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Alarmed by the growing number of latchkey children thrust upon them, the nation's public librarians are shelving their normally quiet roles and clamoring for better day-care and after-school programs.

"Librarians have to become political animals," says Sue Rosenzweig of the University of North Carolina's Center for Early Adolescence. "We've got to take care of our kids."Their pleas, along with proposed solutions, are being presented in a 50-page policy paper Friday at the Public Library Association's national conference.

"We're really the voice of the children," said Jody Stefansson of San Marino, Calif.

The public library's image as a safe, friendly, educational and cost-free haven has made it hardest hit by the growing number of latchkey children.

Like many children's librarians, Stefansson regularly finds herself serving as policeman, caretaker, referee and nurse. Forty to 60 children as young as first-graders descend upon her every weekday afternoon, many of them instructed to do so by their working parents.

"The parents think their children are really reading, and that's the biggest myth," she said Thursday during the four-day conference, which ends Saturday.

The youngsters keep pouring in, despite Stefansson's successful work with community groups to offer better after-school care. She's even developed a network of baby sitters for working parents.

"I don't want to be a surrogate parent," she said.

Noise is up and graffiti is commonplace at many libraries, say leaders of the 6,000-member Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association.

Skateboards whiz through reference rooms, bicycles clutter the halls, flowers are trampled and parking lots are pickup and drop-off stations.

"It's hard for the library to close when the parents don't get there in time to pick up their kids," said Susan Goldberg, president of the Public Library Association.

"What we're concerned about are those (children) who can't leave, who are not happy being there," agreed Steven Herb of the Dauphin County Library System in Harrisburg, Pa. "We can only go so far in trying to provide a good program, a good attitude, the right helping hand, the smile."

By no means are librarians yearning for quiet, empty space.

"Having lots of kids in a library is something a librarian loves. They encourage it. That's what we're there for," Goldberg said. "We're looking at the issue on the broader basis. Can or should public libraries be day-care centers?"

The group's policy paper, six months in the making, urges librarians to ask community leaders and agencies to develop more after-school programs. It will be presented to the PLA's executive committee in May, then go before the board of directors in July for final approval.

While not confined to libraries, the situation "is symptomatic of a bigger problem" involving child neglect and sometimes even abuse, said Helen Blank, director of child care for the Children's Defense Fund in Washington.

During the early 1970s, some 30 percent of children under age 6 had a mother who worked outside the home, Blank said. Current estimates put that figure at 54 percent, and the number is increasing.

Mary K. Chelton of Rockville, Md., primary author of the PLA's policy paper, worries that latchkey children may grow up to become adults "who never want to see another library."