Outreach in a Time of Uprising

My first job out of college was working as a preschool teaching assistant in a state funded preschool program. Children in this program were “at-risk”, meaning they were growing up in poverty, or with only one parent, or with parents who didn’t speak English. An essential part of our work were home visits, where my lead teacher and I visited every student’s home in order to get to know our students better.

During these visits we asked caregivers two pages worth of questions, including questions about discipline methods, family background, a typical day in the life of the family. We learned the names of beloved grandparents. We sometimes ate the same food that the child every day (who was I to turn down a homemade tamale?). We observed how many books were in the home. We made connections, and developed relationships. If parents had had bad experiences with education in their past, this work was a little more difficult. We’d need to gently untangle years of bad experiences and demonstrate to wary parents that we could be trusted. (And for many families, we were also working through years and years of historical trauma, although we didn’t know that’s what it was at that time.) Just as we soothed the feelings of a distraught child in the classroom, we extended this same care and concern to the child’s family. 

If we determined the family needed, we’d refer them to social workers on staff who would work to make sure utility bills got paid, ensure the family had enough food, or help caregivers finish their own education. By knowing and seeing the whole child–and the whole family, and school, and community–we could tailor their classroom experience to help them succeed socially, emotionally, and academically.

The six years I spent working in the field of early childhood education had a profound impact on my professional values. It was there I developed my passion for helping people, and learned that listening to people’s stories is the first and most powerful step in helping them change their lives. I’ve taken those lessons forward with me into my work in libraries. Those home visits taught me patience, understanding, and compassion, and those qualities have made me a better reference librarian and improved my ability at readers advisory. By having a deeper understanding of the needs and wants of the community I serve, every program, collection, or service I propose or implement will be stronger, better, and more useful. 

I’ve learned how to create safe environments for sharing and learning by being open, vulnerable, and nonjudgmental. While booktalking to middle school students I’ll share personal stories, inspiring the students to share their own.  By being easily recognizable and approachable in my community, I’ve become the face of the library to many people, and this has allowed me to have fruitful conversations with library users in grocery stores and in the clearance section at Target as well as at the reference desk. These interactions inform every aspect of my library work, and contribute to my vision for truly responsive and integrated library spaces, services, and programs.

I’ve always believed that this type of community engagement is crucial to library services, but I believe that now it’s more important than ever. When the humanity of people in our communities is called into question, one of the strongest responses we can make is by helping elevate and amplify their voices and their stories. This is why, even if your community is entirely white (which it’s probably not), books with children of color on the covers, and books written by authors of color, are still crucial to have in your collection, and need to be included in book talks, on book lists, and included during your readers’ advisory sessions.

But to go even further, there are stories in your own community that deserve to be told and voices that need to be listened to. Marginalized voices deserve a seat on your library board. They deserve a voice at the table when you’re planning programs, remodeling your spaces, and creating your collections. And you’re not going to hear these voices sitting behind a desk or holed up in your office, or even on the floor of your library, or commenting on your facebook page. You’re going to hear these voices out in your community, at the park or at church socials or at a school information night. You will have to do the work of being present, being engaged, being available. You’ll need to start by being vulnerable yourself, by admitting you don’t have all the answers and you don’t do everything right, but you’re there to listen, and to support.

Here’s the thing: it’s going to take months, if not years, for you to become trusted. It will take hours of being available in spaces, making sometimes awkward approaches, trying to prove your value. And you do. You need to prove your value, and be authentic. You can’t just throw up a sign or have one “multicultural” event and call it a day. That’s not how it works.

