Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Looking at children's library services with new eyes - part 1

Like other library systems all over the country, the Los Angeles Public Library has been weathering some tough times, and things may well get worse before they get better - an early retirement incentive plan that is expected to be approved by the City Council this Friday could mean hundreds of retirements in the library department alone. The 3.5 hour per payperiod furlough that goes along with this package will mean a staff that is stretched even thinner. That something has to give is clear, and hopefully it isn't our sanity!

Our library director, Martin Gomez, recently said to staff, "The one thing I'm certain of is that the Los Angeles Public Library of today, will be different tomorrow."

It seems like a good time to take a good look at the services we offer to children. Except for a few grant-funded programs that have requirements about, say, how many Read To Me LA storytimes are offered in each branch, each branch children's librarian works with his or her branch manager to figure out which programs and services to offer children in the community. This means that we have an amazingly eclectic array of programs throughout our 71 (soon to be 72) branches, but it also means that the type, quantity, and even quality of programs can vary from branch to branch. Is it possible to offer some kind of consistency throughout the City while avoiding cookie-cutter programs and encouraging the creativity of children's librarians? Something to ponder.

What I believe for sure is that we as a library system need to figure out what the needs of our community are, which of those needs we will make it a priority to meet, and then what services we will offer to meet those needs. It doesn't work to try to be everything for everybody - if nothing else, we'll go bonkers in the attempt. And continuing to offer programs and services "because we've always offered them" isn't going to cut it in a era of teeny-tiny budgets and staff.

What does it mean for children's services in libraries? Take storytimes. In a branch I worked in for almost 10 years, I offered preschool storytimes every two weeks on Monday evenings all year round. They were very popular - kids and parents loved them and I drew a steady audience of 15 to 25 preschoolers and their families. That was great - we were all happy. But now I look back and wonder if that was the best use of my time. Yes, storytimes are essential for introducing books, stories, songs, and rhymes to kids and their caregivers, for demonstrating to caregivers how the 6 preliteracy skills can be taught and reinforced, and for helping preschoolers practice their sitting still and listening skills. In addition, parents and caregivers can meet each other and share ideas and resources. And all this happened at my storytimes - and my storytime families benefited.

But! What about all those families who DIDN'T come to storytime? Let's face it, most families in my community didn't come to storytime. Most probably didn't even ever come to the library. And many of them probably didn't have many or any books at home and didn't read to their kids or understand that they were their children's first and best teachers. With stories like this one about Latino kids lagging behind other groups by Kindergarten, this isn't something that can be ignored.

So - most children's librarians are keeping their regular patrons very happy with storytimes and other programs, and meanwhile there are huge numbers of families with no connection or possibly even knowledge of the library and its services. But how to let them know about our services? More importantly, how to ensure that the library even has what they need? What DO they need?

The answer to the first question is simple - outreach and partnerships. Although one children's librarian in one branch may not have much time between info desk shifts and programming to go out to all the schools, preschools, daycare centers, clinics, churches, WIC centers, and so on in her community, she can visit some of them. And he can work with other organizations that serve families to help get the word out, as well. LAPL is partnering with First 5 LA, an organization that uses tobacco tax funds to sponsor and fund organizations and agencies that serve kids 5 and under and their families, in a literacy/library card campaign - they are using their vast network to encourage families to visit their local libraries. Those families who sign up for a first-time library card in November will receive a canvas bag filled with informational materials courtesy of First 5 LA. We'll hoping to welcome hundreds or thousands of first-time visitors to our libraries.

The last questions - what do people need from us and how do we fill that need? - are the hardest to ascertain, and they involve some hard decisions. Needs assessment (research, focus groups, surveys, etc) is difficult, sometimes expensive, and time-consuming - and we don't have time or money right now. But we need to be judicious in prioritizing our programs. We don't want to do what we've always done just because it's "traditional," but we don't want to start slashing and burning programs without good cause either.

Watch this space for a continuation of this discussion - and please add your thoughts.


  1. Way back in the day when I was studying public administration, we learned about a concept called rational choice theory. Here's one application that might be relevant to your thinking about this.

    Establish a floor or threshold of services that every branch must implement. Probably a working group of children's librarians should meet to decide what these might be -- the basics that every single branch should provide. This is the cookie cutter part.

    Then -- using the most thorough and thoughtful tools for community analysis that you are able to apply -- develop the additional services for each particular library. One library might discover a need for intensive early literacy programs. ANother might need to focus on after-school homework help. ANother might start a father-son book discussion group or manga club.

    Librarians should explore all possible options for funding and implementing these programs: partnerships, Friends support, grants, etc.

    I totally agree that underlying all of this work should be the principle that the public library is there to serve ALL the children. It's much easier to serve the kids who already love to read or who have no choice but to come to the library after school. SHould we leave the other kids out?

    I could go on and on, but I won't.

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  3. I think that, overall, partnerships are great. My branch has benefited from the LAPL/LACMA partnership that provides free art class for elementary school children. We also have baby and toddler yoga classes as a result of a partnership with a local instructor.

    The point about the storytimes though, is I think that they are hugely beneficial in bringing people into the library, at least in my community. Our morning storytimes consistently bring in big numbers, and many of the audience members were brought by others, or heard about us word of mouth, and so they started coming to the library. Even if the storytime isn't their cup of tea, most leave with library cards and a sense of the resources that are available.

    I began an afternoon storytime as a partnership with a local moms group - they wanted a storytime for later in the day, which was something that other patrons had also asked for, but with the support from the moms group I had a guaranteed audience, and as another benefit my branch can advertise our events in their newsletter for free. These moms are very active in the community, and there was a thought of doing organic baby food classes, as well as other programming, etc.

    Now, with the work furloughs, I am being told to cut back on all programs, in essence, to not make parternships, in order to manage the day to day operations, which are, of course, important.

    It is frustrating because I am trying to put theory into practice, to identify stakeholders and key community members, and work with them to create new and effective programming, and I'm not sure if that can be done with our limited resources. The strategic plan seemed like an attempt at a blanket threshold of services, but that has been, for me, a very frustrating measurement of success.

    For the First 5 partnership, I am curious to see how it plays out. Already at our area meeting some branches said that their clerks would be unwilling to give library cards to families with young children, since many parents use that as a ploy to check out materials when their own cards are delinquent.

    I am curious to see what will happen..... apologies for the long post.

  4. My experience after the bad old days immediately following the passage of Prop 13 is that it is precisely when resources are tight that staff needs to be freed to innovate and to carve out an area of service that they can take pride in. Nothing demoralizes professionals faster than feeling that their hands are tied to prevent them from offering what they know is good service. There needs to be some area in which they can shine.

    Often management thinks that the best strategy will be to cut services so the public will understand how severely the budget has been reduced. This can backfire. People just start to think that the library provides crappy service and withdraw their support. A much better strategy is to form those partnerships with key people and organizations in the community. Make those foul-weather friends, and you will reap the benefits when the weather is fair again. ANd good times will return, I guarantee it.

  5. I am enjoying your engagement of this very timely topic. We here up north are also "doing more with less" (though no furloughs yet...)and I have been struggling with the prioritization of services, and feeling the need to ensure consistency of quality in very diverse branches. Here's to continuing the conversation...