Story hour, once a public library mainstay, is coming to a mall near you.

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What Women Really Think
Sept. 16 2011 2:39 PM

The Commercialization of Story Hour

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Photo by RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images

Public libraries all over the country have seen their budgets decimated in recent years. Rick Perry’s latest budget for Texas cuts state funding for libraries by 64 percent. In Seattle, the entire public library system shut down for the first week in September to save $3.7 million. For six months starting in December, all 62 branches of the Queens Public Library in New York stopped buying new books.

Many libraries have responded by getting creative – or desperate, depending on how you look at it. One California library system lets borrowers pay a monthly fee to keep books past the standard due-date. Other libraries are slashing their hours, raising overdue-book fines or charging annual fees to non-residents who use their services. A private company that takes over operations for struggling public libraries is now the fifth-largest library system in the country. (In California, the state legislature just sent a bill to the governor that would put severe restrictions on library systems that want to privatize.)

So perhaps the latest commercialization of a traditional library service should come as no surprise: publisher-sponsored story hours at your local mall. Simon & Schuster announced last week that it’s launching monthly story hour programs at 79 malls across the country this fall, intended for children ages 3 to 7. The publisher selected 21 of its books for the first few months, including classics like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and two age-appropriate adaptations of Ian Falconer’s popular — and heavily merchandised — Olivia series. Five books will be raffled off at each story hour, and every kid gets a bookmark to take home.

The publisher is presenting the story hour program through something called the Kidgits Club, which describes itself as “a children's membership program developed to build customer loyalty, especially among the mothers of young children.” Developed by the property group that owns the participating malls, the Kidgits Club has previously partnered with brands like Radio Disney and Hallmark.

Of course, children’s bookselling has always been primarily about, you know, selling books. Public schools have long hosted publisher-sponsored book fairs, and Scholastic has been operating school-based book clubs, in which kids tote home catalogs straight from the classroom, since 1948. Marketers will target kids in any medium they can, and it’s parents' job to help filter, interpret, and teach their children to think critically.

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Still, there’s something a bit dispiriting to find corporate lingo and salesmanship intruding on story hour at a time when old-fashioned library services are in danger. “We’re always looking for innovative ways to expose kids to our books,” a director of marketing at Simon & Schuster told Publisher’s Weekly about the new program, adding that it will “build awareness for our bigger properties and brand our characters.” It’s hard to imagine that kind of language from a librarian.

Ruth Graham is a regular Slate contributor. She lives in New Hampshire.

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