Madame Storyteller and I were recently in a discussion about continuing education, particularly as it related to youth services. This was part of a larger discussion with coworkers and someone from our system about what is needed and can be provided in terms of local continuing ed. It allowed/caused me to raise a point that I see as a major issue in youth services.

Essentially the professional literature, classes, continuing education, and conference presentations we’re seeing can be boiled down to three categories:

1) Preschool Storytime and Early Literacy
2) Summer Reading Program (See link for Madame Storyteller’s wisdom on this)
3) Teens and Gaming

I’m not trying to devalue any of these. They are all important aspects of what we’re doing, service we’re providing, youth we’re reaching.

But it also means there are huge gaping holes that are going by the wayside. Broad sweeping statement, no? Let me point out some issues I’m seeing–keeping in mind that these are not one-size-fits-all at your public library.

What I’d like to see
addressed by continuing ed, conference sessions, etc.:

1) Our public library “children’s” websites are primarily for adults.

  • Adult librarians are writing for adult parents with the assumption that that’s who will be visiting the website. They will but parents can navigate through something intended for kids. If we used that logic, we wouldn’t decorate our children’s spaces in bright colors, with low shelves and seats, child friendly signage, and puzzles.
  • Kids are incredibly perceptive and recognize something intended for them isn’t really written for them or is written in that condescending cutesy “look at me writing for kids” tone. They’ll see, they’ll leave, and won’t come back.

2) We aren’t programming for emerging readers.

  • I know, they’re all in daycare, preschool, K4–but I have had multiple parents ask me for something to keep those early readers going. When I asked one of the professional lists I’m on if anyone else was doing emerging literacy (as opposed to pre or early) storytimes, I was met with a resounding “not here.” I felt like the little red hen…
  • We make an enormous push for pre-literacy and early literacy and then we drop off at that pinnacle moment when the child is finally starting to read. *headdesk*

3) There is a gap of about ten years between leaving storytime and becoming a teen–hundreds of educational milestones, thousands of great books–and we’re missing out on it.

  • But the elementary students have school media specialists: I hear the cry. I’m not disparaging those working in schools: not the work they do, not the value of their work, not the difficulty of it in this economy and the current test-prep focused educational mindset. I’m disparaging public librarians who are resting on the laurels earned by SMS hard work. And let’s be realistic: increasingly children don’t have a SMS to turn to at school.
  • How much time are those school media specialists still allowed with the kids and what do they have to get through in that time? One of my regular moms is a middle school English teacher and she was telling me about working with her SMS to get the kids to create indexes to meet a state standard. The year I was at a public elementary school with a library we spent perhaps 20 minutes a week there. In junior high and high school I was allowed in the library on special research visits only. The libraries were closed at lunch and before and after school. The only extended period I spent in a school library was during a six week session my senior year that I was excused from a class for an independent study. In that six weeks, I can count on one hand (possibly on one or two fingers) the number of times the librarian did anything other than ignore me.
  • Private schools may or may not have a school media specialist or even a library. They eliminated the one in an “elite” Massachusetts school last year.
  • There are an increasing number of students, I think, being home-schooled or attending an online school.
  • Kids need exposure to books and resources outside of a classroom/school setting. Forcing their only association with reading and information seeking to be school work makes it a non-fun activity immediately.
  • Public librarians have a lot more programming freedom, depending on budget. I know everyone is strapped for cash, but generally public libraries aren’t restricted by curriculum too.

4) Teen librarians are being expected to pick up the slack where youth services are failing in outreach and keeping young readers engaged.

  • There. I said it. I think there is a failure on the part of many working in youth services, presenting at conferences, teaching new librarians, and leading continuing education to focus on actively recruiting, working with, and reaching out to elementary students. Contrastingly there is a strong expectation that teen librarians will “get the teens back in the library.” Rather than giving our teen librarians a solid base to start from, we’re requiring them to try to appeal to tweens and teens mostly ignored since they left preschool storytime.

What I think we need?

1) Children’s library websites written for kids ages 6-12. As much as possible, we should get feedback from those kids as to if the site is helpful and where we can, we should let them be a part of it. We, the adults writing the site, need to remember the different voice and vocabulary we use with kids, certainly not talking down to them but changing the tone from how we might speak to their parents. Let’s convene a panel and talk about what kind of language works best on a truly kid-focused website or a have an afternoon writing workshop on blogging for kids.

2) Even if we’re not seeing the rate of return that we get for the two year old storytime, it’s no reason to slack on helping early readers. If not regular programming, occasional. If not active programming, passive. Would it be that hard to introduce word cards into the room and encourage parents to work with their kids on sight words while they are at the library? Could we gather and figure out how to grow storytimes where the kids talk back in complete sentences?

3) Let’s increase the focus on elementary students at our conferences. Let’s have sessions on helping parents see how important continued library visits are as their children become increasingly overscheduled. Let us convene panels on the best non-fiction series that are coming out or where to find foreign language materials. Who will lead the forums on how best to explode things in your library without your maintenance crew or director having a coronary (**ahem** Madame Storyteller and Our Lady of Programming, I’m looking at you /**ahem**)? Rather than talk about summer reading, let’s have sessions on year round reading; how to overcome the September-back-to-school slump; best books for homeschoolers; and how to pair with your school media specialist and elementary school teachers rather than to be independent of him/her.*

4) Our professional magazine covers can be devoted to something other than teens and gaming in libraries. Really.

5) You already know I think age parameters are not evil. And I know this isn’t always an option. I worked at CPL and had to deal with the 9 year old who had to babysit her 6 year old twin cousins and 3 year old brother; I did “storytime” for 75 children between the ages of 1 and 7 and all of the older siblings who tagged along. But let’s find, create, and share programs that we can’t scale down or force to become “family” programs where the elementary students are relegated to helping the toddlers. Something other than book groups.

6) Adult Services needs to step up too. Families as a whole need to see the value in libraries. If the parents don’t see reason/need/value, it’s hard to get them to come or to bring their children. They need to see how libraries can help them grow too. But that could be a whole different blog post.

Doing it Right

I was recently pleased to see that ALSC seems somewhat aware of this issue. I got their winter online courses and the majority are focused on elementary age children. So I’m not the only one thinking this. And there are many librarians who are stepping up, reaching out, and scoffing at my list. Are you presenting, teaching, and writing?

Wow…you made it this far. Okay. So prove me wrong, would you? Email me your fabulous children’s websites, your amazing articles, and your programming lists that show tons of focus on elementary students and emerging readers. I know Abby has some strong kids reading groups–who else is out there? Let me shine the spotlight (okay, fine, the flashlight) on what you’re doing so others see.

And kill the summer library program panels.

*Alright, pipe dream. But hey–wouldn’t it be nice if we could get to those elementary teachers BEFORE they assign everyone to read the same two books?