Blogger Amy Steinbauer

Balancing Low Staff and High Program Needs

Ever since I transitioned from children’s librarian to a branch manager– I have been way more obsessed with the staffing needs that is required to run a children’s department, well. Depending on your branch, location, system, or building– children’s departments probably average anywhere from 3-15 programs a week. And while it might look to some managers or admin or even patrons, that those programs just appear magically– I know all the hard work that it takes to prepare, craft, present, and manage those programs– and all the staff needed to make those dreams possible.

Then- what happens when your staff numbers start to change? Maybe someone goes out on FMLA/PFL or takes a well needed multi-week vacation or gets transferred or quits? How do you fill in those gaps, while still providing service to the patrons who will always be there? These are some of the things that keep me up at night!

My branch has a lot of change in the more than 7 months since I have been the Interim Manager. We have huge story time crowds– we cap our programs at 75 children and adults– and we always have people who can’t get in. In our busy, city branch– many nannies are required to spend long stretches of time outside of the home– so they spend their days at the branch. Even as I sit down to write this– on a morning with no immediate program- there are around 50 people upstairs in the children’s room with babies to 5 year olds. We also have huge after school crowds– we are located near a few middle and high schools, and frequently have 30-40 tweens and 15-20 teens using our reading rooms and teen space from 3:30-6, every day.

In essence- I need a lot from my children’s staff– and we have been short staffed in children’s for months!

Here are some things we are trying, to best serve our public and maximize our time to both program and do the million other tasks that children’s staff must do:

  • Cut a program! It’s not ideal– but take a temporary hiatus on a program. We were doing 2 preschool programs a week for basically the same baby/toddler audience–so we cut it down to one and changed it to an All Ages story time. You can always reassess when staff return.
  • Passive programs for the win! We did “add” a program– with the creation of a 1 hour passive program of a Block Party. This is a great time to raid your random overflow of supplies– I noticed we had lots of big building toys that were basically unused. I think they were part of a summer reading finale party from years ago– and now we repurposed them into an actual program! We put out cardboard boxes like these and cardboard circles that connect like these (except ours are just circles and cardboard). Then we put out some connecting and building toys that were unused. Instant program!
  • Change up your format! When we suddenly needed to fill in two baby/toddler story times for 6 weeks– I knew that I needed to ask some staff who haven’t done story time before- to step in! Story time is such a daunting task that I didn’t want to make them do the whole presentation of it. Our system offers a story time training, and then we met as a group to decide on a mini-version. We created a “Tale and a Toddle” to fill in the gap. Presenters do a SHORT story time. Think- Intro, Hello song, Song, Book, Song, Song, Puppet or Flannel, Goodbye Song and then we have play time! That way our audience gets a bit of what they came for with BONUS play time!
  • Look into your partnerships! We have also been looking at getting more presenters in to do music or puppet programs that can fill a programming void with minimal staff support. We are lucky to have a robust Friends group who can help support some programming! However, depending on your system– you may be able to find programmers do do in-kind programming for free!
  • For older kids- try a movie afternoon! We have done some programs with our streaming databases like Kanopy or movies we are licensed to show. It’s simple to show a movie and maybe grab some snacks and help move some of the afternoon crowds to a meeting room activity that takes the strain off of reference staff.

None of these solutions are perfect– but with enacting them, we have found more ways to add to our teen and tween offerings- which we have needed to do for awhile. And changing things up is a great way to reassess what is working and not working for your program and community needs. The Block Party is such a hit that I know that it will stay even after our staff numbers increase.

What other ideas do you have on how to work around low staffing?

This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: Programming Skills

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