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The blessing and curse of computers in the kids' library

I was in the basement of the Philadelphia City Institute Monday afternoon—the kids' section of our neighborhood library—when I heard a mother persistently but quietly talking to her young son.

"No, you can't play on the computers," she told him, as he craned his neck toward a workstation where several other children were playing educational games. "You have a computer at home. You have computers at school. You have computers everywhere."

Shhhhhh!
I winced a bit, because I'd just had the same chat with my own 3-year-old son. I'd brought him to the library to find some fresh material for our pre-bed storytime, but he only had eyes for the computers. The same thing happened a week earlier during a visit to the main branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia—in that case his mother physically picked up him, carried him away from the computers and back to the books. And in both instances, I got grumpy: Why can't libraries have a computer-free zone for kids?

There's an element of hypocrisy in this, of course: I do almost all of my newspaper and magazine reading on my iPad these days, as well as a majority of my book reading. To the extent that I'm modeling reading for my son—and I think I do quite a bit—I'm largely modeling electronic reading. Is it any wonder that he is less inclined to explore a room full of paper books?

And there's also an element of "white people problems": We have iPhones, iPads, and computers at home—we're almost never in a place where we can't hop online. But it's a different situation for lots of Philadelphia kids—in some parts of town, it is estimated that only 25 percent of them have access to a computer and the Internet at home. The library thus provides a valuable resource to families, offering access to a tool that everybody else in American life takes for granted. It's easy for me to complain about the ubiquity of computers because in my life—and my son's life—they really are ubiquitous.

Yet...

I would love it if our local libraries could find a way to try to do something different. To provide access to computers to those who need it, while still doing what libraries have always done—provide a zone of quiet where one can escape into a story or study or one's own thoughts. Computers and the Internet are valuable, even necessary, things these days. But so is the quiet. It's tough enough for most of us to find that balance in our lives: The library could do us a valuable service by showing the way.

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