Sunday, April 21, 2024

Engaging Those Increasingly Unavailable Tweens - A New Approach


kid librarian, kidbrarian

In the post-pandemic days, I have found that getting school-aged kids to attend library programs is much more challenging that it used to be. Initially, the first six months that we were back to normal in-person programming, numbers were great, but quickly dwindled as everything else got back to normal and there were so many things competing for families' time and attention: school activities, sports, dance, theatre, school clubs, girls scouts, boy scouts, band... Unfortunately, going to library programs is just not very high on their priority list, and trying to get to the library at a certain day and time with any regularity is too difficult.

After spending time and materials on several poorly-attended programs, I decided this just wasn't working and I needed to do something different. I had found that I DID get decent attendance during fall and spring breaks, and other random days off school, so I decided to just focus my traditional programming efforts for the older kids to these times. I found in talking to others online and at conferences and trainings that many others were seeing the same trends and also choosing to focus on school breaks.

But I still kept thinking I needed to do something else; I just wasn't sure what that something else was. Then I saw a conference presentation about a job-shadowing program for teens, and that got the wheels in my head turning... Later, I saw a post in a programming group online about having kids come in to be a "librarian for a day" and remembered how excited the littles got when I took them trick-or-treating through the staff areas at where the public isn't normally allowed. 
I figured since the little kids thought it was so cool to get access to the "inner sanctum" and see the parts of the library no one else gets to see, the older kids would, too. I had a "light bulb" moment and it all came together and I KNEW this was the "something else" I needed to do! 

While I'm not the first to come up with the idea, I have made it my own. I coined the term "Kidbrarian" and asked our graphics person to design a logo for the program. Then I thought about what my goals for the program were, what ages it was for, what the kids who participated would actually do, and what they would gain from the experience. I decided on ages 8-12, figuring 8 would be that youngest that could fully participate and for whom it would be a meaningful experience, and that a true job-shadowing program would be better for the teens (which I planned to try in the fall if this was a success). My primary goals are:

  1. To engage an age group that is becoming increasingly difficult to reach with traditional programming. 
  2. To provide a meaningful experience with flexible scheduling and no long-term commitment.
  3. To allow me to have a more meaningful interaction one-on-one to better cultivate a relationship with them and their families.
  4. To educate people about all the different jobs in the library, so they get a sense of all the work that goes on behind the scenes to get books on the shelf and keep the library running.
  5. Ultimately, to contribute to getting them more invested in the library, so they grow up to be taxpayers and voters who value and support the library.
The next step was to decide what the Kidbrarians would do as part of their experience. I knew I wanted to start with a tour of the library, including behind the scenes, meeting staff and learning briefly about their jobs. They also get an official name badge, just like ours. And I knew I wanted to have them put together a book display, to give them some ownership of the library and its mission, experience talking about books and sharing them. I then take a picture of them with their display to post on our social media. I also came up with a list of additional activities that they could possibly do, depending on time, interest, and ability:
  • design a bookmark
  • help design the scavenger hunt for the next week
  • write a book review -or-
  • record a video book review
  • help prepare materials for a program
  • help during a program
  • suggest ideas for future programs
  • sort a cart of books to be shelved
  • shelve books
My hope is that the kids have an enjoyable, meaningful experience that gives them a sense of pride, accomplishment, and ownership, and will gain confidence in interacting with library staff and talking about books and reading in general, and hopefully grow up to be library supporters and advocates. I decided to schedule them every 2 week; monthly wouldn't allow enough opportunities in a timely manner, but weekly would have just been too much time out of my schedule. Plus doing every other week allows time for their display to stay up a week, and still allow us to do other displays in between.

I had no idea how much time this would take, or how much they would each want to do, so I kept it very flexible. I don't have set days or times, we schedule it for mutually convenient days and times, and it varies depending on their other activities, whether they are homeschooled or in public school, whether they take the bus home, and how far away they live. I initially set loose expectations, that they could do 1 or 2 days, for 1-2 hours each, figuring it would evolve as I saw how things went. I have found that it generally takes a full 2 hours to do the tour, put together a display, and have them help design the sign. Most are content with that, but I have had one so far ask to come for a second day to do some of the other activities (designing the scavenger hunt and a bookmark).

I did a soft roll-out, by putting signs and application forms out at each desk starting on "Take Your Child to the Library Day" in February. It was just coincidental timing, but seemed like a logical day to start. The only "promotion" of the Kidbrarian program was to mention picking up a Kidbrarian application in the post for TYCTTL Day, along with other things they could do that day. I received a few applications that day, and they've continued to trickle in. I do not do interviews or any kind of selection process, but just take them in the order that they applied. I hosted my first Kidbrarian the last week of February, and will be hosting the sixth this week, with 4 more scheduled over the next two months, and 5 pending. 

And how is it going, you ask? It's been great! I've enjoyed it, the kids have enjoyed it, the parents have enjoyed it, and it's gotten great response from the our community as well as from our state library! I've already been asked to present on it at a conference this fall, and several other libraries in the area have expressed interest or copied it, including one I used to work for. I've had kids of all ages in the range (8-12) participate, more girls than boys, but more boys that I'd really expected. Some have been quiet and shy, others much more outgoing; some know exactly what they want to put on their display and how they want them arranged, others need a lot more help. 

I swear if one girl had been over sixteen instead of just 9, I would've hired her on the spot! She was cleaning up toys, directing patrons, helping kids with the scavenger hunt... Not surprisingly, she was the one who came back a second day to do more. Then when she went home and told her older brother about it, he decided to sign up, too! They all really seem to enjoy it, sometimes more than I even realize. A teacher of one of the first Kidbrarians who was super shy told me they were so excited about it, and talking about it at school all day. The one who really got to me though, was the boy who was VERY particular about what he put on his display and how, and then asked me to keep stats for him and let him know the next time he came in how many books off his display checked out 💗. His was pretty successful, with 3 books being checked out before we could even get the sign finished, sending him back to the shelves to get more!

If we were a larger library with more children's staff, I'd really try to do one a week as I've had to pause new applications until I get caught up. But it's just me, so I'll have to keep it to every other week. I've been asked how long the program will run, and I don't foresee a reason to end it as long as there is steady interest; only time will tell. Interestingly enough, while I expected many participants to be library regulars, several are not, which means this program is engaging kids and families that don't usually attend other programs and may not come to the library that often, which is exactly who I want to reach!

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