Encouraging Preservation Awareness in Children

Kids and Books

Preservation AwarenessAll too often, sticky covers and scribbled, torn pages may be prominent features of children’s library collections. These problems can be kept to a minimum through simple instructions and positive reinforcement aimed at the library’s youngest users.

Children’s librarians in both public and school libraries encounter a wide variety of book handling habits-from those of tots with very limited exposure to books, to those of children who have had the opportunity to interact with books since infancy. The goal of the librarian is to gauge the awareness level of each child and devise means of imparting good book handling skills, so that library materials are well cared for and accessible to all who need them.

The librarian can use all contacts with children as an opportunity to demonstrate and foster proper care of materials through a combination of more formal education sessions built into public library story hours or class library time in school libraries as well as through common-sense procedures and practices that may be integrated into general library routines.

Children’s librarians repeatedly attest to the fact that children typically ignore unattractive or overly worn books. Therefore if books can be kept in good condition as long as possible through careful handling, reading will be encouraged. At the same time the library’s budget will benefit, as popular titles need to be replaced less frequently.

Start Early

Preservation education may begin at a very early age, as children are introduced to the picture book collection. Even the youngest children can be reminded to wash their hands before handling books, to keep books away from pets, food and liquids, and to put them in a special place so that they don’t get lost.

Children can be shown how to turn pages, not by lifting with their thumbs from the lower edge of the page near the binding (which is more likely to result in tearing), but by carefully lifting the lower right corner or fore-edge of each page, then using the palm of the hand to help turn the page.

Combine practice in turning pages with practice in other skills that youngsters must master to succeed eventually in the school environment. Story hours in both public and school libraries provide good opportunities to do this. Ask the children to sit in a circle, so that they can be easily observed. Give them books and ask them to “read along” for two or three minutes. As they are reading, take note of their interaction with the books and encourage effective use of the materials on a number of levels. For example, remind the children how to turn pages properly and praise them for doing so; or if a child leafs rapidly through the book and seems not to have given it much attention, ask that s/he look through the book again and try to find a particular picture (e.g., the kitten eating). In this way, appreciation of the content of the book is combined with proper handling instruction and practice in focusing on a task for a given period of time.

Casualties of Use

To build an awareness of some of the misfortunes that can befall library materials, maintain a small collection of damaged books and show the children signs of careless and improper handling-torn, dirty, or scribbled pages, or a dog’s chew marks.

Tell the children (and their parents) not to repair materials themselves, but to report such damage so that it can be repaired properly with special materials. Ensure that this will be done by reacting to reported damage with understanding (“accidents can happen”) and humor (“my goodness, even your dog loves books”), rather than with strong disapproval. At the same time, remind young users to keep their library books in a place where they are protected and can be easily found when it is time to return them.

Library Organization and Preservation

Older children may also be made aware of the fact that library organization is related to the care of and access to materials. When children are about third grade they may be given formal instruction in use of on-line catalogs. Younger children can be introduced to the special arrangement of their library by helping them find all the works of a given author, by seeking authors whose names begin with a particular letter of the alphabet, or by arranging titles in alphabetical order. In this way, young readers become aware that the library is an organized entity, rather than an assortment of books on shelves, and that each item should be in a particular place so that everyone will be able to find it.

To prevent books from being misshelved or badly shelved, ask children to place books that they have used on the tops of the shelving units or on special tables. In school libraries, the librarian might invite students to join a “Library Helpers Club” to assist the librarian or an adult aide in reshelving volumes. Books should be shelved upright (or flat, if very large) and not too tightly packed on the shelves. This will allow volumes to be removed easily without pulling and tearing the spinecaps.

Special Care

Stress that large, heavy books must be given special treatment. Tell children such volumes might hurt their fingers or fall on their toes, and that the books themselves can be damaged if they fall to the floor. Encourage kids to ask for help in transferring big books to a table where the books have proper support and can be easily used. In some school libraries, volumes that are large and heavy, especially if they are expensive to replace, cannot be checked out, but must be used in the library.

Other large-format books, which may not be particularly heavy but are oddly shaped (e.g., fifteen inches square) or have fold-out or pop-up pages, can be allowed to circulate, but the librarian might tie them closed with a length of brightly colored heavy-gauge yarn to help prevent damage should they be dropped, and to remind the young user that this book needs careful treatment.

To minimize exposure to the elements and other potential hazards, encourage children to transport all books in bags or backpacks. Distribute plastic bags during inclement weather; the bags can be printed with the library or school logo and a preservation message about keeping books dry. At the time of checkout, place magazines into paper envelopes to minimize damage to fragile paper covers.

Aids to Good Habits

To help preclude such habits as turning down corners, placing the book face down or using pencils or other damaging bulky items to hold the place, make free bookmarks available at all times. Effort should be made to provide attractive bookmarks, either purchased from commercial sources or created in-house in connection with a special event. For example, when an author or illustrator visits the school, s/he might be asked for an autograph or quick sketch, which can then be reproduced on bookmarks. Themes from special units of study can also be depicted. Libraries can sponsor poster or bookmark contests related to preservation themes. Prominent displays of the results remind all library users to treat library materials gently.

Messages about proper care of library materials are taken more seriously and given greater meaning when children learn to enjoy many different aspects of the book. School librarians and teachers can work together to cultivate appreciation of texts, illustrations, and the settings of books, while relating this to the authors’ biographies and experiences. This may be done through concentrated study of an author of the month or through comparison of many different illustrated versions of often-retold tales such as “The Owl and the Pussycat”. Music classes might echo favorite stories with programs of songs based on Charlotte’s Web, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and episodes from Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Older elementary school students may be encouraged to own books; this might even be combined with a competition for “Newbery” and “Caldecott” awards. Today’s computer literate students can use desktop publishing programs to create books for the classroom or to “publish” the products of their research projects. Some of these “publications” can be bound and added to the library’s circulating collections. In the school setting, appreciation may be further enhanced through papermaking demonstrations. In connection with the study of papermaking, a prominent industry in Wisconsin, students might be allowed to make their own paper.

The general environment of a library also affects care of the collections. If the library is kept neat and clean, this prompts young users to take responsibility for helping to keep it that way. Most children enjoy their library experiences; a general sense of pride in their school or public library and a sense of ownership carry over to good treatment of library materials.


Best results are achieved when the librarian has good rapport with children and a relaxed approach to guiding them in both reading and care of library materials. Book handling is best taught through modeled behavior and through sensible routines established and practiced in the library. Both formal instruction and informal reminders given as necessary help young readers keep preservation issues in mind.