Saturday, April 13, 2013

School Library Journal Leadership Think Tank Re-Cap

I'm going to apologize in advance for the length of this post. I know it violates every rule on web copy, but I had such an incredible experience at the School Library Journal Public Library Leadership Think Tank that I want to include everything I took away from it so that those of you who weren't there can also benefit.

The School Library Journal Public Library Leadership Think Tank program was a day filled with inspirational speakers, in-depth discussion, and collaboration amongst some of the leaders in the field of youth librarianship. As I passed between Patience and Fortitude and stepped into the New York Public Library's Bartos Forum, I was awed by the beauty and history of the building in which we were meeting. Decades of innovation, collaboration, and advocacy have gone into creating the institution of public libraries, and I was about to become a part of that history.

As people were checking in and chatting with colleagues, we were asked to move around the room and contribute ideas and questions to the poster boards that were posted with discussion topics for the break-out think tank sessions. These included:

         Common Core in the Public Library

         Apps, Digital Literacy, and Incorporating Technology into Programs & Services

         Building Vibrant Library Partnerships & Strong Collaborations

         The First 5 Years: Storytimes, "New Storytimes", & Early Literacy/Learning Initiatives

         Igniting the School-Public Library Relationship

         Serving & Engaging Children with Special Needs

         Librarians in the Wild: Taking Services Outside the Library

         Readers, Thinkers, Makers: Innovative Programs for Kids & Teens

         Rethinking the Physical: Makerspaces, Playspaces, STEM labs, & more

         Looking Ahead 5-10-15 Years: What Will Youth Services Look Like (and what should we be doing now to prepare)

Rebecca T. Miller, Editor-in-Chief of School Library Journal welcomed us and spoke about how the room was intentionally filled with representatives at many levels - children's librarians, teen librarians, middle managers, and top administrators - because leadership happens at every level of the organization and is most effective when supported from the top. This program is intended to parallel the School Library Journal Leadership Summit and she will be passing ideas back and forth between these two programs. She noted that many of the best institutional leaders started out in youth services because it is such a wonderful training ground for effective leadership. Youth librarians are often expected to manage their own budgets at very early stages in their careers, and "If you know toddlers, you know the pressure to innovate".

Next to take the stage was our keynote speaker, Pam Sandlian Smith, Director of Anythink Libraries in Colorado. The nexus of Smith's presentation was that Children's services professionals have the opportunity to expand this sense of curiosity, innovation, and entrepreneurialism beyond the traditional borders. What if the entire library was a learning laboratory? What if the library were the center for community participation and engagement? Discovery and open access are central to the Anythink philosophy and libraries should all strive to be what Nina K. Simon termed participatory libraries - "places where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content." To this end, Anythink has eliminated fines and "dumped Dewey" (which was met with a rousing round of applause). Their goal was to break down barriers for their patrons and give them a "metaphorical hug when they enter the library". She encouraged us to have goals, visions, and dreams so as not to get stuck in the drudgery of daily responsibilities and to create small transformations for the public - interactions with content and ideas that enrich their lives. She shared examples of things as simple as their Community Valentine where patrons are encouraged to add heart-shaped sticky notes to a board declaring what they love to more involved Experience Zones including the embryology zone which is both mesmerizing and educational for kids and adults and urban gardens on the property of the library which are more than just vegetables; they're about growing the community. She stressed the importance of "bringing play into the workplace" because play is our brain's way of learning.

Creativity and innovation are important elements of success, and they inspire this in all members of their staff (from pages to board members) through their annual Tech Fest. We viewed videos that the staff created during Tech Fest, and you could feel the excitement and fun they had in working with technology that many people might feel intimidated or overwhelmed by. She showed pictures of their various media labs but stressed that they should NOT be about the equipment. They are a natural extension of traditional youth services and environments where kids, teens, and adults can build relationships with mentors. During the Q&A, a participant asked Smith how she created this culture of creativity. Smith answered that you have to "focus your energy and attention on the creative, thoughtful problem-solving early adopters and inventors in your organization. The 6-9% of the grumpy naysayers do not get to drive the bus." Anythink also relies on "barn raising" to solve problems. Bring everyone together, do the dirty work, and then celebrate the accomplishment. She closed by saying that all children's librarians should consider becoming directors because we have the skill sets already, and we could then be in charge of allocating more resources to youth services because "our future depends on the children's room."
I had the opportunity to chat one-on-one with Pam Sandlian Smith about the roadblock of staff resistance, and she shared with me a wonderful example from Anythink. They offered multiple trainings over the course of many years on how to download e-books to e-readers because staff members were constantly being asked by patrons to assist with this issue. For many of their staff, the training just was not sinking in, so she asked her Foundation to provide $50 rebates to staff that purchased their own e-readers. What they found is that when staff had a personal investment in the technology, they were so much more willing to retain the information they were learning, and it solved the problem they were having with staff training.

