The California Museum Association Conference, Friday

I went to the California Museum Association conference, and learned that the museum zeitgeist is in a similar place to the library zeitgeist. They’re focusing on community engagement and experiences, and trying to balance what it takes to attract new audiences with what core members expect. They’re moving from the stewardship of things to the cultivation of people.

Friday I went to:
Museum Public Relations – How Museums Big And Small Can Get The Most Out Of Media
Moderator: Alexandria Sivak, Senior Communications Specialist, J. Paul Getty Trust. Presenters: Emma Jacobson-Sive, Director, Public Relations, Pasadena Museum of California Art; Sasha Ali, Exhibitions Manager, Craft and Folk Art Museum; Stephanie Sykes, Communications Manager, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

This presentation brought together people doing communications in different size museums, to talk about their strategies for successful press coverage. While the LACMA is a large institution, and can shoot for starting a press campaign six months in advance, the smaller museums may run on a much tighter schedule. At the Craft and Folk Art Museum, where the press campaign is also run by the person in charge of installing the exhibit, a lot of the press may happen after the exhibit has opened. Larger museums, with dedicated communications teams, may also have more time to cultivate personal relationships with reporters. However, all presenters emphasized the importance of finding the right angle into the exhibit and that would be of interest to the reporter or outlet.

A press campaign relies on several things:

  • Timing and suspense (to build and maintain momentum)
    • relate to current events?
    • if your press release is late, why is it late
  • Novelty
    • superlatives or landmark statistics – biggest, first
    • celebrity (an accessible celebrity)
  • Access
    • special tour or interview
    • first look at information
  • Proximity
    • What’s your geographic reach? Will help determine your target outlets
  • Spokespeople (generally not the communications person)
    • someone in a leadership role in the org (may need to provide media training)
    • provide/work on streamlined message points
    • multi-lingual a plus
    • someone invested, engaged and knowledgeable about the exhibit
    • helps diversify your institution’s faces in the media
  • A Strong Image (or more)
    • needs to stand out
    • but, don’t drown out your story

Cultivate real relationships with the media. Understand the tone and interests of reporters and publication. Is the journalist staff or freelance? What is the reach and audience of the the outlet?

Timeline: Gather info, images, messaging points -> send out press release to long lead outlets – > send to short lead -> frantic week-of push.

A Press release should be 3-5 pages of fact-based information. Who, what, when, where, why, and how much, plus quotes that can begin to ID and give voice to your spokespeople.

A Media alert is just 1 page – brief, facts only.

Targeted emails can cut through oversaturation and get your message out. They need to be tailored to the reporter, and can be more effective if there is already an underlying relationship. One way to tailor is to read what reporters write, and then pitch based on their last article. You can also text your pitch – find your reporter’s preferred contact method and use it.

Emma Jacobson-Sive talked about working to get publicity for their June Wayne exhibit. She had sent out her pitch and heard nothing back, so she looked for other angles. She pitched to Jewish-focused publications and got picked up. She also pitched to the Science section (after having no luck with Arts and Home) and got picked up.

Sasha Ali talked about using the allure of access to get coverage. They offered an exclusive tour of one artist’s studio. They also do a press lunch in the gallery the week after opening.

Media outreach is different than community outreach. However, both require a sincere enthusiasm for what you are promoting, and the ability to match what you are doing to the interests of your audience.

The last session I went to was:

California Museums and National Initiatives with IMLS

Moderator: Claudia French, Deputy Director for Museums, Institute of Museum and Library Services. Presenters: Luigi Anzivino, AD of the Tinkering Studio, Exploratorium; Robin Sease, Manager of Visitor Education and Services, Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden; Michael Shanklin, Chief Executive Officer, Kidspace Children’s Museum.

This session presented three IMLS grants: Let’s Move Museums and Gardens, with the Los Angeles Arboretum, Museums for all, with the San Diego Children’s Museum, and Makerspaces, with the Exploratorium.