And this isn’t news. From Managing Library Outreach Programs: a how-to-do-it Manual for Librarians*, by Marcia Trotta, published 1993:

The first step toward success is the most important: commitment to the goal of making library services available to all. We need to face reality and realize that not everyone is comfortable within our traditional library boundaries. The buildings are imposing, the amounts of information are overwhelming, unfamiliar cultural manifestations are threatening. In many instances, people don’t know that the library has something for them. Outreach services, also known as ‘the off-site approach’, offer librarians the opportunity to open up communication about the library and its services on the user’s own turf. It gives librarians the chance to observe and listen to the population intended to be served, so that the barriers can be overcome. Bringing the library outside its walls requires a change of perception about the library and its roles, both on the part of the librarians and of the users (Trotta, 4; bold emphasis added).

Also from this book: Chicago Public Library added a social worker to its staff in 1969. I don’t think they employ one any longer, but they’re currently working to integrate library branches with affordable housing options. And while they lost their social worker, other public libraries have added this position in recent years, which is a step in the right direction. How much more embedded can you be, then to have your library where people live?

But even if you can’t integrate your library spaces in your community to such a degree, you can get out in your community. Go to events, be recognizable and available (which can be scary for some, so do what feels comfortable for you), and above all–listen. Listen without judgment, assumptions, or an agenda. Listen, and observe, and be present. This is the only way to learn about your community, and in turn, help them achieve what they want to achieve.

And above all, remember what Mr Vonnegut said: bekind

 

*If you have never read this book, please do. It has been updated, but I appreciated reading the older edition as well, to see how perceptions and approaches have changed, or in some instances, stayed the same. 

 

Hi, Miss Julie’s Loves of Librarianship

  1. Libraries are for everyone

  2. Everyone benefits from libraries, whether they use them or not

  3. Make every interaction delightful, wherever it happens

  4. A degree does not a librarian make

  5. Every library its community, and every community its library

Libraries are for everyone

Libraries are for everyone in your community, whether they are homeless, trans, on the spectrum, divorced, high school dropouts, PhD students, or whatever else.

Libraries are places where all lives really matter, and we prove that we believe that statement by holding  open discussions on race in America, creating Transgender Resource collections, having police officers interact with the public within our walls, and putting up Black Lives Matter displays.

We remove financial barriers such as fines and fees whenever possible, and make getting, having, and using a library card as frictionless as possible.

Our programs are inclusive and we strive to make accommodations whenever required.

Our collections reflect our communities both as they are and as they aspire to be. Everyone in our community, especially children, should see themselves reflected in our collections, and also have ample opportunity to experience stories from those who are unlike themselves.

Everyone benefits from libraries, whether they use them or not

Rich old white man who continually writes articles about how no one uses libraries anymore–please shut up. People who aren’t you use libraries all the time, and the information, education, and sense of belonging that they gain from those visits ultimately benefits our whole society, even you.

You’re welcome.

Make every interaction delightful, wherever it happens

We strive during each reference interaction, every readers’ advisory session, every storytime, every program, through every online social interaction or email, to delight and inspire our users. We waive fines for the single mother who doesn’t want to go back out to her car in the rain to get her credit card, and the smile of relief on her face is worth so much more than her small fine; we bring stacks of books to a reluctant reader and let them know that while these are some of our favorite books, our feelings won’t be hurt if they hate them all–because we really want them to find their next (or first) favorite book; and when first grade teachers tweet about how their students are learning to write letters, we tweet back and ask for one, and send one in return.

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A degree does not a librarian make

An MLIS can be a wonderful thing. It can also be an expensive piece of paper that never really ends up making you good librarian, or gets you a job that allows you to pay off its cost before you die.

When I define librarian, I’m definitely more Urban Dictionary than Webster’s Dictionary (I  still love ya, Webster). If you must, I suppose you can make the distinction of degreed librarian or put MLIS at the end of your email signature…but in the end, I don’t care. Are you passionate about stories, regardless of medium or delivery method? Are you insatiably curious and demand answers, even for questions posed by others? Do you consistently post Snopes links on your friends’ facebook pages? Do you currently or have you ever worked in a library and brought joy to those who received service from you? Congratulations–if you want to refer to yourself as such, you have my permission to call yourself a librarian.

