April 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

It Takes Two: The Need for Tighter Collaboration Between School and Public Librarians

Numbers can be telling, and the story here presents a stark reality that signals an ideal opportunity to foster a stronger relationship between public and school libraries in ways that better support how kids learn and grow.

The results of SLJ’s first survey of public library spending habits on children’s and young adult services reveals a disturbing trend: only 30 percent of respondents say their library collaborates with local schools to coordinate book purchases

In this Article
Postion of Power
The budgets
The Squeeze
Books and fiction
dominate spending
Collection trends
Some ebooks, few devices
Top innovations

to support the curriculum—leaving 70 percent that don’t. It’s true that “coordinate book purchases” implies a tight relationship, and collaboration goes both ways, but passive collaboration appears to be the norm, at best, with only nine percent of public libraries surveyed saying they work directly with school librarians and teachers to purchase materials that help with homework assignments. A third of public librarians (34 percent) consider purchasing materials that support homework and the school curriculum, and when it comes to urban libraries, that number rises to 46 percent (see tables 1–3).

What would it mean, we wondered, if we could flip these numbers? Wouldn’t it make our kids stronger, and perhaps make both school and public libraries better?

SLJ has long identified school and public librarians as partners that offer children the library services they need to fuel their imaginations and support their development. Over the years, we’ve covered both arenas, and some of the many examples of collaboration across the country indicate that many of you also recognize the need for this partnership. Given the serious budget crunch all libraries face, there’s no better time than now to join forces to deliver the best services we can. SLJ is committed to helping you reach that goal by beefing up our coverage of successful joint efforts. We’ll also examine the main barriers to collaboration and share helpful tips that each side can offer the other. (See “We Need Tag-Team Librarianship“.)

Position of power

Walk into any of the more than 9,000 public libraries across the United States and you’re sure to find a focus on services to kids and teens. Even if there’s no physical space carved out, you’ll likely encounter dedicated collections and programs aimed at creating readers, school readiness, homework help, and so much more.

You are also likely to discover a person heading up kids’ programming, as 67 percent of all public librarians surveyed say their libraries have dedicated personnel solely working in kids’ or YA services. The average number of children’s/YA personnel on staff is 3.4 overall, ranging from 4.8 in urban libraries to 1.8 in rural libraries (see table 8).

Those professionals don’t just design programs; they also control the purse strings. A full 87 percent of survey respondents have the authority to select or purchase library materials for kids and teens (see table 7). Taken together, that big purse totals about $301 million annually.

The budgets

The majority, or 60 percent, of small or rural libraries combine their children’s and YA materials budget and plan to spend an average of $22,900 this fiscal year. How will that money be split? Respondents estimate that 64 percent will go toward children’s materials and 36 percent toward YA. They also expect an overall net budget decrease of -0.6 percent in the next fiscal year.

Our survey estimates that libraries nationwide spend an average of $30,800 on their children’s services and $13,500 on their YA services, representing a 69 percent/31 percent split (see table 4). The split levels out a bit more in urban libraries to 56 percent for children’s and 44 percent for young adult. Overall, libraries have a total $301 million budget for children’s and YA materials in the current fiscal year.

The squeeze

As public librarians continue to grapple with dipping budgets and rising patron demand, they also predict an additional one percent cut to their children’s and YA materials budgets next year. Urban libraries anticipate the largest hit, with a four percent cut to their children’s budget and three percent for YA.

This forecast conflicts with an expected increase in circulation of children’s and YA materials next year (see table 6), with 69 percent of urban libraries anticipating a hike in the number of children’s books checked out and 63 percent expecting a boost in the number of YA books in circulation. The mean combined children’s and YA circulation for all public libraries last year was 111,000 and the median was 29,000.

Libraries that expect a drop in their kids’ and YA book circulation explain that it’s likely due to transient populations, as well as shrinking budgets and a market flooded with electronic devices. One librarian from Kansas blamed it on “more reliance on media, which can sometimes translate to library usage of alternative formats, but not always (video games, Internet or satellite or cable TV, mobile apps).”

Books and fiction dominate spending

We may live in an e-era, but when it comes to kids and teens in public libraries books still reign, with other materials making some headway but still trailing behind. In fact, books account for 74 percent of children’s/YA materials budgets, followed by 18 percent spent on AV, four percent on reference, and three percent on ebooks (see table 5). Rural libraries, not surprisingly, spend a smaller share on AV and ebooks, with the bulk going toward books.

Two-thirds of library book budgets (69 percent) are spent on fiction titles for children and young adults. Almost two-thirds of children’s funds are allocated toward picture books and chapter books (see tables 9 and 10). Graphic novels are slightly more prevalent in urban areas than in rural ones.

Books and reading also dominate library programs, with most offering storyhours and seasonal reading programs geared toward children and teens. Rural libraries, however, often lack the staff to do it as much. The top attended programs include storyhours/read-alongs, summer/winter reading programs, outreach into the community, gaming nights and special events, and author visits. Book discussion groups are also popular, but are more likely found in suburban libraries.