The LA arboretum is a member of the American Public Garden Association. There are about 250 peacocks on the grounds. They don’t own the peacocks – but the peacocks are there nonetheless. They participated in the Let’s Move initiative with a lot of creative, interesting, and low-budget programming. For example, they provided a recipe of the month. They created special walks that people could do on the garden grounds – an extreme walk, with a pedometer, and the “Serpent Trail” The “Serpent Trail” was in the Austrailia section. Kids would get a new activity at each of a series of checkpoints. For example, at the Kangaroo checkpoint, they would have to hop like a kangaroo until they got to the Kookaburra checkpoint, and then they would have to flap like a bird. They also used teen volunteers to create a gardening obstacle course for kids. Activities included things like putting on gloves and knee pads, and pushing a kids sized wheelbarrow. They created a garden expedition, where kids would get stamps for completing objectives. And finally, they worked with the cafeteria to ensure that there were healthy menu options.

The Museums for All initiative provides free or heavily discounted museum entry for families with EBT cards. This initiative is year-round, and to some extent removes the “charity” stigma of free days. The Children’s Museum of San Diego has had a lot of success with this program. In 2013, they had 684 participants. In 2014, they had 11,610 participants. And in 2015, they are on track for over 22,000 participants. These are generally new visitors. The program provides exposure to museums for people who may never have thought of a career in museums or education as even a possibility. It allows museums to foster a love of learning in a larger and more diverse audience. It introduces families to museums.

The Exploratorium is participating in the Makerspace initiative with their Tinkering Studio. One program they do is the Tinkering Social club. During the Exploratorium’s adults-only nighttime hours, they invite a special guest to come to the studio and do an activity or share a current project with attendees. They also worked on a project with libraries – a marble run on pegboards that traveled to different branches of the San Francisco Public Library.

Tinkering is fun. Fun engenders engagement, persistence. It means there is no need for a “right answer. It allows people to stretch, to engage in new behaviors and experiment with new identities. In tinkering, the BIG IDEA is the participant’s idea. It encompasses science, art and technology, and demystifies and transcends them, providing mutliple access pointers for tinkerers. THINKING happens with your HANDS.

Learning is not terminal – Learning never stops. Tinkering allows people to prototype and build rapidly, iterating ideas and gaining comprehension. It is EMPOWERING and social, and builds a kind of instant community. Tinkerers don’t hoard knowledge, they share.

The tinkering process includes failure, frustration, and facilitation. Part of running tinkering activities is knowing when to intervene. The Exploratorium bakes failure into its activities. This provides fertile ground for learning and allows people to push past boundaries. Frustration is a learning activity.

The California Museum Association Conference, Thursday

I’m at the California Museum Association conference, learning that the museum zeitgeist is in a similar place to the library zeitgeist.  They’re focusing on community engagement and experiences, and trying to balance what it takes to attract new audiences with what core members expect.  They’re moving from the stewardship of things to the cultivation of people.

Thursday I went to:

Meaningful Community-Centered Engagement: Lessons Learned
Moderator: Lisette Islas, Director of Partner & Civic Engagement, San Diego Grantmakers. Presenters: Rob Sidner, Director, Mingei International Museum; Gwen Gómez, Manager of Community Programs and Bilingual Initiatives, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Museum of Art; Micah Parzen, CEO, San Diego Museum of Man.

This session described how The Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation worked with three museums to engage citizens from San Diego’s Diamond neighborhood.  Moderator Lisette Islas described how she had found that the arts were a great carrot for involvement; asking folks to help plan a celebration of their culture got a lot more involvement than asking folks to come to a housing meeting.

She described how a donor had asked her to put together a collaborative project that would involve Diamond Residents and the Balboa Park museums.  Initial meetings allowed people to break bread with each other and provided plenty of time to talk and plan.

Islas told a story about a Somali refugee: this woman had never been to a museum, and had no idea what they were about or how to act in one.  She would not take her kids to a museum, because she couldn’t help them with the experience – she had no context, and couldn’t help them to behave properly.  They realized they might need to provide an exhibit from the museum, outside the museum.  They realized they needed to be PROACTIVE in showing people how to experience their institutions, and in inviting people in.

Projects developed included: kids from the neighborhood made murals, and then people from the neighborhood came to the museum to see what their youth had done.  A Behind the scenes at the museum event, which created a magic moment.  A project(s) on the theme Rites of passage.

On a five year trajectory, OUTCOMES for Mingei included working toward staff parity (40% of San Diego is Mexican-American but this is not reflected in staff) and funding a Community Relations Manager – who works with staff to help them be more engaged with the community.