Every library its community, and every community its library

While everyone can use every library, libraries should begin and end with their immediate communities. Not only does this make practical sense–the community’s taxes are at work within your budget, after all–it makes everything else easier.

I attended a workshop recently about design thinking for libraries, and while I can’t encapsulate everything I learned here, I do want to share a bit about one of the steps–interviewing members of your community. When your library has a problem–crowded storytimes, lackluster program attendance, drug use in the bathrooms–it’s not your library that has a problem, it is your community, and the only way to begin solving this problem is to talk to your community. Interview members of the affected groups, and from that information work in small teams to create solutions.

Some communities love their libraries, and others seem able to take the library or leave it– and sometimes this has nothing to do with the actual quality of the library. If you’re a beloved member of your community, rejoice–and keep working hard to earn that love on a daily basis. As in any loving relationship, don’t take it for granted. And if you’re still trying to earn the love of your community? Don’t fret. Go back to love # 1, lather, rinse and repeat, and you’ll get there. I promise.

 

libraries are not neutral spaces, and neither is the human heart

I’ve heard it in more than one training and workshop that part of customer service is when you’re faced with an unhappy or even irate patron, you should consider what has happened in their day, their week, their life, up until that very moment, that might be causing their distress. If there is an outburst, it’s very rarely about the fine or the missing item. It’s about the coffee they spilled in their car on their commute, or how their father always yelled at them when they misplaced things, and how once they had to go to school in the snow wearing only sandals because they’d lost their winter boots.

So it goes with those who work in libraries; we all have our own stories, chains of events and people that have created the person we are today. Our stories make us. Our stories are who we are. We share these narratives when appropriate, and listen to the narratives of others when required. (I’ve said before that all library service is made up of stories.)

I’ve been thinking about people and their stories very much these days. How the narratives black soldiers live can lead them to violence. How the narratives we perpetuate about the monstrosity of black men and boys leads to horrific murders that go unpunished.

I’ve heard these stories. My father had a derogatory name for Junior Mints that I won’t repeat. He also told me I could marry any man I wanted, but not a black man, because my father didn’t want any “[mixed] grandbabies.” (My father is no longer a part of my life, for this and many other reasons).

I’ve also heard other stories. My mother told me about her home ec teacher, Mrs. Hill, a woman who my mother greatly admired and adored. Hearing positive feelings for a black person was a revelation for me.

When my little brother was still very little and didn’t know much about the world, he called black people who stopped by our summer farm stand to buy fruit and vegetables “chocolate pudding people.” We watched Alex Haley’s Queen together, and when he asked me about what was happening, I talked to him as honestly and frankly about racism as  I could. He listened, and then went off to ponder some more; my mother came in and thanked me for talking to him about it.

Yet once when I was riding the bus and a black man struck up a perfectly pleasant conversation with me about chili recipes (I had a bag full of chili fixings with me, fresh from a trip to the grocery store), I was nervous and uneasy and, while not rude, not very polite, either; and to this day I can still see his expression–a mixture of resignation and anger, perhaps?

This is why we need diverse books. This is why there can never be enough. Black boys and girls need to hear stories about themselves as brave, resourceful, funny, beautiful, charming, sad, and more; and white children need to hear the same (about children who are not white). I wish I could find it written down somewhere, but at the Illinois Library Association conference, Shankar Vedantam said that it’s been shown that it is not enough to just have a black character doing something good in a story; for most audiences, that has to be explicitly pointed out for the story to have its greatest impact, on all children.

I sometimes cry on my way to work if I see a black or brown face in the cars next to me on the road, I hope that they don’t get stopped that day, or any day. I see children in the library and I want to tell them that I see them, that I have stories for them, that their stories are worth listening to.

I’m listening, no matter how much it breaks my heart.

