Over 200 youth librarians spent an hour and a half of their afternoon on June 30 listening to three dynamic presentations during “The Ripple Effect: Library Partnerships that Positively Impact Children, Families, Communities and Beyond” at the 2014 Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) President’s Program. The co-chairs, Rachel Payne of the Brooklyn Public Library and Brandy Sanchez of the Daniel Boone Regional Library in Columbia, Missouri, introduced a trifecta of powerful speakers.
Nationally syndicated advice columnist and author Amy Dickinson started the program by proclaiming to the audience, “In my world, the library is where it all began.” She went on to talk about the trials and tribulations her family endured when her father left while she was a teen. Their farm went into foreclosure, forcing her mother to take a job as a typist at Cornell University. Her mother would later go back to school at age 48, eventually becoming a professor at Cornell. The library, noted Dickinson, “is a place and a space where you can launch your own dreams.”
She urged the audience to make a point of engaging their library users through partnerships, talking about her Book on Every Bed campaign—an idea that she readily admitted to borrowing from Pulitzer-winner David McCullough, author of Truman (1992) and John Adams (2001, both S. & S.). Parents were encouraged to wrap a book and leave it at the foot of their child’s bed to discover Christmas morning. Dickinson stressed library books could also be wrapped up—an idea that doesn’t cost a penny. Partnering with the Ithaca, New York-based Family Reading Partnership, “a coalition of organizations, individuals, schools, libraries, and businesses working to create a ‘culture of literacy’ by promoting family reading practices in the community and beyond,” Dickinson is active with promoting both programs year round.
Dickison addressed another valid point: librarians sometime complain about feeling more like social workers than librarians. She urged the audience to serve people and point them towards knowledge by getting out into their communities and being connectors. “The precocious kids are fine,” she said. “You have to pay attention to the other kids. You have so much power to change the world..”
The next speaker was author Anna McQuinn, perhaps best known for her “Lola” and “Leo” books (Charlesbridge). Both series were inspired by families that McQuinn met while working as a Sure Start community librarian in London. Sure Start is similar to Head Start programs in the United States. As a community librarian, McQuinn was tasked with bringing the community into the library—not as easy as she’d thought. Starting with a “family book group,” she would bring books and crayons to various medical clinics to do storytime visits in the waiting rooms, as well as pass out books for moms to share with their babies. McQuinn recounted that one mom looked at her with disbelief after she’d given her a book and said, “He’s a baby and can’t read yet—why would I share a book now?” At that moment, McQuinn realized that she needed to switch tactics and began modeling for parents how to read, play, and interact with their little ones. She said, “We can’t take it for granted that parents know what to do with a book.”
McQuinn also noted that because she was serving a very diverse community, it helped to share aspects of the different cultures with the group in order to connect everyone and make them feel like they belonged to a community. McQuinn started photographing her groups at the library, using those photographs to advertise her programs in order to show the many cultures and diverse patrons in her library’s marketing materials. “As much as kids need to see themselves in books, they also need to see themselves in the library,” she told the audience with conviction.
One of the most innovative ideas that she shared? Doing crafts at the beginning of storytimes instead of the end. It serves as an ice breaker for families to get to know one another and work together, mingling and perhaps sharing stories about their families and cultures. This also accommodated those who arrived late and allowed a transition into sitting and listening to stories together. Groups often did culturally specific things, such as make flags and write a word from a children’s rhyme like “hooray” in many different languages so that families felt comfortable and culturally acknowledged in the setting. McQuinn would hang these items all around so children could “see” their family belonging in the library.
McQuinn’s storytime group became so bonded over time that she began a Facebook page called “The Stripey Top Club” to share their successes and foster community. When all four groups met in the park in July 2013 for an end-of-the-year celebration with music, McQuinn said the best compliment came when another mom in the park saw the group of families there, singing, playing, and listening to stories. She asked, “Are you all one family—or can anyone join in?” That, McQuinn proudly noted, was how she knew Sure Start was successful—because they looked like a family.
The finale was a panel discussion with three librarians versed in outreach and partnerships: Beth Munk of the Kendallville Public Library in Broomfield County, Indiana, Lesley Clayton of the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Public Library in Broomfield County, Colorado, and Nicholas Higgins from Brooklyn Public Library. Lesley spoke about her program “Confident Parenting,” a six-week workshop for families. With dinner provided and on-site child care, she was able to have 10 families learn skills that strengthened their parenting. Partnering with Broomfield Early Childcare Council, their collaboration has bloomed into a thriving program that helps parents feel more confident.
Collaborations were minimal in Beth Munk’s library 10 years ago, but all that changed when she realized that library program numbers dropping as children were signing up more for outside programs such as sports, crafts, and other activities. She began slowly, partnering with two teachers to provide storytimes in schools. Today, that partnership has snowballed into 168 monthly visits to schools. Munk shared how she used those magic words ”we can match your standards” as she created storytimes that followed the needs of the class curriculum.
She also started a program called “Storytime On the Go,” in which families meet outside the library at local partnering agencies for storytimes and activities. Sessions have taken place at the local grocery store, radio station, and even the landfill, providing a wonderful way to introduce families to their communities.
Another partnership Munk spoke highly of was working with the Big Brothers Big Sisters in her area. With the “Real Men Read” program, town leaders, such as the fire and police chief, would come read to children. By including Big Brothers and Sisters in her existing programs, the community was able to witness strong mentoring.
Speaking of strong mentoring, you could hear a pin drop in the room as Nicholas Higgins spoke about his outreach program “Tell a Story,” which partners with the New York Public Library, the New York Society for Ethical Connections, and the correctional facility of Rikers Island and Cisco Systems, and features the interactive booth at the library. At the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, there is a booth where families can tele-visit with an incarcerated father and share the stories. The booth and the jail have the same picture books available, making it simple for father and child to connect through a story. (Through “Tell me a Story,” the men also receive a four-week session in Every Child Ready to Read practices.) And if anyone knows the power of a story, it is a roomful of librarians.
Lisa G. Kropp is the youth services coordinator at the Suffolk Cooperative Library System in Bellport, NY.