Context and understanding

geeseAlmost every day, our dog Mac gets taken for a walk in the park, and aside from someone knocking at the door, it is pretty much the most exciting thing in his life. While on his journey, squirrels are of the utmost interest to Mac–you could offer him the tastiest treat ever and he would ignore it if a squirrel was nearby. Kentucky dog Mac knows about squirrels, and can spot them 12 feet overhead completely disguised by foliage.

He knows about other dogs–he knows they smell interesting but are potentially dangerous. He keeps a good eye on them, and if one of them barks as he is walking by, he will defiantly water a shrub to show that HE is not at ALL worried. Cats are riveting to Mac. They are terrifying and delicious-smelling. We do not let Mac get too close to cats usually. Kids are a little worrisome to Mac, and he has been known to hide under a table when they are around.

The geese at the park ought to be terrifying to Mac, especially this time of year when they might have a nest nearby that they are protecting. They make scary noises, and they have flappy wings, and sometimes they are only a few feet away, and yet Mac appears to barely even see them. I mean he literally seems not to perceive that they are there, unless they move, and even then, there is no defiant watering of trees or barking or hiding. He doesn’t respond. Same with ducks. What ducks?

I think kids are the same way. It’s hard for them to even perceive stuff that is completely outside of their experience.  It doesn’t click.  I remember so vividly as a child hearing people talk about things that made absolutely no sense to me. For instance, in Girl Scouts the scout leader would start talking about what we were doing and I had no idea what she was talking about or even what the word was that she was saying. She would be two minutes into her explanation of what we were supposed to do with some pieces of plastic to turn them into a lanyard, and I would be utterly baffled because I had no idea what a lanyard was. It was not a word I had ever heard before, it had no context in the church basement where we were meeting, and I didn’t take in any of the directions because I stopped listening. Spoiler alert: I never did make a lanyard.

Context means everything. I get the impression that Mac just doesn’t even know where to file those big birds away in his brain, so he just chooses to ignore them. If I didn’t know what a lanyard was, what it looked like, or why I might need it, I had nowhere to attach the subsequent instructions about how to make it. That is a recurring story from my childhood, where people were talking over my head and didn’t stop and explain so I could make sense of it all. Frustrating!

So I make a point when working with kids to make sure that whatever I’m talking about with them makes enough sense that they will bother listening. You can lose a group of kids on a very short book if you never got them interested in it in the first place, and you can use a long, old-fashioned or complicated book with them and have a fully engaged group so long as you take the step of explaining things to them that they might need to know for it to make sense. Nothing is more boring than grownups yacking about stuff you don’t understand, and once you’ve checked out, you have pretty much lost the chance to understand later.

If people would just spend a little more time giving kids the context they need to understand what you’re talking about, everyone would be happier. It’s what Mister Rogers was so good at–making sense of the world to kids who are so young that most adults don’t bother to try. And by the way, it is also a great idea with adults to make sure they have a context for what you’re trying to talk about, too. It’s really easy to lose people with jargon or failing to explain first why you’re talking about whatever it is you’re talking about.

As for Mac, it is probably just as well that he is oblivious to the ducks and geese at the park. It would probably not go well for him if he tried to get close enough to smell them anyway.

These ducks were very near. Did Mac notice? No.

These ducks were very near. Did Mac notice? No.


Can you spot the squirrel? Mac can!

Posted in Child Development, Personal heroes, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Mission first

To me, the best thing about working in a public library is that the work matters. It changes lives. It sparks interests that will lead both children and adults in new and wonderful directions. It makes it possible for people who aren’t as wealthy as others to work with a 3D printer or use the Internet or check out an e-book. It helps parents lay down the foundations for their child’s future in school and life with programs like 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten (1KBK). It helps seniors stay connected. The work matters.

So, when your library is going through a hard time, or you are going through a hard time in your library, the mission is what keeps you going. I have always said that no one is a children’s librarian for money, because they couldn’t pay you enough to do it. They do it for love. What I have discovered in Administration, working with other people in the library, is that they do it for love, too. I have found that the people in Technical Services who work on acquiring, cataloging and processing materials are very much in tune with the person who paid for the book (the taxpayer) and will be using it. The people working in IT know that keeping the computer network and patron computers running makes a very real difference in people’s lives. Although the adult services librarians don’t have to deal with screaming toddlers or riled-up middle schoolers, they have their own quirky patron personalities to deal with, and they do not get paid enough for that. They do it for love, too.

Sometimes people try hard to equate library work with retail work, especially when they talk about customer service. It’s true that you can get good ideas from retail training, because sometimes stores and businesses have done a better job than we do at explaining the finer points of good service to their staff. There are some things that are comparable, but there’s a really big difference between being nice to people for a paycheck, and being nice to people because you believe that the public library should be a warm and welcoming place even for people who are being annoying. I see kindness on display every hour of every day at my library.

