Some of my fondest memories come from my years spent as the Head of Youth Services at the Bethel Park Public Library. I loved the women and men of the department so much, that I have their names tattooed on my arm. I really do. We shared much laughter and joy, both at work and outside of work.
I remember vividly one YSD meeting that started out a little strangely. There was a weird buzzing in the air and I noticed a few folks were having trouble keeping a straight face. Then I noticed that each staff member had a number taped on to them. There were 7s and 18s and 456s. Then all at once they shouted, “But it’s not about the numbers!”
This was just one example of the good natured teasing that I received for being maybe just a wee bit too obsessed with numbers. It was a year-round obsession, but summer reading could really sweep me away into the Land of Integers.
I often said, “Numbers are only one of many indicators of success.”
But did I mean it?
Naw, probably not.
Now I am much older and I’m in a new place. I’m here at my “Library of Origin” in Shaler. I worked at Shaler as a page, from the age of fourteen, all through high school, college, seminary, library school and even part time when I was employed full time in another field. It is a joy to be at my childhood library. And yeah, it has been a joy obsessing about the numbers in the North Hills.
Well, not a complete joy. I’m starting to rethink all that.
This rethinking spurred my email to the youthservices list:
Hey to all! I hope your summers are going well and you are also getting time to relax! I've been thinking a lot about SRC this year and wondering how folks are feeling. I am just not 'feeling' the theme! We're quite a bit ahead on registrations for SRC and attendance, but who knows if that will continue, one can only hope. For me though, rather than sign-ups, I've always been more concerned with return visits and/or completion of the program. With the fantastic bags from Kelley this year, it has been easy to entice folks to sign up, but the hard part this and every year is getting the kids to continue reading. What kinds of goals do you set for returning readers? Last year we had a nice 94 or 95 percent return. But I don't know if we'll achieve that this year. While I know boards love to see those high registration numbers, I'm hesitant to take to the streets and try to get as many sign ups as possible, unless my crew and I can back it up by making it worth their while by helping them fall in love with reading. For example, we're invited to a VBS carnival on Friday. I know we could register 200 more kids. But should I? If I know in my heart that we won't be fostering a relationship with these kids. The numbers will look great on the state report. But what is right?Women and men I've worked with in the past have (sweetly) teased me about focusing on the 'numbers'. Maybe I'm getting old but I'm rethinking a lot of things.What do you think?
More thoughts! I guess as I think it over, registering a lot of kids ups the chances of getting that 'just one' kid who wouldn't know about SRC otherwise and who will return to the library- any library- and fall in love with reading. Is it worth registering 50 kids to reach that one who might not otherwise be reached? I guess we all know the answer to that one! I mean it’s the kids that matter, even if it’s just one. Thank you all for listening. Please email me your thoughts about returning kids, as you have time. Even if it’s when SRC is over.
Many of you have responded and I thank you for your thoughtful and helpful emails. Kelley asked me to guest blog the topic and see what happens.
I think what got me started this year was a debate I had with another staff member about whether or not we should register kids during our school visits. We decided not to, but mostly because we ran out of time and hadn’t planned well enough to do so.
My nagging feeling, though was what will happen if we sign up all of these kids and then most of them don’t ever walk into the library? Does that count as a “Summer Reading Participant?”
Every year I want bigger numbers, I admit it. They look nice in board reports. They look even better when I am asking funeral homes for SRC money.
And most of all, it means that kids are connecting with books.
But the number that really eats away at me is the return rate.
That number tells me that a kid or his caregiver had a good experience and came back. It tells me that coming to the library might…just maybe…hopefully…become a habit.
So I often wonder why we try so hard to up the registration numbers, instead of trying to increase the percentage of returning visitors.
I wish I hadn’t started to think too much about all of this. I wish I could just be happy with the registration increase. We’ve been lucky or blessed or something this summer, we have more folks signed up already this year than all of last. I wish I could just be content with that. But now I am obsessing again, about that other number.
In the words of Jon Scieszka, “Summer reading is killing me.”
Or maybe I’m just getting old.