Some advice:

  • On Managing multiple stakeholders (aka pleasing everybody): Build consensus with who you have, then defend your process.
  • Believe in yourself, but allow yourself to change.
  • It’s uncomfortable, but don’t be afraid to ask your audience, “how are we failing you and why?”
  • Make a space for others to lead.
  • You can’t please everyone, but you gotta stay at the table.
  • If we are truly committed to community engagement, this work needs to be built into the budget, not grant-funded

Audience question mentioned School in the Park which sounds AWESOME, an experiential learning lab which uses museums and Balboa park as a classroom.

Translating to libraries, and other thoughts:

What are carrots  a library can provide?  Literacy? Stories

Libraries can be community connectors too.

Find an organization that’s engaged in the community and jump on board.  Collaborate with peers in doing so.  Discuss processes openly.

Do people want to see behind the scenes at the library?

Should we bus people into libraries?

Should we invite neighborhood associations in for a tour and mixer?

  • Annually?  Meet your neighbors @the library.

Partner with a museum to create a library exhibit?

Presentation alluded to “museum manners,” the idea that there’s a certain way to behave in a museum, talking about how project worked with people so “they know how to act.”  For an inspiring presentation about a project that truly was “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” I found the existence of museum manners a bit of an anachronism.  Aren’t we working toward “be yourself” manners?  “Library manners” are a thing too, and a lot of old audience/new audience conflict surrounds the idea that new library patrons aren’t acting correctly.  We’re relaxing a lot of traditional library rules in order to meet a wider audience – the new library is not quiet.  

BUT, there’s also the idea that manners allow people to feel more comfortable by ensuring that we are behaving in a way that is not causing ourselves or another person distress.  Non-audiences might want to be inducted into “proper behavior,” might feel more comfortable and empowered if they have knowledge of the “correct” way to behave.  Breaking the rules of library manners has been a privilege of and conversation amongst those who already know the rules.

 Session 2E: Putting the Fun in Profundity: A Conversation About Compelling Museum Social Justice Work 

Moderator: Ben Garcia, Deputy Director, San Diego Museum of Man. Presenters: Lisa Sasaki, Director, Audience & Civic Engagement Center, Oakland Museum of California; Sheri Bernstein, Vice President of Education, Skirball Cultural Center.

This presentation talked about the ways that fun and the profound can appear together at the museum.  The pursuit of social justice (fair distribution of wealth, opportunities and privileges) is richer and more effective if fun is part of the equation.

If we include an institutional intent for Social justice, this can often be at odds with a perceived need for neutrality.  However, social justice seeking is ok.  It’s good to pursue JOY-CENTERED work.  What is fun? Fun is: quality family time.  Fun is: pleasure without guilt.  Participation is fun Creativity is fun Generative is fun.  Balance the best and worst of humanity with a wellspring of joy.  (Anthropology’s dark history is a one-way view that is very privileged.  How do we translate to a new present? By joining the fun and the profound.)

At the Museum of Man, they put together an exhibit of Native American Skateboard art, and included a half-pipe (with skateboarders) as part of the exhibition.  This upset some of their traditionally-minded stakeholders, but brought a lot of new interest from the city.

Museum of Man has two exhibits: Beerology, 2000 years of brewing history, which includes beer tasting, and Empowering Women, which talks about female co-ops around the world.  These exhibits are adjacent to each other and in this way the earnest and inspiring and the FUN share the same space.

Their Monsters exhibit was cross-cultural, engaging, diverse, and FUN, but was it profound?  No really.

Will this be true for your visitors?  “I am inspired to seek out other transformative experiences”

The Skirball museusm, a Jewish American Cultural Center, includes as part of their mission the wish to “create a society in which everyone can feel at home.  They created a Noah’s Ark exhibit, which serves as an introduction for proFUNd experiences.  The  exhibit tells a horizontal story about all the creatures of the world – that everyone is welcome in Noah’s ark.

One exhibit they created was called “Build a Better World.”  The wooden frame of a house was adorned with cards describing families that Habitat for Humanity was building homes for.  Visitors could write a welcome card for a family.  It also included a store where kids could use play money to buy real groceries for the families.  This exhibit/activity was do-able, open-ended, and had a story tie-in.