Library boards can sometimes get so caught up in protecting the taxpayers’ tax dollars that they begin to see the staff as takers instead of people who are dedicating their lives to serving their communities. It’s unfortunate, and I’m not sure what the solution to that is, except for the taxpayers themselves who love the library to remind the board that they value the library and the people it takes to run it.

In the meantime, as my colleague sometimes reminds me, Breathe. Eat your vegetables. Get some sleep. And I will remind you and myself, focus on the mission. Your work changes lives.

Shelley reading

Posted in customer service, Management, Public libraries | Leave a comment

Read or Be Written

bookmarksYes, it is time for the annual Bookmark Contest Slogan post, to celebrate National Library Week! Yay! Yay!

These were all written by my library’s grade school kids, submitted along with artwork for a bookmark. My favorite slogan is probably the one in the title, which I love for its slightly ominous feel: Read or Be Written. Oooh.

Some other inventive slogans included:

The Lyrical
Let us read like a rainbow shines
Fly into stories
Sometimes the smallest book takes up the most room in your heart
Reading is dreaming with open eyes
Books shower with knowledge

The Instructive
Leave time to read!
Read! You don’t know where it will take you!
Read cuz you can. (Depicted with a person saying, “Well, duh!”)

The Mysterious
You don’t have to believe to have your wildest dream–just read!
God is the Book. Read Me. (Shown with a book floating over a cloud)

The Food-Oriented
Reading is sweet, just like ice cream
If u love donuts, u should love books

The Minecraft-Oriented
Minecraft Books
Read to Mine (which would have been completely ambiguous without the picture of the Minecraft block on the bookmark)

and The Downright Enthusiastic
Reading is my middle name
Yay! Yay! Reading is fun! Yay! Yay!

Don’t you feel like reading something now? I do!

Posted in Children's books, Library marketing, patrons, Uncategorized, Youth Services | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Not an expert in library marketing but…

winter springI am a children’s librarian and a library administrator, not a library marketing expert. Yet even I can tell you that:

  • On March 30, after a long and brutal winter, on a day in which my neighbor said that if it snows again, please come over and shoot her, it is probably a mistake for my neighborhood library branch to have a big snowman in their front window. We are so ready for spring. Why isn’t the library?
  • Remember how when you were in school (talking to you older people here) and you would be doing a report and someone showed you the green volumes of the Reader’s Guide to Periodicals, and you would look up your subject and then have to go find the article it cited? At least half of the time, they didn’t have the magazine so you had to try again, and then you finally got one and you had to go copy it and maybe the copier was broken?  Ebsco’s periodical database is where you can get full text articles from well over 1,500 magazines and journals, so it is fantastically useful, and yet they continue to call it by the terrible name of Masterfile Premiere as if anyone would have the faintest idea what they would find if they clicked it, so it sits almost unused on so many library websites. Nobody knows what Masterfile Premiere is, not even the librarians half of the time. Market your product better, Ebsco!
  • And another marketing thought…What would it be like if one year every public library in the country did the same summer reading theme? And everyone encouraged people not just to go to their own library but to go to The Library to sign up for Summer Reading? It would be awesome, that’s what. Everyone’s numbers would shoot up because we would all be promoting the same thing to everyone at once. It will never happen, because part of the success of public libraries is being able to tweak things for their own community, but I still think it would be a cool thing to do once. It would send the message that no matter what library you go to, you can sign up for summer reading there, and that it will be fun, and help you do better in school in the fall. We could even pool our money for national TV commercials. I sometimes think in my part of the world at least that we end up competing more than cross-promoting, and it’s a missed opportunity.
  • We should move National Library Week. Far too often, it begins with the Sunday where Easter falls, and virtually all public libraries close for a spring holiday. That seems like an extraordinarily bad way to start our biggest national marketing campaign, doesn’t it?

If I were not a children’s librarian, and not a library administrator, I think I would like to go into library marketing. In this day and age, it is one of the most interesting and challenging jobs in the field, because of Google, Wikipedia, e-readers and Netflix changing perceptions about information access and reading. Libraries are still such vital places but without the great library marketing teams out there, no one would ever know it. It is such a worthwhile job.



Posted in Library marketing, Management, Public libraries, Reading Incentive Programs, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

What I Have Learned in Dog Training

Maybe everybody does this. I am always trying to relate something I learn from one area in my life to the other areas of my life. The thing I’ve been doing lately that has been one big learning experience is dog training. But relating that to other areas of my life is, well, rude. People do not generally like being compared with dogs.