It’s the least I can do.

image CC (Rosa Trieu/Neon Tommy)

 

Why Kids Need to Read What They Want

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Is this how we want kids to act when it comes to reading? / flicker, C. Bitner

In the most recent edition of Cover to Cover by K.T. Horning, there are no early childhood, middle grade, or ya distinctions in books for children. Encompassing fiction and nonfiction, the breakdown is:

  • Picture books (including board books)
  • Readers/Beginning Readers/Easy Readers
  • Transitional books
  • Chapter books

That’s it. We have those formats, and within those formats, every genre is covered, for ages birth to teen. (Oh, but wait–where should graphic novels go? I’d include them with chapter books, honestly; the art in a graphic novel serves as a concurrent visual text, in my opinion. Or, heck, let’s put them in with picture books, maybe? I don’t have all the answers, clearly.)

In my ideal, imaginary library, this is how it would be– those formats would be organized, so kids who are being read to can find board and picture books, pre-readers can find the books they need, transitional readers the same, and then chapter books for independent readers who can make their own choices (with guidance from their parent/guardian and, ideally, a librarian). There would be a call number, and no other designations– no guided reading, or any of that other stuff. Just books and excellent staff and seemingly limitless choices. (I’m getting chills just writing about it.)

Does a library like this exist? Probably not. Although my personal library is like this. I’m sure everyone’s personal library is like this. So why do we insist that youth follow dozens of arbitrary guidelines when it comes to the stories they get to read?

Anyway. This summer I tried something different with our suggested reading book lists, in an attempt to create a small scale version of this literary utopia. I wanted to move away from parents just grabbing the list of their child’s grade, and slavishly following those suggestions we’d made, with the best of intentions. Instead of lists covering 2 grade levels, as had been the practice in the past, I had:

  • Pre-readers (babies-Kindergarten): includes board and picture books, all genres
  • Beginning readers (K-3rd): easy/beginning readers, all genres
  • Transitional Third Grade reads: transitional chapter books, all genres
  • Third Grade and Up: picture, beginning, transitional, and chapter books, all genres

Now, there isn’t just one Third Grade and Up list, oh no. There were several, with titles like:

  • Smile Diary: books for Wimpy Kid and Telgameier Fans
  • Murder and Mayhem: stories that are scary and thrilling
  • WONDERing what to read next: Wonder readalikes
  • Full STEAM ahead: books for kids who like to tinker and create
  • Myths, Magic and More: fantasy, science fiction, and the just plain strange
  • Game On: books for gamers
  • Tell Me A Story: books about the magic of storytelling
  • That’s Funny: Books to make you laugh
  • Can You Believe It?: Books to make you see the world in a different way

The books were listed not in alphabetical order, but rather in order of literary and thematic complexity.

To explain, each list had an introduction like this:

3rd Grade and Up

Murder and Mayhem: stories that are scary and thrilling!

If you enjoy scary stories, thrilling tales of true crime, forensic science, and the unexplained, then these books are for you!

Read from the beginning of the list when you’re short on time but still want a good story. Read from the end of the list when you’re up for a more textually and thematically challenging experience.

Not every book on every list will be right for your child. If you have questions about any title, please see [library] staff for guidance.

Third grade and up meant just that: independent readers from third to twelfth grades (or beyond! Mom and Dad, you can read these books too!) could read these books, all of which were chosen from our children’s department collection. I wanted to do this so that an older student who wasn’t reading at grade level wouldn’t be stigmatized by reading from a list that was clearly marked for a younger age. By having only a lower limit, rather than a lower and upper, the list was more open to more readers. And by keeping the selections limited to our children’s department, we were still helping parents make appropriate choices for their child (advocate for freedom that I am, I still want to make things easier for parents, so I’m not going to hand them a third grade and up list with really intense themes and situations).

Oh, and another cool thing–the books on these lists were jointly nominated by my library staff as well as school librarians from our main school district, and they used these lists as their district’s recommended summer reading. How great is that? School librarians got to suggest awesome books that they loved, while I did all the grunt work of collating and organizing them, and our wonderful graphics department made them into beautiful brochures.

