Seeking Early Literacy for All: An Investigation of Children’s Librarians and Parents of Young Children with Disabilities’ Experiences at the Public Library

I am proud to share that I have had a paper published in Library Trends. 

Prendergast, T. (2016). Seeking Early Literacy for All: An Investigation of Children’s Librarians and Parents of Young Children with Disabilities’ Experiences at the Public Library. Library Trends, 65(1), 65-91.



Elusive Inclusion


My Australian colleague and friend Jo Kaeding and I are sharing some insights from our similar dissertation studies at this short presentation at UBC on Monday.

Everyone is welcome!

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What about adults with disabilities in libraries?

I am in the throes of revising my dissertation. I have a publication coming out in a library journal in a few months though, and I will post about that here when it is available to read. The library world is quite small, and I have been approached to offer suggestions on how to “handle” certain disability-themed situations. Sometimes I have good, concrete suggestions, mainly because they are things I have thought about before, or things that I have heard other people have had success with. Even though my scholarly knowledge is focussed on young children, I even get asked about adults with disabilities in libraries sometimes, as was the case today. The person who asked me said that some staff were considering inviting some adults with disabilities to children’s programs because they were developmentally more like children so wouldn’t these programs be the right fit for them?

I am tired of hearing that adults with developmental disabilities described as being “like children”. They aren’t. They may have low literacy levels, they may have low vocabulary and lower abilities to express themselves than other people their age. They might like a lot of things that kids like but so do many non-disabled adults too (hullo, Star Wars, Harry Potter?). That doesn’t mean adults with developmental disabilities should be grouped in with children, or worse, treated like children. They are not children and have every right to be treated like adults because they are adults. Adults with disabilities should have agency in the choices they make, even if they need help making those choices and need support in acting on their choices. It is demeaning to adults with disabilities to be perceived as children and treated like children in adults’ bodies.

Now on to specific scenarios to address in public libraries: Many children’s library programs are designed to be experienced by a group of age peers and that is completely okay. As long as they are inclusive of all the children within that age range who show up, disability or no disability, it is okay. I might be one of the most disability-friendly librarians on the planet, but I would not want an adult with any kind of  disability to come to my book trailer program, not because of their disability and not because I thought they couldn’t learn to make a book trailer, because I would always assume they could. I would not want them to come because it is a program for children and this person just isn’t a child. However, that being said, in order to provide topnotch library service, I would want very much to point this person to an appropriate program for adults and I would want very much to assume that they would be welcomed at that program by that particular program’s leader. If this adult needed to have or bring a support person of course that would be accommodated and if they needed to have things explained visually, or needed a bit of extra time to do the program activities or whatever, that would also be accommodated. That is what inclusion is.

What concerns me about this is that in discussions to do with libraries and adults with developmental disabilities, it often seems to me that offering children’s programs are the only thing being considered. But adults should attend offerings for other adults, not children. So what are adult librarians thinking about here? Have they never encountered an adult with a developmental disability who wants to participate in any of their book clubs or crafting circles or whatever? I am going to venture a guess and say, rarely or probably not. This might be because there is a widespread assumption that adults with developmental disabilities are “child-like” so they couldn’t possibly be interested in adult oriented programs so they often don’t get invited either.

If public libraries offer programs that are open to the general public, things like puppet shows, magicians, concerts and singalongs then by all means, invite adults with disabilities to come, but don’t invite them just because they are adults with disabilities. Invite them because they are people who might enjoy something fun. If you offer programs with specific age ranges in mind, like my example of a book trailer camp for ages 10-12 then no, don’t invite them and gently say no even if they ask. It is a program for children and they are not children. Refer them to something else instead. If there isn’t anything else then we’ve found a gap in service haven’t we?

Library staff members at all levels of service need to be educated in what is called the social model of disability and they need to understand that barriers to participation for an adult with a disability are erected by society, not the person themselves. Keep in mind that we are emerging from an era when people like the adults with disabilities who come into your library today were institutionalized as a matter of course. This practice was generally horrendous and unjust and we should be relieved that it is no longer standard practice. However, the remnants of that era are still with us and many of the practices directed at people with disabilities seem to me to be designed to keep them in their assumed place at the bottom of the social heap. Often they must be recipients of “charity” just to live their lives with dignity and many do not have lives of dignity even with charity. This is appalling. People with disabilities need agency and opportunities not tokenism and charity and they most definitely do not need to be infantilized.

