Friday, October 30, 2009

Looking at children's library services with new eyes - part 3

In part 2, I mentioned the importance of having a mission statement and goals for a library system's children's services program. As an illustration, here is what the Sarasota County Public Library recently came up with as a basis for the programming and services they will offer over the next 5 years. This comes from an email that Carole Fiore posted on the PUBYAC listserv:

Strengthening Sarasota County's Youth through Robust and Vigorous Public Libraries
Strategic Plan for Youth Services 2009-2013

"Plan for the future because that's where you are going to spend the rest of your life."
Mark Twain

The mission of the Youth Services Team of the Sarasota County Library System is to help youth succeed in school and in life by:

. Nurturing young readers and learners;
. Stimulating imagination;
. Satisfying curiosity; and
. Providing comfortable real and virtual places.

Goal 1: Sarasota County school age children and teens will have access to age and developmentally appropriate resources and programs to support their success in school.

Goal 2: Children, tweens, and teens and their parents, teachers, and caregivers know about summer library programs and know the value of these programs.

Goal 3: Families with preschool children, birth to age five, will have access to age and developmentally appropriate literacy resources, programs, services, and environments, and trained staff to service them and the children to support the development of young readers and learners.

Goal 4: Children ages 0 through 5 years will have access to age and developmentally appropriate books at home.

Goal 5: Families with children birth through 5 years of age will understand the importance of early and emergent literacy activities have the resources to read to their children, be encouraged to use the library, and become the best first teacher for their children.

Goal 6: Children served by members of the Sarasota County early care and education community will participate in programs designed to nurture young readers and learners and originated by Sarasota County Library System staff.

Goal 7: Youth in the Sarasota County Library System service area will have access to library materials in various formats that encourage the development of independent learning practices, research proficiency, and the development of literacy skills.

Goal 8: Youth in the Sarasota County Library System service area will have opportunities to participate in library programs that encourage creativity and imagination so that they may develop and express innovative ideas in a dynamic and rapidly changing society.

Goal 9: Youth in the Sarasota County Library System service area will have opportunities to publicly express ideas through the arts so that community members of all ages develop respect for their insights and capabilities.

Goal 10: Children and teens in the Sarasota County Library service area will have information and resources that will instill a love of life-long learning and enrich their recreational experiences.

Goal 11: Children and teens in the Sarasota County area will be offered programs that will instill a love of learning and enrich their recreational experiences.

Goal 12: Children, teens and their parents, teachers, and caregivers will find the children's and YA spaces in all Sarasota County libraries accessible and conducive to reading, study and library-appropriate recreation activities.

Goal 13: Sarasota County children, teens, and their parents, teachers and caregivers will recognize the library as a popular and socially acceptable place to go for school-related assignments and for recreation.

Goal 14: Youth in Sarasota County who use the libraries' children's and teen's web pages will find them relevant, exciting and current.

I don't exactly what programs and services were changed, eliminated, or added as a result of the new strategic plan, but Carole did mention that it was not a painless process! Those goals do seem to cover just about every possible service the library could offer youth, so I'm wondering how Sarasota is using them to prioritize services - perhaps the goals are listed in order of priority?

LAPL also created a strategic plan, covering the years 2007 through 2010. Service to children (or to any other group) wasn't focused on specifically, but here are some of the goals that specifically mention service to children:

Goal 3: Help Students Succeed
Children and teens in Los Angeles will have resources that assist them with
their assignments and help them succeed in school.

Goal 4: Provide Reading Readiness
Infants, toddlers and preschool children in Los Angeles will have access to
collections, programs, and services that will help them develop a lifelong
love of books, reading, and learning.

Goal 6: Offer New and Popular Material Now
Children, teens and adults will have access to materials, programs and
services that stimulate the imagination and provide a variety of leisure
activities and experiences.

For each of these, there is a list of objectives and actions, most of which are services we already provide and a few of which are new. For most goals, the objectives seemed to be to simply increase what we're now doing and whom we're now serving - increase enrollment in summer reading club, increase the number of kids going to programs, increase the number of kids who have library cards, and so on. Certain benchmark goals are also set - a certain number of classrooms should be visited, a certain number of presentations should be made to preschool teachers, and so on.

There's nothing wrong with those goals at all - but measuring our success merely by trying do more, more, more doesn't seem to me to be the way to go. I won't even go into some of the panic children's librarians feel when they wonder if they will "get in trouble" if their statistics don't pick up - or have declined! - by the end of 2010.

