“Children get them for a week and they take them to parties. They have play dates. They have slumber parties with their friends, and basically the doll becomes part of that child’s family for the week,” says Arlington Public Library Director Diane Kresh.
Each doll comes with period clothing and a storybook that places the character in different situations and different eras of American history.
Inside each doll’s carrying case, there is a story card detailing some of the things that happened in Arlington County during the era of the doll’s story.
“So Julie, a doll of the ’70s, will talk about what was happening in Arlington in the ’70s. There was Title IX. There were girls’ sports teams. We were getting going with the environmental movement. We had the first female firefighter in the department join the force in the early ’70s,” Kresh says.
“The cool thing is that we’re actually able to highlight materials that are in the Virginia Room, which is our local history collection — books, maps, photographs, personal histories of people who lived in the community — so it really adds that layer of reality to what would normally just be a doll,” Kresh adds.
In addition to taking the doll home, children can record their adventures with the doll.
“The doll travels with a journal, so the child gets to journal about what the doll was experiencing while the doll was with that family for a week,” Kresh says.
Library leaders picked up on the idea for the American Girl Lending Program after hearing about a library in Brooklyn that began lending a doll. Right now, the Arlington Public Library is the only library system in the region with such a program.
“Parents love it. They love the local history. They love the fact that it’s something that children who might not otherwise be able to have access to the dolls because they’re very expensive, can enjoy something that’s really deeply part of American culture,” Kresh says.
In stores, the dolls sell for more than $100 each.
Children wishing to borrow a doll can put their names on a waiting list at one of the Arlington Public Library branch locations. The dolls have been available for a week and already have a six-month waiting period.
“They’re enormously popular,” Kresh says.
So far, the Arlington Public Library has 16 American Girl dolls. It plans to have 20 very soon. The library also is asking people to donate gently used historical American Girl dolls so it can expand its offerings and keep the waiting list as short as possible.
On Tuesday, the library received a donation of a “Samantha” doll, which will be the first of her kind in its collection. Samantha’s literary life is set in the year 1904. She will be available for loan in a few weeks.
Also on Tuesday, the library learned that a quilting club in Minnesota heard about the library’s American Girl program and is now making quilts for the dolls. The club will donate the quilts as a service project.