Still, I think I’ve picked up some ideas from Mac’s classes, and I want to share them. Please do not take offense, or if you do, please do not bite me.

  1. Your dog is not the worst dog in the class. Okay, sometimes he is the worst dog in the class, but then one week you will go and for some reason he is doing everything (and by everything I mean 80% of the everything, which is absolutely the best I would hope for) you tell him to do. He sits. He walks nicely. He pays attention to you when you talk or gesture. It’s like a miracle.
  2. The week after your dog has a great week, he will have a not-spectacular week. Maybe even a bad week. Maybe even an awful week. That’s how it goes.
  3. You will think, from looking at some of the other dogs in class, that they are SO much better-behaved than your dog. But then one day you will get to class a little early and you will see how every dog, even Princess Incredibly Well-Behaved Last Week, is pulling her owner through the door and not paying the slightest bit of attention to anything they say or do. YAY! Your dog is not the only one that does that after all!
  4. Some weeks, something will happen (and it might be invisible to you at the time) and your dog will go on red alert. Our dog came from a shelter in Kentucky, and he is very wary of movement–we speculate that it’s because he was out running around as a stray for awhile and learned to be worried by sudden movement. He does not care for cars at all–not the ones driving by, not the ones he is driving in. And other dogs worry him a lot. On a week when all of his alarm bells are going off, all you can do is listen to the instructor, keep feeding your dog treats to keep him happy, and try to give your dog some space. Your dog gets the message that there is nothing to be afraid of, and gradually, he relaxes.
  5. You will begin to notice that every dog has its quirk. There are the barkers, the lungers, the jumpers, the whiners. They all have some quality that probably makes their owner feel mortified.
  6. Little by little, your dog will get the hang of it.
  7. The dog who doesn’t behave at all for his owner will be perfect for the instructor.
  8. The dog who behaves beautifully for the owner will freak out on the instructor.
  9. If you don’t practice during the week, you and your dog will be nervous at class the following week.
  10. You will communicate your anxiety to your dog. That’s never good for either of you.
  11. Remember how I said little by little, your dog will get the hang of it? It’s true! You have to hang in there.

So what does this have to do with libraries? Dogs and kids are not so different. I just wish that the parents who see little Princess Sits Nicely During Storytime and compare their own child (Princess Roaming Around the Room) unfavorably get the chance to notice that some weeks, their own child is the one who is the envy of the group.

I hope that the parent who is mortified by Child Who Will Not Share notices that Child Who Shared Beautifully screamed his head off when it was time to leave.

I hope that the adults who notice Child Who Screams When It Is Time to Leave remember that their own child was not always so perfect.

I even hope that everyone sometimes remembers to cut people a little slack, especially themselves. Nobody/No dog is perfect. We’re all working on it. Our dog training class graduate Mac is trying hard. We all are.

Mac March 2014

Posted in Child Development, Parents, Public libraries, storytime, Youth Services | 2 Comments

The Modern Public Library

When I first started working at my library, it was at a temporary site while the old building was being extensively remodeled. A few months later it opened for a thrilled community. Another nearby library was also under construction using the same architects. Some elements were the same but where that library chose glass and marble and chrome for its surfaces, our library decision-makers felt that our community was old-fashioned and would prefer wood and nature motifs. So that’s what they built, and it was beautiful. But the library world has changed a lot in the past 15 years, and it was definitely time for an update.

We spent the last year under construction. This time we did not move out to a temporary site, but did the project in phases, moving people and collections multiple times. In case you were wondering, that is not fun. It is super-stressful for everyone concerned, particularly if the project includes installing a new HVAC system with its associated duct work and noise and temperature swings. But we survived, and now we are welcoming the public into their new spaces.

For awhile, I felt a little conflicted about the results. We threw out the nature theme and went with the glass and chrome look, but with eye-popping color on the walls and color and pattern in the carpets. The more adult areas are sleek and elegant, and the lighting design throughout is spectacular. We pulled out the circulation desk and added self-checks, and we downsized the public service desks. I’ll admit, it no longer feels like a quaint and cozy library as you enter, and it is not the Mayberry Library any more. I wondered, have we changed the library to not match the community?

They would have loved an update on the old look, with new nature-themed fabrics and new versions of wood furniture and wooden shelving. But the message that would have sent is one of nostalgia, prompting responses like, “Aww, here is the library like I used to remember.” That wouldn’t have been a bad thing, exactly. But would the community have continued to think of the library as a vital part of their lives? Would they have been willing to continue funding something they associate more with the past than the future? Would they understand how essential it continues to be to the community?

