American Girl dolls are at home in Manassas, Leesburg libraries

October 7, 2013

Kit, Julie, Molly, Kaya, Josefina, Samantha and Addy rarely have the chance to get together these days.

The American Girl doll collection at Bull Run Regional Library in Prince William County is kept on a shelf behind a counter. But, one day recently, Kit Kittredge sat there alone. The friends had been checked out by some of the library’s youngest patrons, who can now borrow the dolls just like books.

American Girl dolls were launched in 1986 to promote literacy and provide engaging U.S. history lessons. Kit, for example, is “a clever, resourceful girl growing up in 1934 during America’s Great Depression,” the company says on its Web site. Her feisty shelf-mate Molly is growing up amid World War II, while adventurous Kaya learns to survive as part of an 18th-century Native American tribe.

When the story of New York City librarian Thea Taube, who started an American Girl doll-borrowing program, appeared in the New York Times, the reaction among her colleagues was effusively positive. Taube had accomplished something that speaks to the best of what libraries are all about, the Bull Run librarians said.

“Libraries are not just about books but experiences,” said Nancy Schleh, who runs youth programs at the Manassas library.

Each doll comes with a book, which tells the story of the girl’s life during her era in U.S. history. At Bull Run, librarians added a journal and a laminated card that describes what was happening in Prince William during each girl’s historical period.

News of the New York program spread to libraries across the country. Arlington County recently began a program, and Loudoun County will launch one this month.

Taube had noticed an American Girl doll on a shelf at an East Village library, the Times reported. Years ago, she began displaying it on her desk. If she noticed a little girl admiring it, she’d tell her she was welcome to check it out.

“I thought, ‘Well, we loan out books that are that expensive, so why can’t we lend her out, too?’ ” Taube said.

She said she hoped the doll would attract more children to the library and lead them to read the American Girl books.

Librarians in Northern Virginia were struck by the idea. After Arlington started its program, Schleh wanted to bring the dolls to Bull Run, but she didn’t think it would be possible because there wasn’t funding.

She had reason to be skeptical. The dolls cost $110 each. Encouraged by an enthusiastic patron who donated a doll, Schleh and branch administrator Sandra Oliver broached the idea to others.

Two staff members donated dolls. The Potomac Community Library gave a doll that wasn’t being used. And the Friends of the Central and Bull Run Libraries donated two dolls. With that, the program was launched in June.

Librarians said patrons constantly ask why there aren’t more dolls and why they aren’t available at more branches. Officials said they would expand the program if funding became available.

This month, Rust Library in Leesburg will launch its American Girl program. Beth Wiseman, spokeswoman for the Loudoun library system, said that five American Girl dolls will be in circulation by month’s end.

The dolls were bought and donated by the Rust Library Advisory Board and will be available for use within the library only, she said.

“We think it’ll have a great draw,” Wiseman said. “If anything, there’s concern that at Rust we’re starting out with only five dolls. We’re expecting there’s going to be a big demand.”

The dolls are popular elsewhere. At Purcellville Library, they are used as part of an American Girl Journeys Book Club, she said.

Bull Run patrons can check out the dolls for three weeks. It’s a generous visitation, but to give all youngsters a turn, renewals aren’t allowed.

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