Wednesday, January 15, 1997
Library welcomes kids,
115,000 friends


BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Five rabbits named Peter and four bears named Pooh stand back-to-back.

Ten Treasure Islands are ready for exploring with Long John Silver as your charming cutthroat tour guide.

Seventy members of the Baby-Sitters Club line up across from two helpings of Green Eggs and Ham.

''I am Sam. Sam I am.''

This is the welcoming committee for today's grand opening of the Children's Learning Center in the first floor of the $44.8 million addition to the downtown branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County.

Some 11 monkeys named George - being curious types - planned to attend today's 9:30 a.m. ribbon-cutting festivities. So did 67 members of the Goosebumps series.

But they're all checked out. ''We just can't keep them on the shelves,'' says the learning center's first assistant librarian, Susan Hansel.

The remaining 115,353 books and 4,015 tapes will just have to carry on as best they can in the new ground-floor digs of the children's department.

The place is huge. Covering 9,200 square feet, it's just a bounce pass shy of the size of two basketball courts. That's double the space the library had to display children's books in the downtown branch's old building. To put it in terms local bookworms can appreciate, this one department has more floor space than some branch libraries.

The space is strictly for kids - small, regulation-size ones as well as big, grown-up boys like me.

All kids will like the tree of knowledge, its plywood trunk, branches and leaves planted in one corner. In an opposite corner stands another attraction, a saltwater aquarium with live coral and exotically colored fish.

Display cases, chairs - at desks and 22 computer terminals - and checkout desks are on a kid's-eye level.

The carpeted floor is suitable for plopping down on your stomach and browsing through a book.

The carpet is laid out in a fanciful design. It's supposed to look like a big muddy river flowing through the middle of the room from the tree of knowledge, between two fertile banks and into the second-most important thing besides books in a children's library, the restrooms.

The center is a place to make new friends and meet old ones.

Two new ones are in the Children's Garden. Walled off from the dangers of the adult world, the garden shelters a new bronze sculpture of a little girl sitting on a bench and gleefully reading The Secret Garden to her older sister. In good weather, empty benches will be placed nearby so real-life kids can mimic the work of art.

Susan Hansel is an old friend. She's been the second-in-command librarian at the children's department since 1989.

To her, being a children's librarian is a special calling. Her job is to plant the seeds of curiosity in young minds and nurture a yearning to learn.

The Cincinnati native does this out of love. She loves to read. She loves to tell stories. She loves children. And it shows.

''I can't think of anything more satisfying than to find a book for a child and hear the words, 'Thank you for helping me,'Ç'' Susan Hansel says. Her soft, storyteller's voice sounds like it was made for saying the words, ''Once upon a time.''

''Whenever you help them find a book,'' she adds, ''you take them to another world.''

Saying this, she removes her glasses, rests her elbows on a bookshelf and chuckles. ''That's why all librarians live to be 95. Every time a child thanks us, we get younger.''

Susan Hansel marvels at her new surroundings. Separate rooms for storytelling. Nooks for curling up with a good book. Walls painted in ice-cream parlor colors, strawberry sundae red, nectar soda pink and lime phosphate green.

With all the books in place, just waiting for half-pint readers, the work in the new Children's Learning Center is done and everything is ready to go. Right?

Wrong, she says.

''This is a library for children. There are no endings here. Only beginnings.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.