I was privileged to be one of many librarians who attended School Library Journal’s first ever Public Library Leadership Think Tank entitled “The Future Starts in the Children’s Room.” This action-packed day-long event brought together passionate librarians to discuss the future of Children’s Services. Pam Sandlian Smith, the Director of Colorado’s Anythink Libraries, began the day with an inspirational keynote challenging us to see ourselves not only as children’s librarians, but as “architects of dreams” and library leaders who can utilize the power of persuasion to show others the value of our contributions to our library communities. Attendees listened to a dynamic panel of innovators who discussed how collaborations can break down silos and reinvent library services. But my favorite part of the day was the time I spent leading one of the breakout roundtable discussions, entitled “Serving and Engaging Children with Special Needs.”
One of the topics that came up in our discussion was a recurring theme that had emerged throughout the day. How do we measure success when we are serving under-served populations? Traditional measurements of success, like gathering program statistics, may not always paint an accurate picture of the impact a new program or new service makes. For example, when I first launched a Sensory Storytime program at my library, attendance was not what I had hoped. I had anticipated full programs from day one with long waiting lists. It took several tries before we had cultivated a following of regular attendees. But it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve talked to a few librarians who have developed and launched targeted programming for children with special needs, and still have yet to see any regular attendance. Does that mean their program has failed? I’m not so sure. I think it’s a matter of changing our definition of success. Success does not always equal the number of warm bodies in a room. So, what other factors can we consider?
Nicholas Higgins, Associate Director of community outreach at the New York Public Library said it best during his panel presentation at SLJ’s Think Tank: “It’s important to adjust one’s definition of success. Often times, the success is just having access to this population.” It’s true. Most of the time, it is simply about having access to a new population and introducing the library to a new set of users. Families with children with special needs are under-served–not just in public libraries, but in general. It may be that families with children with special needs have not always felt included in other places in their community–whether it is the local grocery store, park district, or their local school. It’s important for a public library to be a welcoming space for all patrons. So, the fact that libraries are recognizing there is a gap in service is a plus. Not only that, the fact that libraries are now developing and offering inclusive programming options is a huge step forward to having families with children with special needs feel included in their community.
We can also consider our library’s reputation as another way to define success. Reputation is tricky, though. It’s intangible and isn’t something that can be measured in traditional ways. Even so, it’s important for us to think outside the box when serving under-served patrons. How do we find out what our library’s reputation is? Simple. Find out what people are saying. Maybe your library is reviewed on Yelp or Four Square. Maybe your community has something like JJ’s List, which reviews the disability friendliness of local businesses. If you are interested in gathering feedback directly from patrons, consider more informal means. Use meetup.com to find local support groups for parents with special needs and offer to speak with them about how they perceive your library. Create an online survey and post it to your library’s Facebook page or website. If you are hosting a new program or service specially targeting a special needs population, don’t miss out on the chance to talk to your patrons directly. Being open and initiating a one-on-one conversation with a patron can prove to be extremely enlightening. When developing new services and reaching out to under-served populations, we can’t be afraid of feedback. And if we are truly in a place of authenticity about wanting to improve our services, we may learn some valuable insights about how under-served populations see and perceive our library.
What are some ways YOU measure success differently at your library?
If you are looking for some inspiration, check out what these other librarians took away from this incredible Think Thank. Take a look at Amy’s posts A Culture of Optimism and Plethora of Programs, and Joanna’s post Think Tank Recap.