Blogger Managing Children's Services Committee

How to Plan Future Programming With Uncertain Staffing Amounts

Welcome to Ask ALSC, where the Managing Children’s Services Committee asks leaders in children’s libraries to share their response to an issue or situation. We hope to showcase a range of responses to topics that may affect ALSC members. If you’d like to respond to today’s topics, or suggest a topic for the future, please leave a comment.

A large part of managing a children’s department is keeping the department staffed and the programming going. How does one plan programming for Summer Reading when you aren’t sure who will be working in your department? How do you plan if you aren’t sure you will be fully staffed? Early this year, I had two staff notify me that they will be moving out of state in spring. Years ago, I would be sad to see great employees leave but focus on filling the openings  and continuing with our plans. Now, I worry that it will take a long time to fill the openings or that we may not fill them before summer or at all. Here is a suggested path to get you through the planning process if you are experiencing changing staffing amounts or have unfilled vacancies.

First, approach your planning like a logic puzzle.  There is a solution out there. You will need to identify the pieces of the puzzle and then work out a solution one step at a time.

Next, be realistic and be open to doing things differently than before. You cannot do more than you have staff for. You will have to cut programs or change what has been previously been offered. Identify the staffing amounts you have without the vacant spots. Plan for only this amount. If you are able to fill your openings, the new hires will be able to help and learn the job with less stress. If you cannot fill the spots, then your current staff will not  be responsible for a stressful amount.

Remember that in addition to the programs, staff will be helping patrons with the summer reading program too. Our Youth Services staff checks in the logs and so I allotted for staff time to go to this task. I also allotted time for the increased traffic in our department that results in more clean up and refilling of displays and handouts. In addition, I planned for the increase in reference desk questions and the staffing needed for this.

After you know when and how often you can hold programs, strategically think of how to serve the most children, age groups and interests. Choose programs that have less staff preparation time and fewer staff to run the program. Also, choose programs that any of your staff can run.  A drop-in Family Bingo program is an example of a program that can be run by anyone in your department and has little prep and clean up time. You can add variety by alternating what program is in the time slot you have staffing for. For example, we merged the Thursday Storytime for 3-5year olds with the Community Worker visits. The two programs alternate weeks in the same time slot. This works best if the programs are targeting the same age group.

You can increase your offerings by adding in programming from hired performers. We don’t have a large budget so, we hired a few favorites and also contacted partners who offer free programming such as the local dance school and Fermilab. These programs require no planning time, attract multiple ages, and can be run by just one staff member.

Another way to increase offerings and encourage people to stop in is to offer a “pick-up” program. We all got quite skilled at packing to-go bags due to Covid restrictions. We have continued to offer Book Boxes and Interactive Movie Kits as part of our programming. These can be created and packed at times when staff is able to do them. Some of them can be done ahead a month ahead of time. This summer we are offering a Baby Board Book Surprise Bag that will include 5 board books checked out to the patron, a sheet of rhymes and songs, and a learning activity. Our beach themed bag has a small beach ball along with a sheet of suggested play activities that encourage motor skills and intellectual development for babies. 

Finally, we use passive programs to always have activities available without any extra staffing needed. We always have a  themed scavenger hunt going in the Youth Services department. The hunt gets switched in the middle and end of each month. Kids who find all 8 of the hidden signs in the department choose a sticker or bookmark as a prize. We have also kept our Make & Take craft table going.  A new craft is put out each Monday and offered until supplies run out. We typically prepare the supplies for 50 crafts. These crafts are prepped far in advance and filed in our supply closet. We all contribute a few crafts to each session. Each of us completes these craft bundles at a time that works with our personal schedule. Often this task is completed in between helping patrons.  This is a task that newly hired staff can help with too!

When you are finished choosing and listing programs, review your solution to be sure you have something for all the ages you serve. You will likely have less than your dream amount of programs. This is okay. You will still have many happy kids and families come through your department. We had several programs we just could not fit in with the staffing amounts we have. They are on our wish list and will be worked in to the line up when we are fully staffed. Remind yourself and your staff that the amount you have will allow you all to go through summer without hitting a high stress level and will hopefully be a temporary situation. Keeping your staff un-stressed will produce the solution you sought.  You will have a steady flow of visitors, many successful interactions and a happy, welcoming environment for your patrons.

What programming have you had success with that could be done with uncertain staffing amounts? Share your ideas! Leave a comment.

Today’s blog post was written by Christy Kepler, Head of Youth Services at the Oswego Public Library District in Illinois, on behalf of the ALSC Managing Children’s Services Committee. She can be reached at

This post addresses the core competency of III. Programming Skills.


  1. Lisa Bintrim

    We have a couple of programs that we offer that are very low-prep and don’t necessarily need a staff member in the room but have been a big hit with the community. For Playdate at the Library, I put out gym mats and a bunch of toys (the storytime puppets, soft blocks, toy cars, a few other odds and ends) in our meeting room. It was meant to run for just a couple months in winter and a couple months in summer—when the whether isn’t conducive to being outside—but it’s been so popular that we’ve kept it going. We also do a Drop-In Building Blocks program. I set out LEGOs, Duplos, and soft blocks, and the families just help themselves to whatever they want to use. During summer, Chalk Night has been popular. Families can borrow a bucket of sidewalk chalk and have fun drawing on the sidewalk outside the library.

  2. Uma Nori

    Thanks Christy for an insightful piece. To be short staffed during summer reading is the hardest challenge for any Youth Services Manager. I like your advice of approaching the planning process as a logic puzzle. I like to think of Sandra Boynton’s books or Mo Willem’s pigeon they make me smile, help me through the process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *