Mission Branch Builds Community Through Storytime
Rachel MacNeilly is the Children’s Services manager at the Mission Branch of the San Francisco Public Library. She runs a bilingual lapsit program twice each Thursday, with an average of 120 people in attendance every time. “I live in this neighborhood,” says Rachel to me during my visit to her library last week, “these kids can’t hide from me for long. They WILL come to storytime.” Over the course of less than one year, Rachel has changed children’s programming from a single, weekly session for about 45 attendees to multiple programs per week and nearly five times the attendees.
Program Assessment and Change
So, how did she do it?
First, she assessed the needs and use patterns of the branch’s existing patrons. What she found was that patrons were attending programs and promptly leaving the facility afterward without so much as a second thought of reading on their own. She also found that the ‘standard’ storytime offerings were not engaging the patrons in the neighborhood. By asking many patrons many questions, she was able to get a clearer idea of what the literacy ‘needs’ and ‘wishes’ for the patrons were and that she could incorporate these needs and wants into a really engaging programming event.
Recipe for Success
These investigations resulted in big scheduling shakeups at the branch. The number of infant lapsits for infants and children up to the age of three changed from one to two per week. Each lapsit is designed to include both English and Spanish songs and rhymes.
The format became much more interactive and includes movement with scarves, rhythm with cluster bells, egg shakers, and rhythm sticks. The program emphasizes to adults the importance of positive interaction with their little one.
The results have been dramatic, with adults and children staying in the library for hours after the program for reading time and time to interact with other babies and their grownups. The atmosphere has morphed from a traditional, formal experience to a more community-based, relaxed experience that welcomes people to feel at home in the space.
Update Collection Offerings
Her second major task was to weed the collection in her library. “I want this place to look like Nordstrom, NOT the Nordstrom Rack!” she says.
She used the following two principles to guide the weeding:
- No Spanish children’s materials in the library that are “older than me”
- No books that “look junky”
She has found the weeded collection has actually encouraged people to browse and take out more materials: “With less on the shelves, there’s less on the shelves,” (meaning that people check things out more).
Program and Circulation Goals
Circulation has almost doubled, but it’s still not up to where she’d like it to be. Rachel has aggressive goals for upping her circ numbers in the coming year--stats that match what she’s been able to do with their program stats. “I love stats,” Rachel says. “You can think you’re changing things, but stats let you know if you really are.”
The impact on the program attendance at Rachel’s library is directly related to the facts that the programs are bilingual, offered at appropriate times of day for their intended audiences, and have benefited from a complete and recent overhaul of the content.
The programs are more age-appropriate, and more focused on touch and movement. Rachel tries to include programming to benefit the caregivers, too. For every hour of programming she makes sure she includes a development tip she hopes that caregivers will find really helpful.
Organization Support Key to Success
Rachel gives credit for her program success to her supportive work environment: “The San Francisco Public Library system is a wonderfully supportive place to work and grow as a professional.”
She cites programs like the ongoing trainings through the Office of Children and Youth Services that provide opportunities to learn from colleagues from all over the country. “I have relied heavily on the work of Betsy Diamont-Cohen, Nancy Stewart, and my fellow SFPL children’s librarians who alone hold a wealth of knowledge regarding best practices in serving children.
“Our director, Toni Bernardi, and our Early Literacy Specialist, Christy Estrovitz, have been incredible supporters and sounding boards as we experienced growing pains and adapted our programming to better suit the needs of our patron base.” Rachel also acknowledges the incredible resource that is ALA’s Every Child Ready to Read program.
A Library Community
Perhaps the richest resource of all is the sheer volume of patrons that share favorite stories, rhymes, and songs with Rachel so that they might be included in the battery of songs and rhymes in storytime rotation.
I visited one of Rachel’s story hours and was awe-struck by the energy and emotion in the fully packed, standing-room-only one-hour bilingual program. I was very proud to be a small part, as a fellow librarian, of the community building work that she’s doing in her neighborhood.
A Library Community, Online
When I asked her (completely as an aside) about online community building, Rachel (to my sheer, absolute joy and delight) told me that she’s begun a website just for her branch. The site is accessible to both English speaking and Spanish speaking patrons, and is a "place” where you can access all the storytime content, songs, and calendar of events in both English and Spanish. “My people are busy,” says Rachel, “they don’t have time to search for numbers and call the branch.”
She said the process of building a site has been rocky, but certainly worth the trouble. Once patrons caught wind that they would be able to listen to storytime songs and rhymes online, the excitement really started to build. The content is currently set to highlight the branches wonderful array of storytimes and opportunities for parents/caregivers and children to share a joy of reading books and exploring print.
Connecting Parents and Caregivers
Because so many of the ‘regulars’ at storytime at the library are caregivers, the website’s links to songs and rhymes will really allow parents at home to participate in their child’s exploration of literacy.
So far, Rachel has a limited number of ‘bells and whistles’ on the site, but plans to add topical surveys, a suggestion box, and blog as time goes on and interest and web traffic increase on the site.
When I asked Rachel what makes her programs and services so successful, especially in so short a time, she said very simply “My people ask me for what they need, and I just try to get it for them.”
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