UPPER WEST SIDE — When Peggy Salwen took her post last month as the first full-time children's librarian at the St. Agnes library in five years, the children's section was a mess, she said.
"It was really, really dirty," Salwen said of her first days on the job, a position she'd applied for at the New York Public Library branch because it's just five blocks from her home.
The Amsterdam Avenue library's lax food policy was to blame, she said, with grubby hands getting all over the books, as well as crumbs and trash on the floors.
"It just shouldn’t be that way," she said.
Salwen, 63, had to do a lot of policing at first, but parents and caretakers are getting the hang of the change and noticing the extensive "no food" signage, she said.
But it was more than just the level of cleanliness that Salwen wanted to change. The librarian, who counts 40 years of experience, wanted to alter the feel and purpose of the first-floor children's section at St. Agnes, she said.
"It was very much a little playroom. People were eating their lunches," Salwen said. "It had more of a 'place to hang' vibe."
In the month since she's been there, she's reorganized the children's section so that the play area is cordoned off along the western wall, with reading, browsing and homework taking priority throughout rest of the large, light-soaked room.
"It’s not a playroom. I want kids to do their homework here," she said. "I want it to be so crowded that we have to come up with something else [to use as space]."
Salwen's own passion for books, as well as her vision of the library as a community resource devoted to reading and learning, sparked the changes.
"I feel like the public library is such an incredible resource that it should be used as it is meant to be used — as a library, not as a place to sit around and talk on your phone while the kids play," she said.
That passion also led her to launch new storytime programs.
On the second Saturday of every month, she's started a "Daddy and Me and Mommy Too," story hour focused on bringing dads to the branch.
"I felt that I was only seeing mothers in the library," Salwen said, adding the she recognized that not every family has a father in the picture.
The family session is meant to help preserve the library as a cost-free haven in a commercialized world, she said.
"The library is the one place you can take your child that’s free, there’s no shopping," Salwen said.
She's also tapped into her love of toddlers by creating a baby story hour, with the second session last week drawing 29 babies, she said.
"Reading to babies, talking to them, singing with them — that’s how they learn speech," Salwen explained. "So many people think they’ll learn from the videos, but they don’t."
But she still has a lot of ground to cover in the community, she said, by visiting local elementary schools, nursery schools, PTA meetings and other gatherings.
In the future, Salwen would like to start book clubs for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.
For now, though, she's had her hands full chucking old grubby books and ordering new ones, as well as getting new programs like her "Listen and Leap" storytime session going. Geared toward toddlers, the program involves movemement and books organized around a theme, like frogs or dinosaurs.
Parents have noticed her committment and are starting to see Salwen as a resource, she said.
"I’m the annoying person in the store — 'Can I help you find something?'" she said.