I had the absolute pleasure of presenting on a panel with three other sensational youth services librarians this week at the Illinois Library Association Annual Conference. Representing small, medium, and large libraries, we talked about the development of programs and outreach services to children and young adults with special needs. One librarian presented on using American Sign Language (ASL) in her storytime. Another discussed how she led book discussions and reader’s theater programs with a group of high school students. The third librarian talked about how she incorporates sensory-friendly crafts into her programs. While each of our programs are vastly different from the other, I realized there was one common thread throughout: bravery.
At one point or another, all four of us were “newbies.” We may have planned dozens of storytimes, booktalks, or book discussions, but there was a moment when we had to lead that program for the first time for an audience of patrons with special needs. I’ll be the first one to admit that starting a new storytime terrified me. I envisioned one of two outcomes. Either no one would show up, or I would have a group of 12 children screaming, crying, and running around the room not listening to a word of my storytime–any librarian’s nightmare. True, I may worry more than the average person, but at the heart of it, I was nervous that all my hard work would go to waste. Let me tell you, this couldn’t be farther than the truth–it was a complete success!
But how do you measure success for programs for an audience of patrons with special needs? And how do you know there will be an audience for your new program? From a practical standpoint, librarians need to validate time and money spent with cold, hard statistics. How many patrons are we serving? Does this program have a return on investment (ROI)? These are important questions, especially when advocating for funding in these financially trying times. The truth is, I took a risk in developing a new program, but I knew it was a risk worth taking. Even if I didn’t officially survey the community, I knew that many state and nationally funded programs lost funding this year. I also saw there had been an increased number of patrons with special needs using our facilities.
If you would like to develop a new program for an audience of patrons with special needs, it’s important to assess the need first. Observe who is coming into your space and what services they are using. Have casual conversations with them or their caregivers to find out how else a library can meet their needs. Connect with the special education teachers in your district and ask if the Library can support their classroom. Maybe it means creating a survey about special needs services and evaluating the feedback you received from your community. This can tell you a lot about what new services or programs you may want to provide. Time and time again, I have been told by parents, teachers, and even special education administrators that the real achievement is just doing something.
A library has not always been a place where patrons with special needs are welcome, but that’s changing. I see it in the excited faces of those that attended my ILA program, ready to bring a fresh perspective and new ideas back to their library. I see it in the increased number of parents registering their child with special needs for library programs. I see it in the attitude shift of library staff after participating in a disability awareness training. I see it in the increased number of webinars and other online learning opportunities for professional development now available through ALSC and ALA. If there’s one thing that I hope you take away, it’s simply this: be brave!