April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Architects of Dreams: Anythink’s Pam Sandlian Smith on the Power of Children’s Librarians

In my heart, I will always be a children’s librarian.

Speaking at the New York Public Library about the heart and soul of our profession is both an honor and a delight for me personally.

Today we are talking about power and leadership. Everyone here is a leader. As librarians, we don’t always recognize our power, our influence.

However, one thing we do know is the power of the book to stir the imagination. For those of us in this industry, we know that the book is a work of art. The power of books is profound. What we don’t always realize or acknowledge is the power of the librarian. That power starts in the children’s room. When we connect children with books, ideas, and experiences, we are introducing them to the world.

No matter where you grew up, most likely you’ve had the experience of building a tree house, fort, tent, or tunnel to make a space that you owned. Recently, our five-year-old grandson, Owen, spent a snowy day with my husband, transforming a room into a tunnel room. Owen decided that he wanted to take a nap in one of the tunnel spaces, bringing in a pillow and a blanket to keep warm. The idea of making that magical space is a common one. Years ago at the Denver Public Library, we did focus groups with children when we were designing the new central library. When asked what kind of space they wanted, children talked about two types: one was collaborative, and the other resembled our tunnel or tree house. One young girl drew a picture of her preferred space. It resembled a submarine bubble, complete with a lamp for reading and a little table for snacks.

I suspect we all built such a favorite space as kids. What did yours look like? What did you do in that space, and how did it make you feel?

When I was a kid, I loved to climb trees, perching on a branch either to read or to daydream. I would look out over the horizon and invent a plan, a scenario, and a world. This was my version of a tree house. It was a place where I was in charge, where I had the power to invent my life. In my world, anything was possible.

Maurice Sendak’s Really Rosie captures that feeling of power that resonates with many of us. Rosie and the characters from The Nutshell Library live on Avenue P in Brooklyn, New York. They are bored on a hot summer afternoon, and Rosie decides to create a movie where she is the star:

Yes, my name is Rosie
I am a star
I’m famous
And wonderful
Everybody loves me
And wants to be me.

That feeling of being a leader, of being in charge, relates to that sense of power we all felt when we were in our own space, tree house or not. I want you to summon that feeling of being in charge, of being a leader. Take a moment to center yourself. I’d like you to think of yourself as that leader, the person who can make anything happen, and decide on one thing that you would like to accomplish in your work world. You can think big or think small. Now, write a note to yourself of something you want to accomplish for your library when you return from this leadership day. Whatever your goal, hold yourself accountable for this. When you are finished, on the outside date it one month away from today and make sure you review this goal then.

Years and years ago, I made a list of 10 things that I wanted to accomplish when I was the children’s manager of the Denver Public Library. I don’t know how I found the courage, but I asked to see the director, Rick Ashton. We talked about my list and he said to me, “This is going to take you 10 years,” and he was right. It took all of us 10 years, but we accomplished everything and more. The key to this exercise is viewing yourself as a leader with the power to make things happen. It always starts with an idea, a dream, a vision.


Let’s talk about that feeling of power. Empowerment comes from that daydreaming place we might correlate with our special space that could be a tree house, and if libraries were tree houses, then that feeling starts with a small interaction at the library. We might not realize how our work affects the lives of people. Introducing ideas, connecting the dots, creating pathways, opening the door to the world is like being an architect of dreams.

“From Awareness to Funding,” an OCLC study published in 2008 and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, revealed that there were a number of key factors in why voters support funding for libraries. These include interacting with librarians who are passionate about their work and having a transformative experience at the library. Right now libraries are positioned more closely with the data/research experience; however, the transformative experiences of listening to music, reading a poem, or viewing a piece of art are powerful indicators that create strong positive connections with our community and their tendency to vote for increased funding.

With the rise of the Internet and ebooks, libraries are having a bit of an identity crisis. Over 100 years ago, John Cotton Dana focused on a key purpose that still holds true today. “The public library is the center of public happiness first, of public education next,” he said. He believed that libraries were about creating happiness and learning.

Dana began his career in Denver in 1889 at the first Denver Public Library, which started as a joint school-public library. His views were in many ways revolutionary in librarianship. He believed that the 19th-century library was a warehouse, an ornamental building that hoarded books and strove to keep them from the general public. That old-time library was simply a storehouse of treasures with the librarian as the chief preservation officer. Books were to be protected and used carefully only by a select few.

The 20th-century library, the progressive library, he posited, would throw its doors open to all and encourage them to come in and join in the building of a community cultural center. He set out to make the library into a democratic institution and is responsible for many innovations that are now standard library services. He ended closed stacks, made it easier to get a library card, and expanded hours. Later, when he was the director of the Newark Library and Museum, he believed in checking out pieces of art—a definite heresy.