Next we turned to a panel discussion Silo Free: Creating Collaborations that Make Stronger Libraries. The panelists gave examples from each of their organizations on how they utilized collaborations to break down silos and reinvent library services, spur innovation, and better serve their patrons.
Rachel Payne, Coordinator of Early Childhood Services at Brooklyn Public Library

Brooklyn Public Library began a "Saturday Stories" program when they realized that they were only seeing child care groups, not parents, during their weekly programs. They incorporated parenting tips, modeled positive literacy-based interactions, STEM activities, and collaborated with the Department of Education which resulted in evidence reflecting that kids showed early literacy indicators after participating in the program. The biggest take-away for me was that by rebranding the program "Ready, Set, Kindergarten", participation increased 30% because parents are looking for school readiness programs. It changed their mindset from "it would be nice to go to Saturday Stories if we have time" to "We have to go to Ready, Set, Kindergarten."

Susan Modak, Librarian, Montgomery County Public Libraries, MD

Susan developed a weekly program for teen parents that modeled literacy behaviors, included larger cultural experience, and offered take home books and crafts. What really struck me most about Susan's library is that they have a separate building just for children that they call the "noise library" where children are not only allowed to be themselves and create noise but are in fact encouraged to do so.

Nick Higgins, Associate Director of Community Outreach, NYPL

Nick Higgins is in charge of a program that provides services to families affectedby incarceration on Rikers Island including literacy programs based on Every Child Ready to Read, parenting classes, and services for mothers who give birth while incarcerated. One example is the Daddy and Me podcast where dads get to record themselves reading a story to their child. He underscored the necessity of these programs with the following staggering statistics: 2.7 million children nationwide have incarcerated parents. 100,000 of those are in NY state and 50,000 are in NY City. The total daily population of teen inmates is 14,000. Aside from the initial ambivalence of the inmates, one of the biggest challenges this program faces is the hostility of the Riker's Island staff who believe inmates have forfeited their rights to information.

Kathy Bennet, Library Lead Teacher, Metro Nashville Public Schools

Through Limitless Libraries, the Nashville public and school libraries have created a partnership that provides seamless information access by sharing collections, combining resources, and allowing school IDs to serve as public library cards. She emphasized that this was "not a takeover but a partnership" and that "public and school librarians speak different dialects of the same language." Creating a shared library catalog allows students to reserve books from the public library which are then delivered to the schools using the school transportation system. The result is that 112,000 public library items have been delivered to the schools so far this year, and it has actually resulted in an increase in the school libraries' circulation statistics.

The overarching theme of these programs is that collaboration breeds collaboration, and it's not about the organizations you want to work with but about the people in those organizations. Start small and create strong personal relationships, and they will grow into something more widespread. It is so important to not develop preconceived ideas before you actually meet the people you will be serving and to truly listen to what they need and want.


During lunch, we were treated to a presentation from John Hunter, author of World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements. Over 35 years ago, John Hunter developed the World Peace Game, an interactive political science game that puts students into various roles as members of five different countries in order to solve real-world issues. The impact that this game has had on the problem-solving abilities of the players is so remarkable that an independent film crew created a movie about it. The film has been screened four times at the Pentagon because of the lessons learned. Students learn and collaborate and solve high level problems without even knowing that they are doing those things. Hunter spoke about how there is a moral stigma attached to not being right and that the World Peace Game removes that stigma and allows kids to try experientially with collaborative wisdom. Hunter's presentation was awe-inspiring and humbling at the same time. Seeing these children solve issues that confound our top political leaders with such joy and humility is what 21st century learning is all about and what all educators should strive to achieve. We received a copy of the book, and I will be routing it to all the staff in my library.

Lynn Lobash spoke next about MYLibraryNYC which is a program very similar to Limitless Libraries in Nashville. The NYPL IT staff worked with Bibliocommons to build a connector between NYPL's catalog, Milennium, and the schools' catalog, Destiny, to create a shared catalog. Students receive NYPL Student Cards which offer fine free borrowing, 3 week loan periods, up to 15 holds, and 50 items checked out at a time. The Educator Card also offers fine free borrowing but increases the loan period to 60 days and allows up to 50 holds and 100 items checked out at a time. NYPL librarians also ran statistics to determine which non-fiction books had the lowest circulation and used those books to create teacher sets based on subjects as well as class sets which include 30 copies of a single book. The success of this program, as with Limitless Libraries, is that the items are delivered to the schools. NYPL does this through a partnership with UPS. Lynn is more than willing to share the marketing materials and lessons learned from this program with any library system simply by emailing her at

The small group think tank portion allowed participants to choose the topic they were most interested in pursuing for more in-depth discussion. At the end of the breakout session, the takeaways were shared.