I would like to measure our success not just in numbers but in outcomes. Here is how outcome is described in Dresang , Gross, and Holt's Dynamic Youth Services Through Outcomes-based Planning and Evaluation - " the change in attitude, behavior, skill, knowledge, or status that occurs for users after a purposeful action on the part of the library and library staff." To be fair, LAPL's strategic is not devoid of outcomes-based objectives; for instance, objective 4.3 states "By FY09-10, at least 75% of the parents/caregivers who bring preschoolers to the library will say the library plays an important role in helping children to develop a love of
books, reading and learning." I assume this will be captured by a survey, though I haven't heard of any plans for one.

However, I want to know more. Let's take my old pal the Summer Reading Club. I already mentioned in a previous post on the SRC that the California Library Association launched a pilot project this past summer to measure certain outcomes in certain branches of certain library systems. Although I was sent some information on this, it was in draft form, so although I can't quote the document, I can mention that different outcomes were decided on for preschoolers, school-age kids, and teens and they included such simple things as "Children enjoy reading." Information was gathered both before and after the SRC in the form of surveys, interviews, and focus groups. The librarians involved in the project have met and will continue to meet throughout this next year to figure out what worked and what didn't, what needs to be changed, and how to implement the project on a larger scale without driving staff to an early grave.

I don't know the results of this project, but I do have to wonder about one thing. My experience has been that kids who participate in the Summer Reading Club (and here I'm talking about the part where kids read and maybe earn incentives of some sort, rather than the programming part) do it for one or more of the following reasons: they already like to read, their parents make them do it, and/or they want to earn those incentives. For the kids who already liked to read at the beginning of summer (which is probably most of them), the desired outcome of "children enjoy reading" doesn't apply. For the other two categories, it only applies if they disliked reading (or didn't like it much) at the beginning of summer but at the end of summer they like reading. For those kids who now like reading at the end of summer, what brought on the change? And for those who dislike reading at the end of summer despite the summer reading club, what can be done differently next year? I'm not sure that it's very likely that a child who dislikes reading will suddenly learn to like it over the course of one short Summer Reading Club - although perhaps such miraculous conversions do occasionally occur ("The Diary of a Wimpy Kid changed my life!!!") At any rate, I'm not sure we can reasonably expect that outcome.

Things start to get complicated as the questions mount! One of the many things I always wondered about my own Summer Reading Clubs was: how many of the kids were coming to the library for the first time because of SRC and of those kids, how many would continue to come to the library throughout the school year? That's something I might try to measure - although the thought of trying to track those kids is daunting, to say the least. That's the thing about any kind of evaluative project. Not only do the results have to be meaningful, but the process has to be feasible.

I seem to have rambled on quite a bit over these past three posts. You may have noticed I have offered no answers, only many questions and things to think about.

That's my message, I suppose. Don't stop thinking about what we are doing. Keep pondering what we are trying to achieve and how we can best achieve it. By doing this, we'll stay receptive and relevant to the needs and desires of kids and their families.

Heh! Sermon over - but the topic is not. Please feel free to write voluminous comments - and you'll hear from me again.


  1. Loved your 3 part series. Good food for thought. BTW, just think how reduced staff and mandatory work furlough hours are going to effect the stats for the rest of the fiscal year. I've already had to postpone school visits. I can't make any plans since our schedules are only set for the next 2 weeks.

  2. I just got done reading your post and I found it very interesting. It seems though that the libraries which you describe are solely focused on outcomes and statistics that can be analyzed and presented to advocate the course of action being taken. In a book I am reading called Good to Great and The Social Sector by Jim Collins. The book focuses on the processes that transform a good organization into a great and enduring organization. The message that he sends is not to focus on inputs or statistics rather formulate a consistent and intelligent method of assessing your output results and focus on on how to improve toward your goal. I think that the Library should be concerned with their goals rather than statistics. I know that this can be tough how do determine if a certain program is working or not, but statistics do not tell the whole story. If the library sees a 20% increase in teh number of teens that sign up and complete teh SRC does this mean that these teens now view the library as a valuable resource and will continue to utilize it. I don't know. Who knows maybe that individual won't visit the library until the SRC program the following summer. I can definetly see where you are coming from though. Should libraries scramble to do more and more to serve their youth and advocate literacy, education etc? Or should they focus on trying to find innovative ways to reach those youth and stop focusing on statistics that are good PR?

  3. As Martha mentions, the fact that many library systems (including our own) are facing cutbacks in staff and hours is all the more reason to figure out what our service priorities are and how best to meet them. And I agree with you, Josu - but we need to have outcomes measurements not to provide good PR but to improve and focus our services. And of course it can only help our cause if we can show our donors and governing agencies some real and meaningful data about the effects our service is having on our community!