Most librarians in that era saw children as an uncomfortable fit for libraries. Their exuberance and lack of sophistication made them undesirable. Dana saw children as full members of the community, and welcomed them with open arms. He created one of the first children’s rooms in a public library, complete with appropriate furniture, art, and flowers. He believed that the children’s room should be uplifting and inspirational. If an attendant in the children’s room interfered with children’s learning or access to ideas, he believed it was better not to have an attendant at all. It was better for children to have unfettered access to reading material. Once children outgrew the children’s room, Dana believed they should be allowed to jump into the world of adult reading.

Dream come true: The Anythink approach enables patrons to play, create,
and participate on many levels—outside and inside, hands-off and hands-on.
Photos courtesy of Anythink Libraries.

Places of discovery

Libraries should be a place of discovery. Winnie the Pooh’s “100 Aker Wood” is a terrific first road map. Creating a sense of discovery and open access has been central in designing the Denver Public Library’s central children’s library, and our Anythink libraries. The library should be a place of discovery and joy. Learning is an exploration and an adventure. Breaking down barriers and making the library experience delightful is another key goal.

We have taken Dana’s ideas a step further, eliminating fines and dumping Dewey. We created a library that was all about the customer experience from when a person walks through the doors. I think people should experience a metaphorical hug when they enter the library.

At Anythink, we take great care to incorporate natural elements in our spaces to enhance this experience. We wanted to have tree houses to instill that iconic sense of imagination, that symbolism of discovery, of self-actualization. Tree houses, however, proved to be a challenge with building codes, so we integrated trees to create inspiring natural spaces. As much as we wanted to bring the outdoors in, we’ve extended the learning and discovery out to our exterior spaces.

Our first “Explore Outdoors” garden (left) opened last fall at the Anythink Wright Farms library. There children of all ages spend time interacting with nature. Planting gardens, making music, staging theater, and playing with an old-fashioned water pump all give families simple tools to explore, interact, and imagine. Research shows that people who spend time in nature lead healthier lives and feel a sense of responsibility for and connection to nature.

Experiences are learning opportunities

When we began planning our libraries, our team and library board chose what we call the experience model to help guide the vision for the district. Using the OCLC research, our goal was to foster those small transformations. The key role of the library is to create an experience, an interaction with content or an idea. Sometimes these experiences are quite simple and fun, like a community valentine, for example, where customers simply wrote what they loved on a Post-It note and added their contributions to build a wall-size love letter.

Sometimes this interaction is a little more sophisticated. With the Jelly Roll Morton exhibit, people could learn about Jelly Roll, listen to his music, learn to play a Jelly Roll Morton song on the xylophone, and check out additional materials on the topic. Anythink’s goal is to create these little marketing, learning, creative moments where people can interact with content. We call them experience zones.

Last year we expanded this concept in an exhibit of Thomas Locker’s work. You might be familiar with some of his beautiful picture books. Fulcrum Publishing loaned the library 12 pieces from this American landscape painter’s collection. Over months, the staff created experiences that included listening to sounds of nature, painting classes, a river quilt for children to interact with a river (even fishing), and an opportunity to hear Thomas Locker’s son talk about growing up with a master artist who spent his life looking at nature with intensity and translating it to canvas.

Our customers were surprised and delighted. One wrote, “…to visit Wright Farms recently and by chance encounter this exhibit, I find it hard to express the surprise and delight and awe I experienced. Wow! I return often now to re-immerse myself in this richness before it is taken down.”

This exhibit is just one example of how our staff creates learning opportunities for our community. We create connections. We create opportunities to know the world.

The MIT Media Lab’s Seymour Papert talks about literacy in The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer (Basic Books, 1993). “Letteracy” is the mechanical skill of reading words made up of letters. Papert suggests that we substitute the term “literacy” for ways of knowing. Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Friere asks us not to confuse “reading the word” with “reading the world.”

“Becoming literate means thinking differently than one did previously, seeing the world differently,” Papert writes in The Children’s Machine.

Libraries are about exploring and knowing the world. Libraries are about helping people to live their most abundant lives.

One of the most popular learning opportunities at Anythink has been an embryology experience zone at most of our branches during the past two years. Watching baby chicks hatch is both mesmerizing and educational. Staff, children, and adults have fallen in love with this educational exhibit. People photograph the chicks, name the chicks, blog about the chicks. Then we return them to the 4-H club, and they give them to young people to raise.

There is a significant interest in urban farming in Denver, and zoning now allows people to raise chickens, bees, and goats in the city. One staff member became so engaged in the chick project that she decided to raise chickens on her own. Using library resources, she learned how to build a chicken coop; purchased five hens; began feeding, caring for, and watching her chickens grow; and then started gathering their eggs. She says this project has changed her life.

Anythink has two community gardens and is adding a third this season. This project connects the library with local experts and the community. We have worked with Denver Urban Gardens, whose mission is “growing community, one garden at a time.” The gardens are on Anythink property, but the community makes all the decisions about the gardens. Not only do people grow healthy vegetables, they also get to know their neighbors and come to rely upon each other for advice, taking turns watering each other’s gardens when they are on vacation.