            Common Core in Public Libraries (the group I participated in)

         Common Core (CC) are national standards developed by a private group of educators adopted by 46 state governments that cover grades K-12
         CC shifts the mindset from teaching to the test and knowing the right answer to teaching skills
         CC testing will commence in the 2014-2015 school year
         The timeline for when subjects will be taught is shifting much younger (ie. instead of learning about the solar system in 5th grade, they're not doing it in 2nd grade)
         CC will help standardize education across states which will assist military kids and foster kids who change schools on a regular basis and move from state to state
         "informational texts" in Common Corespeak = non-fiction in libraryspeak
         CC requires that students in middle school be reading 50% "informational texts" and by high school that number increases to 80%


         Teachers are not being well-trained and are as lost as the librarians
         Teachers fixate on the "suggested titles" list provided in the CC guidelines (which are now becoming quickly outdated) and want only those specific titles instead of focusing on the subject and being open to suggestions for additional titles
         Teachers do not have time to meet/communicate with librarians which creates a Catch-22 of "librarians can not help put together subject resources if the teachers do not tell us what subjects they are working on."


         Teach teachers how to talk about the non-fiction books with their students
         To get around the roadblock of a lack of communication from teachers, go directly to the Curriculum Director and ask for a timeline of assignments
         Do some digging yourself and check school websites for summer reading lists or assignment announcements
         Offer a workshop (and ask the school district/DOE to have it count as Continuing Education to incentivize attendance) on Common Core techniques
         Join the local school librarians organization in your community and attend their regular meetings
         Check out the Information Fluency Continuum for 3 benchmarked literacy skills
         Read Mary Ann Cappiello's Teaching with Text Sets
         Read your state's Common Core from cover to cover and familiarize yourself with it
         Booklist and School Library Journal both have special articles and sidebars highlighting books that meet CC standards for help in collection development
         Be confident in the fact that librarians are children's literature experts already. We can match our existing collection with CC standards and student needs. Don't worry so much about what's behind CC.     

            Librians in the Wild: Outreach

         Do not reinvent the wheel - find out who is already doing what you want to do and contact them for advice.
         Let people say what makes them uncomfortable. Acknowledge that and then brainstorm how to move forward.
         Build relationships in groups for succession planning. That way if/when the main contact leaves your institution, the relationships do not languish.

            Apps/Digital Literacy

         There should be a librarian competency for using apps
         Technology often forces us to rethink the physical space and how it is used
         Level It Books app allows users to scan book ISBNs to learn their Lexile & Guided Reading, and Grade Level Equivalents.
         Technology should be part of the program not the whole program. When all else fails (like your wifi) go to the original app - the book!


         Makerspaces are "designated spaces for collaborative learning from community experts filled with equipment not typically found in libraries that results in the creation of content."
         STEM programs are not something new that you have to add to the mix. You are probably already doing them - planting trees, building with LEGOs, Minecraft, etc

            Serving Kids with Special Needs

         Staff training is vital in understanding the challenges that kids with special needs face

            First 5 Years

         Seek out grants from community organizations like Rotary & Junior League which have literacy mandates 
         Storytimes need less rules. Do not turn people away if they show up late.
         When storytimes become stale, mix it up with things like New Years Eve countdown to noon, Dads & Donuts to engage male caregivers, bring in outside Arts performers, etc.

            Public/School Collaboration

         How do you ignite the relationship when there is no school librarian?
         When starting a new relationship/collaboration, be specific. What do you need? What can you give? Be ready with stories and details.
         Put a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in place to formalize roles in inter-organizational partnerships

Matt de la Pena closed out the event with a sweetly self-deprecating story about his journey to books and becoming an author. Despite moving to America to give his family a better life, de la Pena's Mexican father was only able to speak Spanish at home. However, the children were punished for speaking Spanish because in de la Pena's father's opinion, the children would only succeed if they were perceived as being "white Americans" like their mother. This confusion over language led to de la Pena struggling as a reader and defining himself as a non-reader. His takeaway is that we all have to overcome definitions in our lives, but the hardest to overcome are those we place upon ourselves. This has implications within libraries because of the institutional walls we create by limiting ourselves to the definitions of our department or job title. It was not until a college professor specifically told him to read The Color Purple, and it moved him to tears, that he considered himself a reader. Now as an adult he speaks to high school kids about vulnerability, guilt, working class shame, and the journey books can take you on. One young man was so inspiring to him that he became the real life Miguel from de la Pena's We Were Here.

Overall, this was a thought-provoking and inspiring day. We were given time at the end to network, and I have come away with a new fellowship of youth services librarians (including a fellow Eurekan from the very first class) who I may never have connected with had I not attended this event. I know that we will keep the conversations that were started at this event going and help spread them to our colleagues. It has also expanded the network through which to promote the wonderful things that we are doing in California. The one thing I was disappointed about was the fact that there were so few school librarians in attendance. I feel that in order to truly address some of these roadblocks that we have identified, we need to bring those stakeholders to the table. Despite that, I have a renewed sense of excitement and possibility, as well as a long list of "to do"s that I will be taking back to my library.