Friday, June 25, 2010

Summer Reading Thoughts

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.


Rachel said...

Lots of good thoughts, Ing. This is all new to me--numbers, SRC registration, etc. but my initial thought is that even if you do get only a few kids to return to the library, then all of those registrations do count for something. But you know, I'm not really sure at the same time, because is that the right thing to do, really, if the return numbers just aren't there? I have yet to tread these waters, so I'm eager to hear what everyone has to say... I'm curious to hear if other librarians are experiencing similar questions about numbers???

Anonymous said...

Our numbers are up too but we've changed things up a little this year. I'm saving the bags for later in the program, since so many we do sign up don't return after the first visit. We also decided to have a bigger wrap up party and a soft kick-off. So many just show up for the free hot dog and bag at the beginning and are never seen again. When it comes to the theme, Bayne has learned to loosely adapt the theme to what we know works over here. Eight weeks of any theme is too much overkill for all ages.

I also have problems with inflated numbers. We could all stand on the streets, offer free stuff and sign up thousands. But what has that got to do with encouraging kids to read and love the library?

My two cents. Sharon Helfrich

Lindsey said...

Hey Ing! Really great post with a lot of insight, especially for one who has not had first hand experience with the SRC program until this year. Your thoughts about the numbers being so important reminds me a lot of the discussions that occur over state testing for students. Teachers feel like they are "teaching for the test" instead of providing their students with meaningful learning activities that will benefit them later in life. It is the same with the library, as you state. What good are the numbers if the kids don't return? In the end it is all about money, I believe. The more we can show our programs are successful the more money we receive. But are there other ways to measure success? Can the state come up with a better method of dividing funding? ACLA recently developed a new formula for the RAD funds; can the state do something similar for summer reading?

elaine said...

OH, Ing! You passed on your obsession with numbers to me! Even though I know they're not what really matter, I find myself always trying to beat the previous month. I force myself to realize, however, that it's our face to face interactions with children, the one on one attention that we give them, that truly defines our job. Yes, the numbers are important for state reports. We get our funding from the state. If we were to lose more funding from the state however(bite my tongue!), we would undoubtedly still find a way to offer our programs. We, the creative librarians we are, would discover a way to keep on going. It's what we do. I remember listening to Pam Schiller at PaLa's conference in Harrisburg last year. Much of what she spoke about stuck with me. She noted that being "fully present" with a child, for as little as 45 seconds, makes an impact on that child's life! Think about how many times we stop to offer a child a book, give a recommendation, or ask about their day or how their summer is going? We make a difference in that child's social/emotional development. Our storytimes and programs impact a child's development. Our attention and services we offer to kids is what really matters. We should reach out to as many as we can, give them positive experiences that will make them want to come back and focus on how we can improve our services even more. Simply put: quality, not quantity.

On a side note, I want to recommend ELF Entertainment to anyone planning a wrap up party or even kick off party for next year. The staff were wonderful and they offer a wide variety of options for your entertaining needs. They started SRC off right for us! We are having a great time with the water theme over here in Bethel!:)

I am unable to attend the SRC wrap up mtg and I'm alreaday rambling, so let me share a frustration that I experienced last week. We planned a fun beach party stuffed animal sleepover and 25 kids registered, but only 5 showed! It was a really fun program and the 5 kids that showed loved it! I even got a thank you card from one of the moms! I know if those other 20 kids would have come, they would have enjoyed themselves too. How many of you out there do reminder calls for every program? Do any of you do email reminders? When do you start registration for programs? This was held at the end of June, but people were allowed to start signing up on the 1st. So if they don't mark their calendars or remember to check their calendars, they simply forget. Any advice, comments, suggestions, etc.? Please share!

Ing said...

Elaine...I totally hear you about people not is nuts! Like I'll have a program and 20 kids are signed up and like you said, 4 show...then we'll have a program and have 10 signed up and 20 will show!
We have done reminder calls the night before, but in my experience it didn't work at all. Even calling the night before! I don't know if others have luck with it or not!
Dude I love the "face time" I remember this sermon illustration about a starfish and a little boy...hang on, let me google...
A father and son were taking a walk on the beach
Enjoying the sun and the warmth of the sand on their feet
When suddenly they came upon – as far as the eye could see
A thousand starfish drying out – the ocean just out of reach

So the boy knelt down and picked one up
And threw it back in the sea
Then another and another were saved

Till the father had had enough
And he said, “Son, you can’t save them all.
It doesn’t really matter anyway”
But the son said

It matters to this one, I can change a life
Even one tiny act of kindness Can make the world more bright
I may not save every one, But I can do my part
You can call me crazy, But someone’s got to start

And know what Mary Mullen always says about when a starfish loses an arm...


dolores said...

So Ing, I've been wanting to comment on your post for weeks now and one thing or another just keeps preventing that from happening so...better late than never!

I am one of the fortunate people who had the pleasure of working with with you at Bethel 'back in the day' and is one of the staff members tattood on your arm! I'm also one of the staff members who would say 'it's not about the numbers'...and really mean it!

I think that 'numbers' have been a thing that, to those of us who don't fuss with them, have been sort of forced to creep into the back of our minds because of funding reasons...showing our 'worth' so to speak. I do try exceptionally hard to not bother with them because I feel that we all do our best and provide such quality programs that the attendance portion is really something that is out of our control.

As far as the summer reading numbers are concerned, it's sort of all over the board as far as how different libraries register, when they begin, when they end, etc. I think that, perhaps, the only thing that I'd prefer to see is a across-the-board June 1 beginning date. Like you can begin your summer reading program any day after June 1. So on-line, in-house or outside registrations would all have to occur after June 1. I know the school-visit thing usually occurs for all of us in May, and that's when you can really reach the kids to get excited about coming to the library or even about reading if they can't get to the library. I'm not on board with the 'at all cost' registrations just to get numbers and pray that day never comes!

The bottom line is...I think that it's the rapport that you have with your community that draws them into your library...not the theme, not the books, not even the programs because, let's face it, if they did come and didn't like the programs, they wouldn't return. I think it's the rapport and how they feel when they're there that really matters most.

As far as phone/email reminders, I do that the day before every program. This summer has been pretty 23 signed up for a program yesterday and 19 came, but I have had the 23 sign up and 10 show even with phone/email reminders! I'm not sure there is an answer and I know this was brought up at our last year's wrap-up meeting. It was also discussed that things people have to pay for i.e. Gymboree, yoga, etc. they go to! We are FREE, so sometimes they may not feel that it's any big deal to not show...

Hope to see everyone soon!

Dolores :)