February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Children’s Librarians, Architects of Dreams | SLJ’s Public Library Think Tank

Keynote speaker Pam Sandlian Smith at SLJ‘s first Public Library Think Tank. Photo credit: Matt Carr/Getty Images.

“The power of books is profound, but power does start in the children’s room. When we connect children with books…we are introducing them to the world,” says Pam Sandlian Smith, director of Colorado’s Anythink Libraries and opening keynote speaker at SLJ’s first Public Library Leadership Think Tank, hosted Friday at the New York Public Library’s Celeste Bartos Forum. Among the day’s emerging themes:  dreaming big, collaboration, innovation, creating community, and believing in the power of kids (and kids’ librarians) to change the world.

Recognize Your Power
After a brief introduction by Rebecca Miller, School Library Journal editor-in-chief, that set the tone for the day, Smith addressed the crowd—more than 100 public children’s librarians and library directors from around the country—with a story. “If libraries are tree houses,” Smith began, “then librarians might be architects of dreams…and if librarians are architects of dreams, then children might find their special space to dream of who they are to become and of lives fulfilled.”

Smith urged those present to recognize their power and influence in the communities they serve, noting, “Everyone here is a leader…you have the power to open doors. You have the power to change the shape of the world. You are the architects of dreams.”

She stressed the need to hone one’s skills of persuasion. “You are one of the most powerful people in your organization,” she said. “Figure out a way to convince people that the library is one of the most important organizations in the city. You can’t do it all by yourself, but you can do it.”

Smith also spoke about her experiences at the Anythink Libraries branches in Colorado, which aim to channel John Cotton Dana motto: “The public library is the center of public happiness first, of public education next.” In the past few years, Smith’s team has eliminated fines, dumped Dewey, and created interactive exploration spaces at its branches—utilizing sight, sound, and touch—along with innovative maker spaces, designed to draw in all ages of the community. “I think people should experience a metaphorical hug when they enter the library,” she said.

Notably, Anythink offers a team-building Tech Day for its staff, where experts within the library system as well as in the surrounding community volunteer to teach new technology skills, such as video and sound production and editing. Attendees break into groups to learn the skills and then put them into practice by collaborating on a project together—such a short film—in a single afternoon.

The process of moving from an experience library to a “participatory library” begins with hiring creative, optimistic problem solvers, Smith noted. “Create that culture of optimism,” she urged. “Focus on your top creatives, optimists, early adopters. Listen to the naysayers…but they don’t get to drive the bus.”

Smith told the group in closing, “I urge everyone here who is a children’s librarian to become a director someday, because then you can allocate the resources.”

Innovative Collaborations
Creative problem-solving and leadership continued as a theme with the midday panel, which included Rachel Payne, coordinator of early childhood services at the Brooklyn Public Library; Susan Modak, librarian at the Montgomery County Public Libraries (MD); Nicholas Higgins, associate director of community outreach at the NYPL; and Kathy Bennett, library lead teacher at Metro Nashville Public Schools. Each of the panelists is known for innovative collaborations, said moderator Daryl Graberek, editor of SLJ’s Curriculum Connections, who noted, “These are people doing really good work quietly.”

Rachel Payne started things off by sharing some insights gleaned from Brooklyn’s Ready, Set, Kindergarten!, a weekend program that includes storytime, early literacy tips, and a playful activity for both kids and parents at more than a dozen locations. The program relies on funds from the Altman Foundation, a partnership with the Department of Education’s early childhood programming division, and a pool of volunteer interns largely comprised of library and educational grad students and young professionals in the children’s publishing field.  Adding just a few simple math and science activities to plus a name change from its original “Weekend Stories” was key to the program’s current success, increasing participation 30 percent in some locations, Payne said.

Susan Modak then shared her experience creating a program for teen moms (and dads) and their kids focusing on early learning, early literacy, and library use, made possible by collaboration with local social services organizations. Programming included field trips, book-making, circle time, skill-building for parents on the best ways to share stories and music with their kids, and the importance of having books in the home. Parents were also able to take home free books to build their home libraries.

Higgins presented an intriguing take on his outreach programs to youth and parents in detention on Riker’s Island, defending what he calls “all people’s right to information and library services.” His early literacy workshop program for fathers—which covered print motivation, chronological awareness, and narrative skills—culminated in an extended visit day with kids and family and an audio project in which dads were able to read stories to their children. “What separates the program is the continuing relationship with the library,” Higgins said. “They know they are welcome when they get out.”

Higgins stressed the importance of adjusting one’s definition of success. “It’s frustrating to work with a bureaucracy,” he said. “But the success is just having access to this population.”

Bennett’s Limitless Libraries also caught the attention of the crowd. In her Nashville program, which began as a pilot in just four schools, the public library opened its collections to provide materials to all students. Students can use their school ID cards (with parents’ permission) to borrow books, which are delivered directly to the schools. This helps the community overcome a poor public transportation system and limited library hours, Bennett said, noting that extended borrowing for teachers helps them build nonfiction collections for Common Core faster than they could on their own.

