Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Children @ Your Library

I hardly ever went to the library as a child so I don't have any anecdotes about how great the children's librarian was and how she got me hooked on reading.  Almost everyone has one of these nostalgic stories of the children's librarian of yesteryear which leads me to my point that librarians should be memorable to kids - and not in a negative way.

Understanding that the importance of a child's reference question ranks just as high as the adult customer standing in your line is a good start toward making a positive impact on that child.  A guest writer for Letters to a Young Librarian, Jenn Estep, commented on what it takes to be a good children's librarian and the points she makes are very valid. If your library is lucky enough to have a separate children's department and librarians who specialize in this area then you may not find what I have to say particularly helpful.  If, however, your library is a branch like mine with no one particular person to handle children's reference, this post is a good starting place.  Jenn Estep's post assumes that you actually want to be a children's librarian, and maybe you do, but maybe you don't.  Maybe you just want to survive the amount of time it takes to shelve the cart of juvenile books and the numerous questions you will surely be asked during that time.  Whichever lofty goal you have set for yourself, allow me to offer some non-children's librarian tips for handling children's reference:

Children Are Customers, Too
Treating a child's question with as much care as an adult asking about your business resources is the first step toward engaging the child.  It is easy to overlook their needs because children are less likely to complain about being ignored. But as advertisers will tell you, children are the most powerful customers of all and warrant your full attention.  So often, I see the library staffer approach of only speaking with a parent and never acknowledging the child standing right next to them.  In a scenario like this, I wouldn't blame the child for never wanting to step foot in a library again.  If you can make a genuine connection with a child, however, you have a customer for life.  And what parent can say no to a child begging to go to the library?

Your MRBs Are No Good Here
Children's librarians take special courses in child reference behaviors during library school.  If you work in a library, you probably had training on Model Reference Behaviors and it may or may not have included a section on children's reference questions.  One of the key points drilled into our heads regarding MRBs is to ALWAYS ask open ended questions.  But for children, who are still developing language skills, answering open ended questions can be difficult.  Instead, I recommend asking multiple choice questions to prevent a game of 20 questions.  Here is a great example:

Child: Where are your books on dogs?
Librarian: I have lots of books on dogs.  Do you have a dog or do you just like them?
Child: I have a beagle.
Librarian: That's awesome!  I wish I had a dog but I'm allergic to them.  Did you want to look at books about Beagles or learn about other types of dogs?
Child: Beagles.
Librarian: Let's go look and see what we have. (As you walk to the books ask other questions such as, "do you have to take care of your dog," "how old is your dog," and/or "do you have any other animals?" The answers to these fun questions will help narrow the specific type of book the child is looking for)   

Most children are succinct in their answers and the only way to get them talking is to make a connection on a topic they love.  By having a conversational reference interview, you put the child at ease and increase the likelihood that the child will return to the library.

Early Childhood Literacy Matters
My wonderful coworkers, who have much more knowledge about children's reference than I do, have worked on several projects dealing with Early Childhood Literacy that really makes a difference.  From reader's advisory workshops to a literacy station in our juvenile collection (right,) children feel at home in the library even if they never seek the help of a library staff member.  Hopefully, I will be able to share the reader's advisory workshop with you in the near future, as well.

Working with children can be so rewarding if you let it.  It is impossible for me to cover every single nuance of assisting children at your library, but I certainly hope this gives you a jumping off point toward understanding our littlest, and perhaps most important, customers.

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