I found this whole program compelling, but was especially moved by how Sheri Bernstein expressed the Skirball’s pursuit of it’s mission.  Her idea of fun is authentic, but open to risk taking and failure.

Museum people can tell a good story.

Sometimes you have to “make it palatable,” to create stealth social justice.  Fun can still be profound.

The Oakland Museum of California has a Friday night program which is successful.  Friday nights will include a community partner and social justice element.  The want to amplify community voices. They also have a program which is Community Healing through Song, where a musician works with a community to create an original song.

Adversity and Opposition:

  • fun is different things to different people
  • you can let go of some stakeholders
  • Embrace the critique as an INTENTION, reframe the conversation as “Yes!  Let’s talk about this.  We *are* starting this conversation”
  • People will come to fun.

Welcome is intrinsic to doing Fun & Good Work.  Identity is intrinsic to doing Fun & Good Work.  Enjoy yourself and do good at the same time.

Library thoughts:

 Libraries are supposed to be neutral too.  We need a Vatican II for libraries.

Should we do a “Night at the Library”?

Libraries, like museums, are moving from being grounded in objects to grounded in experiences.

Session 3C: Creating Meaning Through Crowd-sourced Content

Moderator: Susanne Clara Bard, Content Developer, Coast to Cactus in Southern California, San Diego Natural History Museum. Presenters: Wes Hsu, UX/UI Designer, Balboa Park Online Collaborative; Joaquin Ortiz, Director of Education and Innovation, Museum of Photographic Arts.

The San Diego Natural History Museum included crowd-sourced content in their Coast to Cactus Exhibit, including oral histories about camping in Southern California.  Bard played an interview with a little girl who had some great observations, including that camping allows you to see what life was like when we didn’t exist, and that nature doesn’t hurt your brain cells.  They also included a memory tree, where people could respond to a prompt.

Hsu talked about a project working to get people to develop their own exhibit.  They had a tile wall where people could create their own galleries.  They produced simple themes like “trees” and “my favorites”  Hsu said that the application was not shallow enough – there were too many steps and people got bored.  He concluded that people don’t want to think.  They want a lighter experience that they can enjoy with their date or family.  Libraries should keep it simple stupid.

At this point, I skipped over to a concurrent session:

Inspiring Guests to Take Action

Moderator: Amy Miller, Director of Public Programs, California Academy of Sciences. Presenters: Nette Pletcher, Director of Conservation Education, Association of Zoos and Aquariums; Charina Cain Layman, Education Manager, Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Maya O’Connor, Senior Educator, San Diego Zoo Global.

World Oceans Day (at the San Diego Zoo?) was an exhibit that included Action Ask cards (asking the guest to take an action on leaving the museum), as well as an activity and story.  It transmitted the idea that small actions could influence the larger community.  Founded on the Touch the Heart, Change the Mind principle.

I didn’t stay for a lot of this presentation, but they talked about how Telling a Story can change behavior and create an advocate.  The San Diego Zoo also talked about how it’s important to inspire employees, and then they will go on to inspire guests.

Finally I caught the last half hour or so of a third concurrent session:

Using Public Programs as a Pathway to Engage Diverse Visitors: Strategies for Audience Development and Ensuring Relevance

Moderator: Stacy Lieberman, Executive Vice President and Deputy Director, Autry National Center of the American West. Presenters: Grant Barrett, Marketing Manager, San Diego Museum of Man; Robyn Hetrick, Director, Programs and Public Events, Autry National Center of the American West; January Parkos Arnall, Curatorial Assistant, Public Engagement, Hammer Museum.

The Autry Museum started a program of movies on the lawn, which were very popular.  They created exhibit tie ins, which sometimes were a reach but were ultimately pretty successful (e.g. Jaws and Dangerous Animals of the American West).  They also created a program in partnership with American Girl.  The flyer was in the American Girl store and that gave the Autry Museum a HUGE publicity boost.  Robyn Hetrick said that you need to put partners through your rubric to make sure it’s worth it, but that there can be huge returns.

This presentation explored more of the conflict between core members and new visitors.  Core members seem to be associated with staid, quiet and contemplative museums, whereas new visitors are drawn by boisterous fun and unusual partnerships.  However, increasing visibility and visits with boisterous fun can still boost attendance to the contemplative programs – for example one panelist said they were now getting audiences of 100+ at scholarly lectures.

