The Balance Beam

I've been coordinating Youth Services at my new library for three years. When I arrived, programming attendance numbers beyond storytime were pretty anemic.  Many changes have been instituted over time to adjust to this reality. Not all of them have been easy for the staff. At our two branches, staffers were out of the planning loop that helped other Youth Dept. staffers adapt to the changes. In an effort to help them see the direction we are heading and the balance we are trying to achieve, I sent this memo right before summer:

"We have had dwindling numbers for much of our in-house school age programming at all three locations over the past 5-6 years. We are not alone in these programming number declines. Libraries throughout our state and around the country have also seen small to large programming number losses. While library usage and circ remains high, programs are not always the services that people come to the library for (no matter how much they say they will). We have tossed a lot of spaghetti against the wall in trying to attract school-agers into programs, with pretty mixed results. Much of the programming takes considerable preparation and when we see fewer than ten kids it is economically a pretty crushing result.

So we made the decision, at the beginning of the five months we were down a full time children's librarian at Main, to re-align our school age programs to concentrate in two main areas: no school days and outreach into schools. We are taking fewer programs out to the branches and doing fewer programs here at Main. Instead we are taking advantage of opportunities to take content directly out to school kids and to parents at parent nights, noons, breakfasts, kindergarten orientations, reading camps and other events that allow us to promote the library, literacy and reading directly to that age group and their parents. So while parents may wonder if they are seeing us less we are actually reaching out to ever larger groups of school-agers and parents where they are. We plan to continue to expand this programming in the future.

We have also over the past eighteen months shortened our storytimes into smaller sessions. There are a couple of reasons for this. When I came, I noticed staffers putting so much energy into year-round storytimes that little was left to come up with other services and initiatives (like Free-quent Reader; 1000 Books B4K; Rubber Ducky Club; revamping teen and elementary school SLP’s; Early Literacy Centers; developing dynamic field trips; creating the storytime coupon books, etc) that enhance our mission: to promote reading, library use and literacy for kids.

I also saw a staff so tied to storytimes that scheduling vacations, attendance at vital conferences and other CE opportunities was almost impossible. Programs exist to bring people into libraries, to entice them to try services and collections, to help them form a “library habit”. Creating an endless cycle of programs with no breaks tells me that we place little value on our collections and services and don’t trust that people will return again and again without the lure of programs. I have found that to be untrue as I watch circ figures and gate counts continue robustly while number of programs have declined.

Finally we are trying to balance all our outreach –preschool and school age – so that everyone gets a chance to have us come to their school and site. With the loss of Lucy’s outreach hours (half time outreach position eliminated in budget reductions), our preschool outreach will continue but much less frequently. We will try to balance the needs of all our patrons but it is definitely a paradigm shift. We all know that we are in -- and face --some challenging budgetary times and I am trying to position us in a way that we can continue to give good service with self-sustaining initiatives like 1000 Books; Early Literacy centers; Free-quent Reader that add valuable service for our users and complement our in-house programs (while not necessarily expanding them)."

After our summer program ended, I was able to share more results. Despite having a fairly flat registration and offering half the number of events, we increased overall participation by kids in the program and our circulation rose by 13%. There are more ways to increase usage and invite families in than just programs. I hope all this helps us keep our balance!


  1. This is exactly what I've been doing with my library, too. We weren't seeing the numbers that we needed to be seeing to justify offering so many in-house programs during the school year. So now we're concentrating on school breaks and outreach during the school year! Glad to know other libraries have found success with this, too!

  2. I feel better about taking breaks on our storytime programs--vacations the same time the local school vacates and ending some before school lets out to allow for some breathing time for not only the librarians but also the dedicated parents.
    I'm looking for ways to entice the older kids back to the library. Our afterschool program is foundering and the schools don't have afterschool programming due to their budget cuts. Maybe the soccer and football fields?? HMMM

  3. I was firmly told by several wise librarians, "You MUST have breaks!" So I built them into my programming when I started my current job. I was lucky in one sense, that there was NOTHING in place as far as programming, so I could experiment. But I am constantly wondering...what are "acceptable" numbers for programming? Is there some kind of statistic that averages your population? I never know whether I should feel good or bad about our numbers.

  4. Jennifer, it is really difficult to determine what makes up success in numbers. One just navigates through it. Some communities are uber supportive of programs; some less so. It's crazy making. When I worked in a community of 21,000 we had waaay more people in our programs than in my community of 51,000 now. And we are offering similar content and programs. Who can say.

  5. Sigh. I was hoping there was some secret algorithm they had forgotten to tell me in library school (-:) Our town is 10,000 and our service population is about 24,000 and my monthly attendance stats range from 500 (in February) to 900 in the summer. Which I mostly feel ok about...but I'm never sure if I'm measuring up!

  6. You're an inspiration to me, Marge! It's so important to keep thinking about WHY we do what we do - and if what we do isn't serving its purpose, we need to change it or drop it. Never should we do something because "we've always done it that way!"