Friday, June 2, 2023

Summer Reading - Going Rogue


This will be the 10th summer reading of my career, but only the second I've been completely responsible for planning and executing, and the first that I really got to do things the way I wanted.

Last summer I pretty much had a free hand with programming, but had to scrap what I had planned for the reading challenge (a bingo card format) and use an online platform instead. I did not like it at all; it was very labor intensive to set up, did not fit my philosophy at all as it had a very competitive feel and was heavily incentivized, and I knew it would not be a good fit for my very small, rural community where internet access is very limited and many people are not tech savvy. But, the previous administration had already locked us into a multi-year contract, so I was directed to give it a try. Though a few people did like it, the staff and most patrons did not, so thankfully my director did not renew it and let me try it my way this year.

As far as the programming, I am doing things pretty much the same as last year, starting with a big kick-off party on the first Saturday of June, then something each week for each age group on a repeating, regular schedule through the end of July (except the week of July 4th). Almost all the kids/family events are in the morning, and teen/tween programs in the afternoon. The one big change is that after I saw how the numbers dropped for July, and were particularly low during the week of July 4th, I decided this year we would not do a full week of regular programming that week, but just have one family storytime and one family activity. That way we have a slight break in the middle, but there is still something for families to do.

But, here is where I'm going rogue - this year we are not following the CSLP (or iRead) theme, or any theme at all, for that matter! Last year's ocean them was fun, easy to decorate for, and so many directions to go in for programming, it was easy to fit all of our programming to. But, as fun as it was, I have to admit, I was getting a little burned out on ocean stuff by the end. Also, haven't been thrilled with the art most years and I don't find the manual that helpful; I can come up with better activities myself. I, my staff, co-workers, and director were all really under-whelmed by this year's theme, "All Together Now". I mean, it's a nice sentiment, but we could not imagine a good way to decorate around it, and any program ideas that we thought or heard of that tied in with it just sounded....well, kinda boring. So, we decided to go rogue and do our own thing!

I've been thinking for a while that I wanted to come up with an alternative to the term "summer reading" since programming has become more of the focus and what patrons are excited about, something more inclusive of everything. I initially came up with "Summer Discovery Program", but ultimately went with a simple "Summer at the Library". For the theme, I wanted something simple, that had a fun energy, and would cover pretty much any program I wanted to do, and allow more variety.

After getting some input and suggestions from other librarians online, I decided on "Read! Explore! Discover!", really more of a slogan than a theme. In hindsight, I wish I had "Create" in there somehow, since this community is big on crafts, but maybe next time. It isn't something that is particularly easy to decorate around, either, but at least it covers any programming.....explore different activities, discover new ideas and information, explore your talents and interests, discover new friends, etc. For decorating, I'm going with some simple summery giant flowers, butterflies, and bugs. I also have smaller butterfly cutouts for the kids to write their names on that we will add. Our basic logo is pictured, but we have others versions that show kids reading or engaging in science, arts, crafts, or reading a book with different elements coming out of the pages.

Now, for the reading challenge! I'm so excited/relieved I *finally* get to try it my way! I just hope our patrons like it and we get better participation than last year. I want summer reading to be about encouraging reading, trying to build lifelong readers and learners. To this end, I emphasize reading should be fun, kids should have free choice and read what they want, encourage families to read together. This is not school, and summer reading should not be a chore, nor should it be competitive (and this is coming from probably one of the most competitive people on the planet!). It is not about who reads the most or the fastest or the longest books. It is not about reading levels, pushing classics or what someone considers "quality literature", and it is not, in my humble opinion, about big incentives and flashy prizes.

This is where I again go rogue. I do not agree with the circus summer reading has become, with the focus on numbers, rather than children. In the push for bigger and bigger numbers, prizes have become bigger, flashier, and more extravagant. However, in my experience, this doesn't really seem lead to more reading, or more people reading, it just leads to more cheating. Those who may be vaguely familiar with basic psychology may argue that positive reinforcement, i.e. rewards/prizes, increases desired behaviors, they are only partially right. If the reward is only very short term and stops, then yes, you might get a short-term benefit, but the desired behavior stops when the rewards stop. It takes a carefully crafted behavior management plan over an extended time to allow the desired behavior to become generalized, and developing intrinsic motivation is required for long-lasting results. There are studies that imply reading incentives not only don't work long-term, they may in fact be counter productive (I do hope to do a more deep dive into that subject with proper citations later, but here is a quick link to an excerpt from a book on the subject of using reward systems to encourage desired behaviors with a few sources related to incentivized reading: 

Instead of big flashy prizes, I really want reading to be its own reward, and for reading and learning to be what kids are excited about. To that end, I designed what I hope to be an easy, fun, non-competitive, no pressure "challenge" loosely based on the Monopoly board game, called "Book-opoly". This is not my original idea; I got it from a neighboring library who got it from another library in our state, who got it from someone else (if anyone knows who originally came up with this, please let me know!). Each square has a reading prompt. It might be a genre, format, subject, or an activity, such as "read by the pool" or "read to someone else". There are also squares for program attendance as well. They can go in any direction, rolling dice to see what they do/read next if they're feeling adventurous, or they can just pick which squares they want to do, coloring them in as they're completed. I also made a separate one for ages 5 and under, changing a few prompts and activities to be more age-appropriate.

(This is along the same lines as the Bingo-card style that many libraries have used for years, but the Monopoly gives you more squares for more choices, and you can pick whatever goal number you want and they don't have to be in a row. Links to blank template are at the end.)

(The board on the left is for ages 6 through adult; the one on the right is specifically for 5 and under.)

Ages birth-18 get to pick out a free prize book just for signing up and picking up their log, then if they turn it in at the end of the summer with at least 10 squares completed, they get to choose another book, and they get entered into a prize drawing. Because people have become accustomed to prize drawings, I was afraid to eliminate them completely, but instead I select very modest prizes with a $25 value. Drawing are done by age group, and each age group has a choice of three drawings they can enter. Some of the choices are Amazon gift cards, a STEM bundle with a science set and a robotics set, a craft kit, an arts/activities kit, a set of chunky wooden puzzles with a wooden sorting toy, movie gift card, and craft store gift card. I felt $25 was enough they feel like they got something, but not so much it overshadows the real gift, which is a love of reading, or enough to motivate lots of people to cheat. Adults can also participate, but will only be entered into a prize drawing (hopefully they will get books next year as well).

I'm really excited about the new reading challenge, and I really hope our patrons are, too! I've already gotten a number of sign-ups, even though officially we don't start until tomorrow. I really hope to see more people truly participating and turning in a completed log at the end. To be completely honest, I'd be happy to really go rogue and ditch any form of logging/tracking reading and just give books away at different locations all summer, but I don't know that I could ever convince the director to give up those stats. But, the system I used to work for has done just that! They give away books at their kick-off, and that's it. The rest is just extra programming for the summer. And this system/community used to be SUPER hard-core about their reading logs, so if they can be convinced, maybe mine can, too, eventually.

I'm looking forward to some of the programs, but I'm also a little concerned about the amount of programming since I'm already worn out just from getting everything ready! I do more programming in the summer than I really think one person should, but I just can't bring myself not to have something for all ages each week, so I compromise by keeping the programs on the more simple side. And I'm taking the day before the 4th off, so I'll have a 4-day weekend right in the middle!

Have you made any significant changes in how your summer program works? How do you balance community needs/wants for programs with preserving your own sanity and not burning out? Good luck to us all, and see you on the other side!

*Here are links if you'd link a blank Book-opoly template to make your own. One is the original Publisher file, so you can make any adjustments you'd like, the other is a png image file to use in any graphics program. These are on my Google drive, and the files are set so that anyone with a link can access. It won't be able to give a preview of the Publisher file, but it will download fine. 

Monday, May 29, 2023

The New Normal


It's been a little over three years since life as we knew it came to a screeching halt with one word: coronavirus. We were caught completely off-guard, as were all levels of government and health care. No one was prepared for a pandemic, no one had policies and procedures in place to deal with such a threat. Most of the country shut down for 2-4 weeks in order to slow the spread so our health care system wouldn't become completely overwhelmed, as had happened in other countries.

