Blogger Eva Mitnick

Renovating beloved programs

branch GAB sign

There comes a time when any library, whether it’s one branch or a whole system, needs to reassess the way it does things, whether it’s something specific (storytime or visits to schools) or broader in scope (programming for families with young children; outreach).

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, especially when that rut is a particularly pleasant and apparently popular and successful one.   Even when things aren’t going as well as one would hope, it can be hard to see beyond “that’s the way we’ve always done it” to figure out how improvements can be made.

I’m at that point with a program that we’ve offered at our 72 branches and Central Library for over 20 years, in which adult volunteers read to children, one-on-one or in small, informal groups, at the library.

First called Grandparents and Books because we focused on the intergenerational benefits of pairing older adults with kids, the program now goes by the name GAB,  as we now welcome all volunteers ages 21 and up.  You can find more information on GAB at this blog post.

It’s helpful – in fact, it’s vital – to ask “why do we offer this program?  What are we trying to achieve?  What outcomes do we want?”  This can help evaluate current practices and plan programs that are more purposefully geared to library goals.

GAB has many great elements and benefits:

  • It’s a popular library volunteer program; although we do have plenty of people who drift away, many of the volunteers remain for at least 5 years and dozens have been with the program for more than 15 years
  • Adults reading aloud to kids at the library is right in line with two of our library system’s big goals – to Invest in New Readers and to Help Students Succeed.  After all, reading aloud is well-documented to strengthen early literacy skills in pre-readers and to create enthusiasm for books and reading in beginning readers.
  • Our volunteers, wearing their cheery aprons and reading to kids in the children’s area, add a welcoming and cozy personal touch to our busy libraries.

I’m convinced that this is a program that is worth continuing, for these and many other reasons.  But an evaluation and overhaul of GAB is overdue.  Here are the things that I and my staff will be pondering over the next few months:

  • The name “GAB” – Now that we don’t use “Grandparents and Books,” the name is meaningless.  What shall we rename it?  What are the repercussions of changing a name that so many folks (including our long-time donors) recognize?
  • How can we recruit and retain volunteers in all branches?  Currently we have volunteers coming out of our ears in some communities but no volunteers in others.  Clearly we need to improve in this area.
  • Staff buy-in – We’ve had plenty of turn-over and turmoil among our librarians, thanks to staff shortages caused by the economy, and some librarians that administering the GAB program is an added burden.  More training and support could help convince them of the worth of the program
  • Evaluation – We’ve conducted plenty of surveys with our volunteers and we know they feel strongly that they are helping individual children as well as the library and the community. Volunteers report that they feel this is a valuable program that makes them feel great.  But what about the kids and families with whom they are working?  We’ve never sought to measure outcomes related to them – in fact, we haven’t actually figured out what outcomes we want to measure – and it’s long overdue.
  • Sharing the wealth – This being such a great and worthwhile program, I want to share it not just with other library systems but with other organizations (recreation centers, daycare centers) as well.  My goal is to package our program (the training we give volunteers and staff, how we implement the program, how we give recognition and continued training to volunteers) in a complete but simple and flexible way so that others can adapt it.

It will take a good year at least to plan and implement these changes and improvements.  And in the process (especially as we think about and measure outcomes), the program may change in ways we didn’t predict.  In fact, I hope it does!  It will mean that we stuck our heads out of our deep and comfortable rut and took a good look around.

Take a look at the way your library offers storytimes, conducts outreach, or selects materials.  What are you trying to achieve?  Can you do things differently, even though it’s scary?  Try it anyway!

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