The message they are getting instead is: This is a whole new library. It is vibrant and gorgeous and bright. There are museum-quality installations for children to play with while picking up early learning skills. There are rooms to use to study in or to conduct meetings, with quiet space for thinking. There is a place for the teenagers to go be together and another space for the middle graders to hang out after school. There is a whole floor of computers, with a training lab for learning new things. It is all about the future.

We retained most of our book collection, and we haven’t lost sight of what the community is counting on us to provide. But we have sent the message loud and clear that we are the library for now and the future, with cozy areas and noisy areas and staff who step up to help them. We have retained the best of the past while moving forward. I am pretty proud of that.

circle area

Posted in Construction, Public libraries, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Battle of the Books


34 years is a long time. That is how long my library has collaborated with our area schools to run a Battle of the Books competition. 34 years! Last night we celebrated  with an awards ceremony for the winning team and all of the Battle participants and their families. Just today, an author I admire, Rosanne Parry, commented in a discussion of multiculturalism that book battles can really motivate young readers. And that made me think it was time to explain how we do our Battle in the hopes that maybe other libraries and schools will continue the tradition.

Battle of the Books began as a radio program in the 1930s in Chicago, co-sponsored by the department store Carson Pirie Scott and the Chicago Public Schools. There are many different versions of it around the country, but its basic structure always centers around kids answering questions about the books they have read. (This is not to be confused with a March Madness type of book face-off, which is fun but isn’t Battle of the Books.)

It’s an old-fashioned, book-centered program, just like the Summer Reading Club and storytime. It’s a classic, even when you are reading your Battle book on your Kindle. Here are some things you need to make it a wonderful program:

1. A great list of books. That’s a no-brainer, but believe me that it takes a lot of work. The children’s librarians at my library read year-round to find titles to add to the list, because 20 new books rotate onto the 60-book list every year. We include a mix of entertaining and well-written fiction and nonfiction books at the 4th-6th grade level. Some authors are perennial favorites, like Lois Lowry and Kate DiCamillo, and some books rotate back onto the list every few years, like A Wrinkle in Time or Charlotte’s Web. One of the best things about keeping the list fresh is that it motivates the staff to read new books as they come out, and the need for balance always keeps us remembering to include all kinds of books about all kinds of kids.

2. Interesting quotes from the books to make into questions. If you use quotes from the book instead of pulling out trivia, you catch the flavor of the writing, which is good for competitors to notice and more interesting for the audience, too. Here is one of my favorite questions:

First, he sharpens the pencils. Then he sharpens the chalk, and then some popsicle sticks, and then his finger. Name the book.

Our questions all end with “Name the book” and we make it a rule from the beginning that you have to get it exactly right for the sake of fairness. We do not want to be stuck in the position of deciding that one almost-right answer got points and another doesn’t. Not all great books make great questions, and there’s no question that sometimes it is hard to write questions that aren’t complete giveaways, especially with a popular book like Harry Potter, or a nonfiction book. But having some easy questions is good too. I frankly have no idea how kids get as many correct answers as they do–they amaze me.

3. Kids and coaches. There isn’t any special kind of kid you need to run Battle of the Books. Competitive kids, shy kids, big readers, reluctant readers can all be successful in a well-run Battle. What they need is a good coach. In our Battle, the teams are formed by our schools, and coached by either a librarian or a parent. Some of our coaches run a highly-organized operation with requirements for written reports, and others make it a loosely run lunchtime activity. Some coaches put in just their best team members, while others try to give each kid a chance to participate on stage answering questions. You can win with one really strong reader, and you can win with a team that collaborates well and takes lots of turns. You can have fun without winning.

4. Support from school administrations and your library administration. Battle is a partnership, and like most partnerships it requires commitment.

I’m not going to lie–it is not the easiest program to execute. But it gets kids excited about reading in a way that continues later on. They get a chance to compete on behalf of their school without being athletic. It gets the librarians reading new books so they exercise their own reading muscles. It gives us the opportunity to push our favorite authors, and to help widen the worlds of our kid readers by exposing them to other cultures, history, and knowledge. Most of all, it is an on-going celebration of books and authors and writing.

We always end Battle by inviting one of the authors of our Battle books to come speak to the kids at the awards ceremony. In my years of author speeches, I’ve only encountered one snooze that involved a lot of slides involving historical research. All of the other authors have been fun and engaging and seem to enjoy the opportunity to meet face-to-face with their readers just as much as their readers enjoy meeting a real-live author and getting their autographs. Every year, it does my heart good.

P.S. Did you get the answer to the question?

Posted in Childhood reading, Children's books, Programs, Public libraries, Reading Incentive Programs, Uncategorized, Youth Services | Leave a comment