Learning local history through American Girl Dolls

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By Dedra Cordle
Staff Writer

The Southwest Public Libraries is set to launch an American Girl Doll Lending Program this year. The plan is to kick-start the initiative at the Grove City Library in February, followed by the Westland Area Library in September. Each branch will have five dolls from the Historical Characters collection and each doll will come with the first book in their series, a local guide created by area historians and writers, and a journal for patrons to document personal experiences during their week with the doll. Pictured here (from left to right) with Kaya, Kirsten, Addy, Kit and Maryellen at the Grove City Library are Lore Lehr, the youth services librarian, and Dale Buck, the youth services team lead.

One of the most popular programming events held at the Grove City Library is its annual tea party with a number of American Girl dolls serving as special guests.

Hosted near Valentine’s Day, children of all ages sit down with the youth services staff where they chat about their miniature friends while sipping warm beverages and munching on delicious snacks.

“It’s a really great program,” said Lore Lehr, the youth services librarian. “We’ll bring out the library’s American Girl doll collection, introduce them to the children and their dolls, and then we’ll sit and brush their hair and talk and have a great time.”

She said she believes what makes this event so special is the appearance of those American Girl dolls – a coveted toy for many but not quite affordable for all.

“They can get very expensive,” said Lehr.

Depending on the collection, each doll can run upwards of $150, and that is not counting accessories and clothing.

This event, added Lehr, often allows children who have always wanted an American Girl doll to get to be with one, if only for the duration of the tea party.

“They get to have that experience, as limited as it may be,” she said.

That hour-long limitation, however, will be changing in the near future.

Starting next month, the Southwest Public Libraries will launch an American Girl Doll Lending Program at the Grove City Library. It will be followed by a similar program at the Westland Area Library in September.

Under the lending program, children who have library cards will be able to reserve one of five American Girl dolls from its Historical Characters collection for one-week.

“I honestly cannot wait to see how this goes,” said Meredith Wickham, the director of the Southwest Public Libraries. “We’re all a little nervous, all a little excited, but we are so pleased to bring this program here.”

The idea for this program started to percolate in Wickham’s mind several years ago while attending a national conference for libraries. While there, she heard of a library in Mississippi which started an American Girl Doll Lending Program with local modifications.

According to Wickham, the director of the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library asked area historians to contribute to the program by writing a guide on what life looked like locally during the era where the doll lived.

“I thought it was a brilliant idea,” she said. “With this angle, children are not just learning about the doll – they are learning about the history of their own community.”

At the time, Wickham was the director of the First Regional Library in Hernando, Miss. but was not able to implement a similar program there. When she became the director of the SWPL last year, she wanted to make it a future goal. She just didn’t know it would happen so soon.

The library recently received a donation from Library Board Trustee Donna Carter. She said she wanted the branches to do something “fun and different” with her monetary gift.
When Wickham reached out to Carter about the idea, she said Carter was all for it.

“I think we all want to do our part to make educational tools more accessible for the community,” said Wickham.

When speaking with the youth services department and the historical research staff, they determined they didn’t want just any of the dolls; they wanted the Historical Character dolls who could have roamed the community during their respective eras. For the Grove City collection, they will have Kaya, a Native American from the 1760s; Kirsten, a Swedish immigrant from the 1850s; Addy, an escaped slave from the 1860s; Kit, an Ohio girl living during the Depression in the 1920s; and Maryellen, a polio survivor from the 1950s. The doll collection has yet to be determined for the Westland Area Library though they will also have Historical Characters.

When a child reserves a doll, it will come with a limited number of accessories but with a wealth of information. Included with the original introductory book, it will come with a guide depicting what life looked like in this community during the era of the doll.

The five guides were written by three members of the Grove City Writers’ Group – Diane Kinser, Janet Shailer and Leanne Watkins.

Shailer said it isn’t often the group is presented with an opportunity like this.

“This was such a delightful experience for us to be able to do this,” she said.

Each writer created a day-in-the-life setting using a friend of the doll as a point-of-view character. For instance, Shailer wrote an original character named Aponi who is friends with Kaya in the 1760s. They live near the Scioto River and their fellow tribesmen are preparing for an annual Green Corn Festival. Kinser centered her story on the adventures Maryellen and her friend have at a local roller-skating rink – one those who lived in town during the 1950s will fondly remember. And Watkins focused hers on the experience of immigrants during Kirsten’s era in the 1850s.

Shailer said she was not aware of how popular the American Girl dolls were before taking on this project, but she said she hopes the children who reserve these dolls will be just as eager to learn about the local connection. She added she was particularly excited to see how they use the personal journals provided.

“I am so anxious to see how everything is received,” she said.

Wickham reiterated that the library is too.

“When we started putting the pieces together for this program, we wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a doll lending program, that we’re not just helping a child engage with a toy,” Wickham said. “We want to encourage them to read about the doll, read about their history and their experiences, and then learn about our local history and how life was during their respective time periods.

“We want them to imagine themselves in a different life, in a different narrative. We want them to stretch their perception of the world and how they can act within it. We want them to be receptive to the possibilities before them.”

Wickham said the Grove City Library hopes to launch its program on Valentine’s Day. Those who reserve the dolls and bring them home for the week are asked to take good care of their wellbeing. Though they are free to loan, fines could be assessed should they be damaged and have to visit the American Girl Doll Hospital.

Because they will be on loan to the public, the dolls will have to undergo a brief quarantine period after being returned to the library. This collection of American Girl dolls will only be housed at the Grove City Library. They will not be shipped to other locations though any patron of any branch within the Central Library Consortium can reserve a doll and pick it up at the Grove City Library.

Lehr, the tea party aficionado, said she is excited about the possibilities of this program and looks forward to brushing up on her hair styling skills.

“Sometimes it is hard to believe I get paid to sit around and drink tea with dolls while I am at work,” she said. “Now I get to sit around and style their hair when they return to the library while I am at work. I guess that is why I am still a youth services librarian after more than two decades. It has given me a lot of enjoyment.”

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