We have long way to go, but I maintain that public libraries are a great place to demonstrate inclusion. However, I also believe that there is a chasm we all need to cross first. In my research, I have been working on early years inclusion in libraries but I sincerely hope other library researchers take up other age groups. Finally, I will state that “special” library programs designed just for people with disabilities are perfectly acceptable and that while they can and do offer a great many things they don’t really do much (or enough) to advance inclusion aims. Finally, it troubles me that libraries are constantly calling themselves inclusive places when their programming and overall practices really aren’t inclusive. As a profession, we need to understand inclusion from a social model of disability standpoint and it is on all of us to figure out what that means in terms of how we go about meeting the needs of adults with disabilities beyond inviting them to a program designed for children.


Children’s Librarians in the Lives of Children with Disabilities: A Bio-ecological Perspective

A few months ago, I presented a poster at ALISE 2016, in Boston, MA.

Here is a summary of my poster’s content, with a link to the PDF version.

Children’s Librarians in the Lives of Children with Disabilities: A Bioecological Perspective
This poster explores the intersections of children’s librarianship and early literacy in the lives of children with disabilities. In what is referred to as his bioecological systems theory, Bronfenbrenner (1986, 2005) conceptualized a child’s development as taking place within nested systems of support. Each setting (i.e. home, preschool, library) is considered a microsystem within which the individual child interacts with objects, symbols and people in ways that advance or hinder that child’s development. Interactions between those people who surround the child constitute the mesosystem influence. To elaborate, the mesosystem may be constituted when an outside influence (such as a teacher or therapist) is exerted on a child within a specific microsystem. An example of this would be a father bringing his toddler to a storytime program and learning how to play a rhyming game with his child from a children’s librarian. The influence that the children’s librarian has had on the father (i.e. teaching him a new way to play and interact with his child in their home microsystem) constitutes the mesosystem.


This poster mainly explores actual examples of the children’s librarian’s mesosystem role and draws on evidence from a series of semi-structured interviews with groups of children’s librarians as well as parents of young children with disabilities. This study’s findings suggest that children’s librarians who are willing and (somewhat) able to offer responsive, inclusive services and parents who want and need such services rarely encounter each other but when they do the benefits of such interactions are obvious especially when viewed through Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems framework. This study suggests that librarians and their expertise in encouraging early literacy development via mesosystem interactions are under-utilized resources in the lives of families whose children have disabilities. Working with families around making accommodations to meet children’s learning needs represents a significant way that children’s librarians become part of children’s mesosystems of support and in this way provide equitable early literacy resources across diverse communities of children.


By considering Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems framework wherein children are afforded frequent and successful interactions with ‘objects, symbols and people’ in public library contexts, this study suggests that more frequent interactions around the early literacy resources of the public library could represent a positive force for individual children’s early literacy development, in much the same way as regular home reading supports early literacy growth. By the same token, fewer, or less successful interactions in the library context could inhibit literacy growth because of lost opportunities to engage with the resources that are freely available at the public library. This study concludes with a rationale for continuing to strengthen the role that children’s librarians play in the lives of all children, particularly those who may remain underserved.

Children’s Librarians in the Lives of Children with Disabilities: A Bioecological Perspective


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1986). Ecology of the family as a context for human development: Research perspectives. Developmental Psychology, 22(6), 723-742.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (2005). Making human beings human: bioecological perspectives on human development. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Photo credit: AdinaVoicu

From Theory to Findings

I have been working on my dissertation theory section and decided to create a Prezi to help me trace my study’s theoretical underpinnings.

Here it is!

From Theory to Findings

Librarian as Early Literacy Coach

I recently presented at the British Columbia Library Conference about the work my library does to meet the needs of adults raising and caring for young children.

We are very proud of our work in this regard and I emphasized the role that librarians can and should play in their communities as early literacy experts and advocates.

You will find our conference handouts here.

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ASL English Bilingual Family Storytime Resources – click here!

This link will take you to another blog that is a compilation of resources that some colleagues and I put together to promote this great program model at a conference we presented at in May. Enjoy!We are all very proud of this collaborative program model!