And through all of these efforts in serving the traditionally under-served, each of these librarians also found new patrons, both kids and parents, in their communities, noted moderator Grabarek.

Some best practices that emerged from the panel? According to Payne, “It’s not the organization, it’s the people. Work with the people that are responsive,” while Modak noted the importance of being open to casual collaboration, too, “just handing out my card and offering my services anywhere.” She added, “You pass it on and pass it on and pass it on and hopefully it results in more children being read to, and more parents feeling that the job of a parent includes that.”

Author and educator John Hunter talks about The World Peace Game. Photo credit: Matt Carr/Getty Images.

The World Peace Game
After lunch, attendees were offered a special treat as John Hunter, author of World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements (Houghton Mifflin), screened an extended preview of a new documentary on his game, which he has staged with his elementary school students for the past 35 years.

“Everything we do, even inadvertent gestures and words, are so meaningful,” he said. “Everything you do can be important to someone, so that’s why we never give up.”

The game, which consists of 50 interlocking problems for the kids to solve on a four-layer game board of Hunter’s creation, is “designed to fail…unless they collaborate. But we don’t teach them collaboration, they learn it themselves,” Hunter explained. Students are tasked to solve the world’s problems and raise the asset value of every country in order for the class to win against the game.

He noted, “I wanted it to be so thrilling they can’t do without it, but so challenging that they almost can’t do it… I hope that they never need me again…that they take away every creative thinking tool, every critical thinking tool (that they need), and they have the confidence to solve any problem.”

One of the best parts about the game is watching his students become a room of 30 co-teachers as they try to solve it, Hunter said. “It takes a classroom of the collective wisdom of 9-year-olds to do it.”

He added, “Good policies come and go like weather…but what remains is the relationship between a teacher and a student, a librarian and a student. That’s the fundamental of learning and growing. We’re fighting the impossible and I know you are too.”

Inspiration and the “Unconference”
Next up was a brief address from Lynn Lobash, strategic projects manager at NYPL, sponsor of the
MyLibraryNYC project. Like the Limitless Libraries program in Nashville, MyLibraryNYC (a partnership with the Department of Education) aims to provide access to more materials to more students, beginning in 83 schools and at 51 sites. Both teachers and students can borrow materials from the public libraries through a shared catalog, with materials delivered to the schools.

“It’s a real eye-opening experience for students who don’t use the public library,” Lobash said.

Lobash urged any librarians around the country seeking to try a similar project in their cities or states to contact her at the NYPL if they needed any assistance or guidance gleaned from her experiences. “We’d be so happy to help anyone think about this—any scale, any approach,” she said.

The day concluded with the official think tank moderated by Kiera Parrrott, head of children’s services at Darien Library (CT). Utilizing an “unconference” model, the attendees were asked to brainstorm the issues they most wanted to explore in breakout roundtable discussions.

The trending topics included: serving kids with special needs; igniting the school/public library relationship; Common Core in the public library; the first five years (early learning initiatives); apps (incorporating technology); rethinking the physical space (maker spaces, play spaces); readers, thinkers, makers (innovative programming ideas); and librarians in the wild (inspiring outreach).

Each group outlined the goals they would like to achieve in their districts and some of the individual roadblocks they are facing, and then brainstormed ways that they might overcome those obstacles.

Surveying all the discussions in action, Parrott noted some catch phrases that encapsulated the flow of ideas, including: “less rules, more fun,” “dream big,” “uncomfortable is okay,” and “go outside!”

Though each group had a unique topic of discussion, emerging themes across the board included the need to reach under-served populations, the best ways to create community space in one’s library, the best ways to market one’s library to a community and build relationships with patrons, strategies for partnering with school librarians in one’s community, the importance of forging strong teams among committed staff, the importance of changing one’s idea of success, and concrete examples of out-of-the-box funding partnerships that attendees could seek out in their own districts.

Closing keynote speaker Matt de la Peña, young adult author of Ball Don’t Lie, Mexican Whiteboy (both Delacorte) and the upcoming Infinity Ring Book 4: Curse of the Ancients (Scholastic), reaffirmed the power of librarians to change lives with his candid account of the ways that librarians helped paved his path to books. “It started with a library and a librarian…and I started as a non-reader as a kid,” de la Peña said, noting, “The most difficult definition to break away from is self-definition.”

In middle school, his haven was the school library, he said, “not because of the books but because of the librarian who was twenty times smarter than me,” he said, who provided a place for him to go where he felt he belonged. “She understood. It was my spot.”

The first in his family to go to college, de la Peña also recounted how the reading of The Color Purple during his sophomore year opened a new world to him. “I was on the verge of tears at the end of the book,” he said. “It was a shocking thing that a book could do that for me. It changed me into a reader.”

Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

Karyn M. Peterson (kpeterson@mediasourceinc.com) is a former News Editor ofSLJ.