Everyone is creative

“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning,” wrote the author Diane Ackerman. People who work with children are familiar with creating opportunities for children to learn through play. Adults need a little more nudging. At Anythink, we have expanded this philosophy to the entire community by creating experiences for them to learn through play as well.

Creativity and innovation are two of the most important assets to success, but as a culture, we have few places that actively nurture creativity. Josh Linkner, author of Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity (Jossey-Bass, 2011),talks about research on creativity. When children enter kindergarten, 98 percent think of themselves as creative, he asserts. When they graduate from high school, only two percent label themselves as creative.

At Anythink, we believe that everyone is creative. We support the creativity of our community and our staff. Libraries are places filled with ideas and curiosity. We are a perfect organization to foster creativity.

At Anythink, we hire people who are creative, optimistic problem solvers. We nurture and grow our team on a continuous basis. We have regular staff training days that support our culture and expand the talents of all of our staff. This year’s TechFest training day expanded our sense of creativity and our digital skills. Teams of 10 worked with mentors and, within about four hours, each created a digital product ranging from videos, podcasts, and even an ebook. One example is a short video titled “Fifty Shades of Yellow or Death by Bananas.” Another example is the stop animation team that created a series of animations. See below for videos.

Death by Bananna-42

Tech Fest Stop animation

This experience set the staff thirsting to learn more and gave them self-confidence; it’s amazing what happens when you are given a challenge, the right mentor, and a set of creative tools.

Our skills as a team are growing and our own knowledge is expanding. We now describe our library as a participatory library, borrowing ideas from Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum (Museum 2.0, 2010). She defines a participatory cultural organization as “a place where visitors can create, share and connect with each other around content.” This is a very different library from the one that is centered on the object or the book. This is a library that focuses on growing the capacity of its citizens and its staff. This is a library that has the power to change the world.

Library as studio

We have branded this concept The Studio. It takes the shape of a teen digital learning lab with a recording studio, a green screen with film and editing equipment, and spaces for gaming and collaboration. As part of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation-IMLS YouMedia grant, we are researching, learning, and exploring how we can support expanded digital learning with teens. The grant calls it “geeking out.” We are working with local artists in residence to mentor our teens.

When Anythink staff returned from a first visit to the Chicago Public Library where they got to see the YOUmedia project in action, they stormed into my office with their key insight: the project wasn’t about the computer equipment. It was about creating an environment where teens could grow sustained relationships with mentors, and over time develop an interest or talent. Through writing poetry and performing at poetry slams or making short movies, the teens discovered that the library was a relevant partner in their lives. Amy Eshleman, creator of the YOUmedia project, notes, it “gives libraries an opportunity to own the learning space in a unique way.”

At Anythink this project starts with our teens, but it is our intention to grow it into an intergenerational experience.

The Studio at Anythink Brighton is a makerspace that includes LEGO-robotics, a 3-D printer, a photography studio, and a textile arts center.

Children’s librarians are superheroes

We are reminded daily that the success of our libraries is closely anchored to the contributions and interdependency of our community and our staff. At Anythink Brighton, the team suggested the idea for a makerspace, wrote a LSTA (Library Services and Technology Act) grant, and had the initial project up and running within 90 days of the award of the grant. The manager of the branch, Dara Schmidt, is a former children’s librarian from LA County.

At Anythink Wright Farms, branch manager Suzanne McGowan is a former children’s librarian as well. Our Studio guide Mo Yang has recently evolved his role as a teen guide. He is leading the coordination of our artists in residence, connecting with talented community members who want to share their skills with the teens.

Children’s work has always been centered in transformative experiences. Children’s librarians not only influence children in their formative years, they open doors for curious minds. Our future depends upon the children’s room. Our power lies in creating learning spaces, influencing lives, and creating community. Our children are our gifts to the world, and the way we care for them says everything about our values as a culture.

You may not realize it, but you have the power to transform the lives of children, the library, and the community. You have the power to open doors, to nurture ideas and imagination. You have the power to change the shape of our world. You are the architects of dreams.

Pam Sandlian SmithPam Sandlian Smith is director, Anythink Libraries, CO. This article was excerpted from her keynote speech at SLJ’s first Public Library Leadership Think Tank, held April 5, 2013, in New York City.

Maker Workshop
In this two-week online course, you’ll create a maker program that aligns with your budget and community needs, with personal coaching from maker experts—from libraries and beyond—May 23 & June 6, 2018.


  1. Beth Olshewsky says:

    I’m viewing online, but I’m missing the links to the Fifty Shades of Yellow or Death by Bananas and the stop animation piece. Can you direct me to these?

    Thanks, Beth

  2. Louise Youngblood says:

    Growing the capacity of our citizens should be the primary goal of all libraries. Thank you for your inspiring words and your principled stand on quality patron service.

    Louise Youngblood
    Young Adult Librarian
    Daphne Public Library
    Daphne, Alabama