Ultimately, I wanted these lists to provide some guidance, while also encouraging kids and parents to use library staff to help them find the  best book for them.

For teens we had 7th grade and up lists, with items exclusively from the teen collection. (Now, ideally I’d want to include picture and other books, but with display and cataloging restraints, this just wasn’t possible; and, again, these teens could also enjoy all the books on the third grade and up lists.)

For teens, our themes were:

  • Social Justice: books about making the world a better place
  • Not Okay: readalikes for The Fault in Our Stars 
  • Get Real: Realistic fiction and memoirs
  • Myths, Magic and More: Fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative fiction

I have to say, the impetus for this project was the book Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want—and Why We Should Let Them. We actually recommended this title to parents in our lists, and amazingly, the book got checked out. How many people actually read it, I don’t know, but it just goes to show that if you make something available, people will take advantage.

I was concerned about confusion and push back–would parents get on board? Would they understand it? Was I creating a problem where there wasn’t one?

I don’t think so. I actually think these lists have been doing what they are meant to do–broaden the scope of what kids read, and providing guidance while also encouraging choice.

Now, summer’s not over, so the verdict isn’t completely in yet, but so far I’m going to call this a success. Books are still getting checked out at a rapid clip, I’ve heard people express delight at the themes, and so far no one has been upset that a book about the Lizzie Borden case was on the “Murder and Mayhem” list (really, with a title like that, I was suspecting parents of sensitive kids would know to steer clear).

What do you think? How do you handle suggested reading/passive reader’s advisory?

 

 

 

 

Every Action Has an Equal, Opposite Reaction

In my post Where Do The Teens Go? I posited a Youth Services Department which is formed around a core staff of four two-person teams. Ideally they would all be full time, but that might vary depending on the size of your community and the number of schools you serve. Certainly some of the positions could blend, depending on the interests and skill sets of the people you hire. But I’m pretty adamant that positions be either devoted to in-library work or devoted to outreach, with collaboration led by the appropriate lead. This is because outreach is a full-time job, or if it’s only part-time, it should be the primary focus of the staff member.

Why so much outreach? I’ve always been a firm believer in outreach, because I’ve seen it be successful from both sides of the equation. I’ve been the in-library person benefiting from excellent outreach efforts, and I’ve also been the outreach person who brings people into the library and acts as a recognized face from one place (school) to another (the library).

In my experience, here are all the things a person in any outreach position must do, and if you don’t think these duties deserve a full-time staff member, or at least a staff member dedicated to it, I don’t even know:

  • Reaching out–writing emails and making phone calls can take up a lot of your time, and if you have too many other duties (desk, collection development, in house programs) you’re going to play a lot of phone tag and a lot of email threads are going to get buried in the process.
  • Making connections–I’ve come up with a lot of great ideas just hanging out and chatting with teachers during a program break or while having lunch with them in the staff room during a day of multiple book talks. Making the time to just chat is very important, and often overlooked when people consider outreach positions.
  • Researching community partners–like you research a company before you apply for a job, research potential partners so you can propose projects and programs that meet their needs
  • Remembering names.
  • Booking visits–you need to check your calendar, check everything else, offer times, accept counter-offers, and be prepared for changes. If you have your outreach person staffing a desk for fifty percent of their work time, good luck. You’re setting them up for failure.
  • Tapping appropriate collaborators from the community and your own staff–I’m not great at everything (I know, shocker!) so when certain events come up on my radar, I’ll often reach out to my ever-widening network and see if I can’t collaborate and make the experience that much better for the entity I’m working with.
  • Being in the library– yes, I just said you’re setting your staff up for failure, but only if you take up too much of their time with duties other than outreach. Having some desk time, and helping with some in-library programs, is great for an outreach person, because the people they see in the community will be really excited to see them in the library. Countless times I’ve been on the reference desk and kids have walked by, staring at me wide-eyed, and then they’ll finally remember why they know me and yell, “You came to my school!” I once even had a child formally introduce me to his parent, by saying, “Dad, this is my librarian who comes to my school.” We shook hands and then I died.

