Sunday, March 16, 2014

Rite of Passage: NYPL's partnership with Passages Academy

How do you make readers out of people who can't get to the library? If you're a superhero librarian like Lindsy Serrano, you go where you're needed. Lindsy (who is an editor of this blog) and her colleagues at the New York Public Library got out from behind their desks and brought the idea of literacy into the juvenile corrections facilities in their library district.

Lindsy is a Senior Librarian for NYPL and explains below some of her strategies for reaching kids that not many people have taken time to reach. She also blogs at

Tell us about the program.
Starting in 2006, I was in a group of librarians at the New York Public Library (NYPL) that participated in a formal outreach program with Passages Academy, a multi-site correctional school run by New York City's Department of Education (DoE) and Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) . The librarians who visited Passages were usually working in the Bronx and Brooklyn, where Passages Academy sites were located. They were also trained as Young Adult librarians. We visited about once a month to talk to Passages students about the public libraries and what we had to offer, we also did book talks and were able to bring in books for the students to keep. Each librarian had their own programming style. I liked to play games like Pictionary and Charades and I would always save discarded books in good shape to give away to the students as well. Other librarians had the class become an impromptu focus group for YALSA's Quick Picks committee or had writing workshops.

Why did your patrons need this program?
In New York City, over five thousand young adults are taken into custody by the DJJ. While in detention, they do not have easy access to books, and literacy is not always a priority. I found it interesting that prisons for adults must have libraries in them but they are not required for juvenile detention centers, especially when studies show that a higher literacy rate will play a vital role in an incarcerated teen's rehabilitation process. It was very important for NYPL to visit, to give them access to books that they might not already have, support the increidble work that the school librarians already did, and to make sure students knew that the library was available to them after their release.

What were some of the challenges for the librarians during the program?
Librarians faced similar challenges that you would have in mainstream high schools, things like unruly students and difficult teachers, but there were also some challenges more specific to the space. One of the biggest challenges was dealing with the security system. The DoE and DJJ didn't always agree about the importance of a visit or communicated with each other about upcoming events. Because of this, just getting into the facility was a challenge. Sometimes security guards would not know about your visit and not let you in, or make you late for your classes because they had to wait for permissions from school administration. Sometimes you would get to the school and find out that you needed extra ID or there was a new security protcal that you didn't know about. It was also hard to bring the books in for the students sometimes because different sites had different rules about what their students could possess. Some places allowed paperbacks but no hardcovers, some didn't allow anything at all. Once I brought library cards for the students to keep but couldn't give them out in fear of them being turned into a weapon. So there were a lot of challenges! And really, the only way to avoid these challenges would be lots and lots of preparation, much more than you would do for normal outreach. I would get the school librarian to work with me to make sure I was on the roster of who was coming in, and I would double check to see what I could bring in. Sometimes I would even ship the books I was going to give away to the school ahead of time so I wouldn't have to carry it all on the day of the event.

What would you do differently if you had another shot?
The main things I would do to make this partnership better would be to make program even more consistant, and try to make it a part of the library's already established Correctional Services Program, with mainly works with Rikers' Island. Working with Passages Academy meant trying to balance the needs of both the DoE and the DJJ so being a part of a formal department would have been very helpful when trying to book visits. I would also have loved to do larger scale programs at Passages, such as author visits or arts programs. The amazing school librarians that work at Passages do a wonderful job and I wish we could have supported them more in their work.

What's Next?
Working with Passages was such a great experience, and I know that librarians are still doing wonderful outreach when their branch allows it (I am no longer doing outreach at Passages because I transferred from the Bronx). I am currently working on a DIY author series, where craft book authors visit the library and talk about publishing their books while they teach us a new skill (knitting, embroidery, calligraphy, etc)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

"Books and Butchers" at the Johnson County (KS) Library

The thing I love the most about libraries is how the materials can offer a start in trying something new, anything from cooking to sewing to gardening and beyond. The staff at the Johnson County Public Library (JCPL) took this idea way beyond with a program last November called “Books and Butchers.” 

John Helling is the Associate Director for System Services at JCPL (and an editor for this blog) and carried this program from its idea to a crowded room of 80 patrons and one half a pig. He sits down with Deprogramming Libraries to tell the story of when a butcher came to the library.  Find more of his writing in his book.