Many naively thought it would be over after that, and things would go right back to normal. But of course that's not how pandemics work. Others thought once a vaccine was available, that would be it and things would go back to normal. But of course they didn't, as many people refused to be vaccinated and the virus continued to evolve. Now, three years later the pandemic is considered to be "over", but that doesn't mean the virus is gone; it just means that enough of the population has acquired at least partial immunity, through vaccination or infection, and the virulence of the virus has lessoned to the point that it is no longer a crisis, but has become endemic. So, this means things are back to normal, right? Not exactly.

As I had predicted, things have not gone back to what we considered "normal" before March of 2020. Things are different now. People are different, the economy is different, society is different. I feel like the new normal for my library began at the beginning of the summer last year (2022), when people finally began coming to the library again with the return of summer reading and in-person programs. We had unexpectedly high numbers, as people seemed to be relieved and excited to finally have something to do. Circulation picked up, foot traffic picked up, and program attendance was near an all-time high. It was almost like "normal", but not quite. 

I began to notice some definite differences in behaviors, though at first I wasn't sure if it was pandemic-related, or community-related, as I had changed libraries during the pandemic. But after talking with other youth librarians online, at our regional meeting, and at the state conference, I found that others were seeing similar patterns. These are generalizations and of course don't apply to everyone, but are things I'm seeing more frequently now than pre-pandemic:

  • Kids have even shorter attention spans than before
  • Fine motor skills are less developed, especially scissor skills
  • Kids are more shy, tend to stay with caregiver, and less participatory
  • Less able to follow directions without assistance
  • Storytime attendance is much more sporadic than before
  • Program attendance during school year for ages 5 and up is low,
    families are not in the habit of coming to the library for programs like before.
  • More behavior problems with older kids (middle school age)
  • More kids being raised by grandparents or other relatives due to parental issues with mental health, addiction, or incarceration
  • Caregivers tend to 'hover' more and take over tasks
  • Parents very reluctant to let kids use scissors, even blunt-ended safety scissors
  • Adults also have a harder time following directions
  • Parents much more 'touchy' and likely to be offended if staff need to re-direct child behavior or enforce age limits/rules/boundaries
  • Teens have been hit particularly hard, many suffering from anxiety and depression
  • Parents (adults in general) have a much greater sense of entitlement
  • People are more self-centered and selfish than before
  • More negative interactions with adult patrons, despite attempts to de-escalate 
  • More instances of patrons with mental health or substance abuse episodes
  • More difficult to form successful community partnerships; high turnover, people don't reply or ghost after initial contact, don't follow through, etc.
  • More people openly express bigotry
  • More complaints
  • Very difficult to find qualified applicants to fill vacancies
  • Libraries are critically understaffed
  • Less community support for libraries
  • Libraries under attack re funding and intellectual freedom
  • Staff morale is at an all time low.

The new normal is a much more challenging time to be a librarian. What worked in pre-pandemic days doesn't necessarily work now. The public's habits have changed and their needs have changed. We have a whole generation of preschoolers who spent the first years of their lives in relative isolation, and a generation of young adults who became parents in isolation. We have a whole generation of teens that had their adolescent experience completely derailed. 
I think almost all of us have developed at least some degree of anxiety and depression as a result of everything we went through the last few years. We are starting all over from square one.

I have had to re-evaluate how I do storytime, reading fewer and shorter books, moving away from crafts to activities that are more developmentally appropriate (a good change!), reminding caregivers to focus on the process not the product and let kids do as much themselves as possible. I've had to accept that attendance is going to be sporadic, and the storytime is not as big of a priority to families as it used to be, and that it's not a reflection on me. I've learned I have to be very careful in managing behavior and managing adult expectations as caregivers seem to come in with mistaken assumptions and unrealistic expectations about how programs should be run. And while program attendance during the summer was great for all ages, and storytime has been successful year-round, I'm still struggling with programming for school-age and up during the school year.

I think many of us are still trying to figure out what people want and what kind of programs will be successful. Hopefully some good will come out of it as well, and we can pull back a little, and focus on quality, not quantity. I've heard others say they are shifting their focus from programming to services. Some libraries are still doing some virtual programs and take-home kits. My community did not respond to virtual programs at all, so those were dropped some time ago. While my patrons loved take-home kits (yay, free stuff!), we did not have the staffing or budget to continue them once in-person programming resumed, and I don't feel take-home kits really offered an appropriate level of engagement or serve our mission that well. I know of some who say they elected not to bring all the toys back out on the floor, after seeing caregivers spending more time reading with their kids and helping them choose books without the distractions. I've managed a happy medium of enough activities to encourage people to stay awhile, but not so much to create chaos or distract from the books.