Collection trends

When it comes to buying, it’s almost evenly split between centralized purchases versus those made at the branch-level. Suburban libraries are more likely to do their own selecting.

Graphic novels, ebooks, and children’s nonfiction rank as the top three formats that librarians strive to add to their collections. Rural libraries are in favor of graphic novels, children’s nonfiction, and YA nonfiction, while their urban counterparts emphasize ebooks, graphic novels, and e-audio/audiobooks, along with foreign-language materials and those with diverse characters.

More than a third of libraries expect an increase in children’s media spending from last year, with only modest increases for YA books and graphic novels. More than half say they don’t plan to buy DVDs or music CDs for young adults.

Some ebooks, few devices

Turning to digital books, 76 percent of suburban and urban libraries offer children’s and YA ebooks, while overall 59 percent of public libraries now offer them (see table 11). (For context, 79 percent of our nation’s public libraries carry ebooks, according to our sister publication, Library Journal’s “2011 Budget and Circulation Survey.”) Naturally, interest in ebooks is growing, but efforts are hampered by the limited offerings of big publishers. The main digital book suppliers are OverDrive and TumbleBooks. Two-thirds of libraries that don’t carry ebooks say they plan to do so or will consider doing so in the next year.

Unfortunately, there’s been a slow delivery of ereaders to younger patrons, with only 16 percent of public libraries saying they offer the devices to children or teens. Of the libraries that have ereaders or tablets, a quarter of them restrict their usage to inside the library. A full 55 percent of libraries that carry ereaders tend to have multiple brands in stock. Nearly two-thirds (69 percent) of all libraries with ereaders for children/teens offer a Nook, half (52 percent) carry the Kindle, and about a quarter have iPads (most often in suburban settings). The future doesn’t look bright for ebook readers either. Only a measly three percent of libraries plan to add the devices for children or teens in the next 12 months.

Top innovations

Savvy staffers, soft furniture, and a dedicated separate space were the three top answers given by respondents when asked to name the best investment their library had made to enhance its service to children and young adults.

Cheap ways to attract kids include buying a large chess set, giving the walls a fresh lick of paint, and adding new comfy seats. “More comfortable seating in both areas” had an important impact, noted one respondent. “Patrons now stay longer and browse more.”

Carving out a separate space for teens and younger kids was cited as invaluable: “For years, the teens have had to gravitate between the adult and children’s areas for services other than selecting materials. Now, they finally have a space of their own.” Although expensive, the best return on investment is to hire staff strictly devoted to serving kids and teens.

Respondents noted that innovative programs, such as a speaker series on important issues like online safety and depression, as well as the creation of a teen blog and digital newsletters, were also crucial to drawing in teens. (A mere 17 percent of libraries say they have a separate digital newsletter for children or teens, while a third include a children’s or teen section in their general library newsletter.)

Regional differences were telling. The top three investments rural libraries sought to entice teens included an updated or expanded collection, more programming, and letting kids check out video games. Suburban libraries satisfied their needs with additional shelves and new furniture in their children’s and teen areas, while urban libraries opted to carve out new teen spaces, hire additional new staff, and renovate their teen and children’s areas.

Technology showed up further down the list, with new AWE Early Literacy Stations dominating the responses. Other tech additions included touch screens for kids’ computers. Overall, the survey found that rural libraries devoted about five public-access computers to kids and teens, while suburban and urban libraries assigned about 10 and 15 to kids, respectively. About 80 percent of public access computers in children’s/YA areas are equipped with an Internet connection.

Indeed, many public library programs have reached out to nearby schools to make critical connections. Those partnerships included middle school booktalks, outreach to school groups, shuttle buses between schools and libraries, and age-appropriate book clubs.

The most encouraging of all responses point to how school and public libraries can work hand-in-hand to deliver the mutual mission to serve kids. “We have begun partnering with the high school library,” notes one respondent. “Library staff regularly take books to the high school for students and teachers. The public library has given cards to all students that want one. The library director presented how-to workshops for all students in using the public library’s remote access collections of ebooks, downloadable audio, language learning, homework help, and reference materials.”

Now that’s something we should all strive to achieve.

We emailed a survey invitation on January 6, 2012, to 4,930 library directors and children’s, young adult, and collection development librarians from across the United States. A reminder was sent on January 20. The survey closed on January 30, 2012, with 559 respondents.
Libraries of all sizes and from all regions were represented, with the majority hailing from the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. Almost half of those surveyed work in an independent library, almost a third work in a branch library, and 17 percent work in the central library of a library district or system.
The data was weighted to reflect the PLDS breakdown of U.S. public libraries. Only the data shown in total is weighted.

Author Information
Rebecca T. Miller is SLJ’s editor-in-chief, and Laura Girmscheid is the magazine’s research manager.

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library JournalStronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.