Tell us about the program.
"Books and Butchers" was a hog butchering demonstration that took place in our Central Resource Library where we had actual butchers take apart an actual half-hog.  They explained the process to the crowd, who were free to interject with questions whenever they wanted (there were a LOT of questions).  Over the course of the demo, which took about two hours, they talked about things like organic farming, the importance of eating locally raised meats, bioethics, how one goes about becoming a butcher, and also things like how to cook the different cuts of meat they were making.

The library staff had created several book displays that were set up near the event with a super wide variety of titles and topics, so no matter where the conversation went we were able to point patrons to a book that would let them further explore whichever facet of the program they found interesting.  There were cookbooks, farming books, history books, books about food scarcity, books that told you where to find good barbecue...everything.  We even put out Charlotte's Web.

Why did your patrons need this program?
We wanted to demonstrate to patrons that the library was a place where you could experience things, and also to make the subject matter of our books a little less abstract.  In other words, we wanted to decrease the distance that people experienced between the subject of a book and its real-life incarnation.  The hope was that hog butchering might attract people into the library who weren't already library users, and that we could show them that there was something relevant here for them.

When I was a librarian in rural Indiana, I remember there was a couple who used to drive 20 minutes or so to the library.  The woman would come up and browse for a bit, check out her books, and then go outside to her husband, who would wait in the truck for her.  Clearly, he had decided at some point that there was nothing for him in the library, and that sitting in his truck was a better use of his time than coming inside.  This has (obviously) remained with me, and I'm always thinking about ways to get the attention of people like that.  You have to be big, bold, and dramatic about it I think.

What was risky about your program and how did you address that risk?
Butchering a hog in a library is not something that many people saw a point in.  A lot of people thought (and, to be clear, this is a completely legitimate argument to make) that we would be better off spending our time and energy on, you know, NORMAL stuff.  Getting people to pick up books by showing them a hog being butchered is a bit like trying to shoot the moon - it's a high-risk, high-reward proposition.  If it goes poorly, good luck trying to get approval for your next idea, unless your next idea is something totally bland.

We tried to mitigate that risk by planning the thing to death.  We had our Marketing department come up with talking points for the program so that we could easily explain it to skeptical patrons (or staff, or board members).  We had our Reader's Advisory Coordinator put together a thorough and amazing list of titles that proved the program's relevance to our collection, and we used that list to create the displays for the program itself.  Essentially, we tried to anticipate every question or doubt that someone could have about the program and address it before it came up.

How did you get ready for the program?
We had a lot of conversations.  No one was really sure how to make a hog butchering work as a library program, because no one had ever done it before.  Even the butchers were a bit skeptical at first.  Basically, everybody involved was stepping out of their comfort zone and trying something new, so we had to be sure that everyone had a chance to ask all of their questions and wrap their minds around the idea.  For what was essentially a pretty simple program (an outside presenter coming in and doing their thing), we probably had a six- or eight-month planning period.

We're also very lucky to have a very good in-house Marketing department, so we were able to talk the program up in public before we had it.  We advertised for it all over the place, in print and on the web, and even went so far as to have special napkins printed that we used during the event.

What would you do differently if you had another shot?
About the program itself, not a whole lot!  We were very pleased with the results.  Approximately 80 people showed up and they were extremely engaged; from the very beginning the crowd was asking questions and didn't really stop for the entire two hours.

We could have improved several of the tangential aspects of the program though.  For example, we could have counted how many books were checked out from our displays, and noted which titles people took.  We didn't do that.  We could have put a librarian up on stage with the butchers, suggesting specific titles for further reading that went along with whatever question the patron was asking.  We could have had the butchers create a list of their favorite books in advance, and had them on hand for patrons to check out.  We could have live tweeted the event to draw more "day of" attendees.

We also talked about doing different versions of the event.  Maybe at Thanksgiving the butchers could come back and show patrons how to properly carve a turkey.  Or maybe we could turn it into a series, and follow up by inviting a chef who could talk about how to create recipes.

What's next?
Oh man, so many things.  Our library is full of so many smart, motivated people.  We're expanding our MakerSpace, we're doing a series with author Tanner Colby about the history of racial segregation in Kansas City, we're expanding our popular early literacy program called 6by6 into Spanish...and tons of other stuff.  Keep an eye on us.