Unfortunately, while we're trying to figure all this out, we are facing many other challenges. Libraries everywhere are under-staffed due to lack of funding, poor management, and/or the labor shortage, which means we are all spread too thin, we can't meet all community needs, and we may have great ideas that we just don't have the time, energy, or manpower to execute, which leads to frustration, stress, fatigue, guilt, and job dissatisfaction. I'm particularly frustrated with the lack of staff, and the inability to hire qualified, competent staff. I would love to be able to do more community outreach, and have so many ideas I'd like to try, but I can't because I don't have the staff to do it, or to delegate other tasks to in order to free up my time. Programming, outreach, and customer service all suffer because of understaffing, not to mention staff morale. 

On top of that, libraries and librarians are under attack, from people who want to take our funding for their own pet projects, politicians looking to score quick points, and far-right extremists who want to censor collections and trample on others' right to read and access to information, some wanting to go as far as to charge librarians as criminals for having books in the collection they don't like. 

To be sure, the new normal is different than the old normal, and is a far more challenging time to be a librarian. What does your new normal look like? What changes have you found to be for the better? What challenges are you dealing with?

Saturday, May 13, 2023

A Day In the Life of a Youth Services Manager


Last time I posted about a typical Monday, my planning and prep day; this day was a Tuesday, which is a programming day. Every Tuesday is Toddler Storytime in the morning (except during brief breaks in May, August, and December), and since it was the first Tuesday of the month we also had Pokémon Club in the afternoon. Today, once again my assistant was absent, which meant I had to cover the desk more as well as fill in for the Pokémon Club, which she usually does. So here's everything I did today, that I can remember:

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Derby Day - Family Storytime

Kentucky Derby storytime, horse storytime

This was the last week of storytimes for the Spring, after which I would be taking a much needed break from programming for the rest of May. This is mostly to have more time to get ready for summer reading, but also because though I love doing storytime and other programs, I do get burned out on the planning of them and just need a break every so often. 

Thursday, April 27, 2023

A Day In the Life of a Youth Services Manager


I've been meaning to start doing this every since I got my first full-time, professional position, but for some reason kept forgetting. I thought it would be helpful for a few reasons: (1) so those considering a future as a children's librarian can see what they're getting into, (2) so other children's librarians can see they aren't the only ones juggling a million priorities, and (3) to remind myself that even on the days I may not feel I accomplished much, I am really doing a lot.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Peeps Tasting & Torture


Peeps Tasting, Peeps Science

Peeps have invaded the library this month! In addition to our 2nd Annual Peeps Diorama contest, I decided to take advantage of all the crazy new flavors of Peeps and have a "Peeps Tasting" program. This was a quick and easy program with only a little preparation, and while I originally planned it with teens & tweens, I had enough left over for a pop-up family program the next day following the planned family "Peeps Mad Science" program (also described briefly below).

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Fearless Storytime, Redux

Ten Eleven Things You Should Not Be Afraid to Do As a Storytime Presenter

Fearless Storytime, storytime planning


This is an updated and expanded version of an article I first wrote five years ago, and recently gave a presentation on at our state conference. (If you are interested in the slides from my presentation, they can be found on my share drive.)

I decided it was a good time to re-visit this topic post-pandemic because there has been so much turnover in the field, thus a lot of people new to storytime, and because people are different now. Attention spans are shorter, more trouble following directions (both kids and adults!), storytime attendance much more sporadic, and more behavioral issues than pre-Covid days, so even veteran storytime presenters are having to refresh and re-evaluate how they do things.

Don't be afraid to:

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Sometimes It's Just A Hokey-Pokey Day, Redux


Trouble keeping kids engaged in storytime

* I originally wrote this article a little over five years ago, when I was doing an average of 10 preschool storytimes a week and training others in early literacy programming as an early literacy outreach specialist. I have found myself referring back to it after I began rebuilding in-person programming in a post-pandemic reality where none of the kids and few of their caregivers are accustomed to structured group activities, and attention spans have gotten even shorter, so I thought it would be a good time to re-post it.