently but with a different leader and different format. Which brings me to…

Baby story time 2: This is is a new baby story time that began about a month ago, at the same branch as baby story time 1. It is no longer held in the community room but in the story well: the back corner of the library where there are wide steps leading down to a ‘well’ where the story time leader sits. The audience sits on the steps around her. This story time consists of about eight or nine songs, and some of the songs are accompanied by a board book (such as ‘Baby Beluga’ and ‘Do Your Ears Hang Low?’). There is one story, ‘Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See?’, but instead of the physical book, there is a storyboard with felt animals. At some point during story time, the leader hands out maracas and shakers to the babies for them to make noise in time to the music. 

There are two issues I have with this story time. First, the lack of story. I understand now that reading five books to a group of babies is unrealistic and never going to happen, but most of the books used in this story time are used as words to songs, and aren’t really noticeable as books given their small size. But I wish there was a bit more reading at story time. The second problem is the lack of play time. The steps make it difficult for babies to safely crawl and move around, and there isn’t a space for a blanket and toys to be set out, but having time at the end of stories just for the babies to move and play and interact with each other was great. The well is a great spot for story time for older children, but I wish for babies it could be moved to a room with just a flat surface without stairs.

Baby story time 3: This is at a different library, and one we’ve only managed to go to once because its time and location isn’t as convenient. But this one is probably my favourite story time so far. It began with a welcome song, and this was followed by a number of different songs. The words to the songs were written on large pieces of butchers’ paper which were displayed at the front so the parents could see and sing along. There weren’t books that were read aloud by the story time leader, like at baby story time 1, and instead there were two periods where the parents/caregivers were given board books to read with the babies. This story time ended with a parachute and some play time.

There are three things I appreciate about this story time. One, having the words to the songs being sung. It makes it easier for everyone to participate and the entire story time experience is more lively and exciting. Two, the quiet reading with your own baby. One of the reasons libraries host baby story time events is not simply to read to babies, but to demonstrate to parents *how* to read to their babies and stress the importance of reading to them. The two reading segments in this story time were great for doing that. Three, the parachute and play time at the end. Like baby story time 1, there was a large, flat area where the babies could play and explore at their own pace.

So, my observations for what makes a great baby story time:

  1. Interestingly, it has nothing to do with which books are read. But having books in some capacity is important, especially if one of the goals of story time is to demonstrate to parents the importance of reading to their babies.
  2. The physical space is important. Stairs make it difficult for babies, because all they want to do is crawl down them, head first.
  3. Play time is great. One of the core missions of public libraries is to foster sociality and a sense of community, and this should apply to their youngest patrons too. Let them play!