Essentially, and to vastly simplify (for the sake of a Hamilton reference), outreach staff are the Hamiltons of the library, and in-library staff are the Burrs.

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You see, outreach staff should be constantly (non-stop?) going out, talking, telling everyone about the library and what it has and what it can do, and yes, sometimes they should talk less and smile more, so they can learn from their community partners.

On the other hand, in-library staff can be a little more laid back–they can wait for users to come in, after they’ve been charmed by the outgoing Hamilton approach.

While both approaches can yield results, neither is as successful as when they both work together–which means no one in the library has to throw away their shot.

 

 

 

Reproductive Suspect

There was a specific article that inspired this post, but Jebus help me, I can’t remember where I saw it or find it again. Essentially the author wrote about how the community/society at large has a responsibility to help parents. Which is something I agree with (and psychology agrees with) but, in my personal experience, is sometimes problematic in actual practice.

As a single, childless woman who has worked with children in a professional capacity since 2001, I have some experience with being judged for my choices. I don’t want children, for many reasons, intensely personal and practical reasons (in fact, as you’ll hear more about in an upcoming Circulating Ideas podcast, I used to think I hated children). Since I work with kids—and love working with kids—I feel as though this stance confuses and sometimes bothers people, as though they think I am faking it and just waiting for the right chance to snatch a baby or something.

The thing is, as the article above states, “From an evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense that children would want to form close relationships with many different people, not just their parents.” Children need people in their lives. Often this is aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, and the like. However, family structures have been changing. Most Americans are having fewer children, and even though sometimes up to five generations of a family might be in existence at the same time, due to migration many families often do not live close to each other (1). This makes an extended network of unrelated, invested adults even more important, including babysitters, daycare providers, preschool teachers, friends, and, yes, even librarians. (2) Librarians have many great opportunities, via story times and other programs, to allow parents to build their support networks. I’ve seen many a friendship between families blossom during playtime after a baby story time. It’s amazing, and I find that fostering these kinds of connections to be incredibly professionally gratifying.

Anecdotally, I’ve personally been told it was “creepy” that I wanted to have a “baby party” when a large swath of my social circle was having babies. I’ve also heard other children’s librarians called the same for being willing to baby sit for another librarian’s child. It’s not just me, either (more).

Sometimes those who are single and childless are seen as not having anything “important” to do. I’ve been told in jobs that I worked more night shifts because I had no one to go home to. The single and childless are often treated as suspect, careless, carefree, with no pressing concerns or values. (Again I’m not the only one.)

I can’t even begin to talk about what it must be like for men who choose to teach preschool, Kindergarten, or work as children’s librarians.

This all circles back to how we perceive people who work with young children–it seems, sometimes, that we cannot win the war of public perception. We are either saints who work solely for the love of the children (because many of us certainly are not paid what we are worth) or emotionally stunted creeps who want to abscond with your children. When, really, we are people who have skills and talents, who value children and families, and who acknowledge that parents have an important job and can often use support in doing it.

What about you? Have you faced these assumptions in your work? How have you dealt with it?

—-

1) Major trends affecting families in the new millennium 

2) For this phenomenon, I like Armistead Maupin’s description of a “logical” family versus a “biological” family:

“It’s very hard for me to analyse my own work but I think there’s a sense of family, a sort of modern urban family. I use the term you’re ‘logical family’, as opposed to your ‘biological family’, meaning the one that you make for yourself.

“Sometimes that includes members of your biological family but not always. I think that people respond to that: the notion of a big inclusive household where people are chasing love in all different directions and connecting with each other and making friends with each other in the process.”  (x)

The title of this post is an allusion to A Sexual Suspect, the memoir written by Jenny, Garp’s mother, in The World According to Garp.