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Applying the SOAR Model to Virtual Children’s Programming During a Pandemic

How did the Parkway Central Children’s Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia get a head start on virtual programming before the pandemic?

In November of 2019, I attended a series of Skills for Community Centered Libraries training sessions with a cohort of my colleagues at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The training was developed by the Free Library with funding from IMLS, in partnership with seven other libraries around the United States & Canada. This curriculum will soon be available to all public libraries. In that setting, I was inspired with a spark of an idea about putting bite sized pieces of Storytime programming on Instagram Stories – this idea developed and blossomed into so much more as our world changed. I had no idea, in late 2019, that our job was about to change so drastically and we would have to bring all of our programming to the virtual space.


Using the SOAR Model (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results), as presented in Skills for Community-Centered Libraries training, I was able to lead our Central Children’s Department team of 5 children’s librarians (Kate Eckert, Scout Mayor, Naomi Socher-Lerner, Mary Westbrook, and myself) to successfully staying connected with our community of library users while in-person library programming was impossible. We reached a larger population than we ever had before, making new connections with patrons and community partners while maintaining strong ties with our existing community.

Strengths: What does your library do well? What are you known for?

In Center City Philadelphia, the Parkway Central Children’s Department serves a large demographic of children ages infant-5 and their caregivers. We are known for excellent Storytime programming (and variations like Music & Movement, Baby Lapsit, Yoga Storytime, and Crafternoon). Social media is also a strength. Our popular Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter profiles get a fair amount of followers, likes, and engagement. Each librarian brings their own special skills & interests to the table. For example, I enjoy creating short videos for Instagram that catch the eyes of patrons, community partners, and other libraries. Children’s Librarian Naomi is active on Facebook, with the ability to draw a very large audience (thousands of views). Reader’s advisory superstar Mary connects with authors on Twitter, sometimes winning free books & prizes, and often building strong relationships. Authors visit our library after meeting Mary on Twitter! One author stopped by the library when she was in Philadelphia visiting her son. She wanted to say hi to Miss Mary in person, and she signed our library’s copies of her books!

Opportunities: What are areas of untapped potential for the library? What community needs and wants could the library address?

Combining Storytime and social media seemed like a natural opportunity. Thus far, we had been using social media to tell our community about what we were doing- advertising programs, encouraging patrons to come in and check out books from our displays, etc. Through Instagram Stories Storytimes, I wanted to bring a taste of Storytime programming to the social media space. This would:

  • Connect children to their favorite stories and songs (with their favorite librarians) between in-person Storytime programs, extending the Storytime experience into the home and building stronger bonds with our existing community
  • Provide parents with a chance to participate in Storytime with their child if a different caregiver is the one who accompanies the child to the library
  • Reach families who had not yet been to Storytime, allowing them to try it out from the comfort of home
  • Reach folks who could not travel to Center City or were not available at the times programs were held

We worked on planning for this project in early 2020… and suddenly our whole world changed! Because we had already been considering ways to bring our programming to the virtual space, we were able to pivot and begin providing virtual programs through our social media platforms immediately. During the months that followed, we adapted all of our work to the virtual space, creating virtual displays, answering reference & readers advisory questions via Facebook and Instagram DMs, doing virtual outreach visits to schools & childcares, beginning new partnerships with authors and community organizations, and continuing/building on our existing partnerships. As we start to move back into in-person programming (still limited to outdoors only at the time of publication), we have been able to bring some of our virtual programming into real life! Learn more about the Parkway Central Children’s Department’s partnerships & programs, as well as more about SOAR at the Free Library by viewing the recording of this webinar.

Aspirations: What is your community passionate about? What strategies and actions support our vision for the library’s future?

On social media, it easy to measure community reactions based on engagement statistics. Initially, we had anticipated that we could reach a wider audience with virtual programming, but we had no idea just how many people would be interested in viewing our programs! Some of our videos had thousands of views! We will continue to provide virtual programming as a permanent part of our offerings, as long as staffing allows.

Pride Month programs were among our most viewed virtual programs. It is our goal to bring LGBTQ+ family programming to the Philadelphia community year-round and become a leader in LGBTQ+ family library programming.

We also learned that our patrons love to see behind-the-scenes content, like updates on our department’s renovation, how we prep our take-home craft bags, and unboxing videos of our new books as they arrive.

Results: How will we know we are on track in achieving our goals? What results do we want to see? How might we track the impact or changes that have happened?

A Young patron views virtual Baby/Toddler Storytime with Children’s Librarian Mary Westbrook.

Circulation statistics showed that people continued to engage with us online and place holds on books, despite our location being closed. On the hold pickup list each day, we saw a lot of the titles we had featured in our virtual programs, posts, and displays. Program attendance numbers rose beyond what we had been able to achieve with in-person programming alone, and children’s programming accounted for a full 50% of Parkway Central Library program attendance last year!

I have been recognized from Instagram several times by parents/caregivers while outside in the neighborhood and at community events. At first, we lacked that immediate rewarding feeling we get from interacting with families at Storytime. Soon, we were receiving messages about how much children are enjoying our virtual programs, and how they love to play pretend librarian at home. Our favorite feedback has been photos of children engaging with our virtual programming!

Connect with us and learn more…

To see some of our virtual content and get ideas for your library, please follow The Free Library of Philadelphia Parkway Central Children’s Department on social media. We will follow you back! We would love to learn about what you have been doing, too!

If you would like to learn more about Skills for Community-Centered Libraries training, check out this webinar series and the accompanying materials.

Today’s blog post was written by Becky Shaknovich, Department Head at Free Library of Philadelphia Parkway Central Children’s Department & Field Teen Center in Philadelphia, PA, on behalf of the ALSC Managing Children’s Services Committee. She can be reached at ShaknovichR@FreeLibrary.org 

This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of I. Commitment to Client Group; III Programming Skills; V. Outreach and Advocacy. 



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