Through the use of timing, and by having a varied portfolio of programs, a museum can still serve both audiences.  Marketing methods (social media v. paper) can help you reach the audience that’s most appropriate for your program.

They also discussed internal conflicts. Some museum have programming in more than one department – scholarly and public programs, for example, and the museum resources are prioritized in such a way that not everyone can win all the time.  They discussed the value of having a marketing voice at the table from the beginning, to help make choices that would happen at the right time for success.  ROI was brought up as an important consideration.  What is the museum making from memberships v. donors v. event tickets?  Is just holding the event enough of a success, or are you hoping for other outcomes?  Are you trying to maximize the one-time interest revenue?  Are you getting millennials into the museum?  (millennials are not museum members) They referenced the LaPlaca-Cohen study.  Are these one night stands worth it?

Ticket prices rule out some audiences.  It’s important to figure out what price your audience is willing to pay.  But, you may want to increase pricing for people who won’t become members.

The Autry museum created a successful event where people were invited to Curate a Gallery by making storyboards.

How do you track success and demographics?  Can watch who’s coming in (but demographic info is often not visible).  The audience showing up – that’s the survey.  Hold events that draw in the audience, and then fine-tune further events once you know who’s showing up.

The Hammer museum replaced security guards with Museum Experience Representatives, who were trained to see if someone was struggling with content or open to guidance.  They had training in how to help the audience appreciate a more complex work, in how to approach a visitor with kids, etc.

We carefully curate our own lives.  To be surprised is a breath of fresh air.

Good stories can take you far down the path.



I kind of hate that whole “program in a box” thing.

It’s the death of creativity, right?  It’s an industrialized, one-size-fits-all librarianship. It’s that standardized bureaucracy that is killing our ability to be supple and responsive.  It’s programming fast food.  Here is your Big Mac storytime ma’am, made just like every other storytime in the system.

Here’s another niggling peeve: the library is not a theater, even though some librarians seem to think that their programming should consist of paying performers to come give a show.

Programming is the opportunity for the librarian to creatively engage patrons.  Programming allows us to create a stronger bond between our community and the library, both by providing an interactive library experience for patrons and by bringing community members in to share their passions.  We program for our communities, in response to our communities, and in partnership with our communities.

Originality is required.

Library programming helps us to create new stakeholders.  Inviting the community in to work with us creates a sense of ownership in the library.  Once someone, or some group, has attended or presented a library program (as long as it has been a positive experience) they will more actively and vocally support libraries. Programs can identify new user groups, as innovative programs may attract people who do not otherwise use library resources.

Care, attention, and weight should be given to program presenters and attendees.

Library programming gives us the opportunity to share the kind of information that is not well-recorded.  Take for example, gardening. While broader guidelines for when to plant and how to cultivate have been published, gardeners adapt to local soil conditions and microclimates.  They learn through experience what works.  This information is best shared person-to-person.

Programs allow libraries to share more kinds of information.



Talking to the Library Board

For some reason, I have a real thing for, well, this kind of thing:

The library asks a question, and tries to get people to write and post their answers.

Here are some of the ones I’ve done:

Books and Robots

books v tech

We’re currently asking a question based on the theme of Silicon Valley Reads (a one city, one book program, only with multiple cities. More like a one region, one book really.) The question is “Books and technlogy, friends or foes?’ Patrons can choose to write on a book or robot, which were cut out of colored paper using the children’s department’s die cutter. While the robots are disappearing frequently, they’re not reappearing on the discussion board. I think people just like robots. It is Silicon Valley, after all.

What Would You Grow?


Shortly after I started our seed library, I cut out some leaves with the question, “If you could grow anything, what would you grow?” I put some by the gardening books and some by the reference desk, with instructions to drop in a box near the seed library (my secret trick to get people to figure out we had a seed library). This one actually got a decent number of responses. This year I finally got around to putting them up. My favorites:





Patron Driven Collection Development (aka What’s Your Favorite Book?)

what is your favorite book

At my other library, we prompted patrons for purchasing suggestions using post-it notes and an easel. We had a series of questions over a few months, and didn’t just look for collection suggestions, we also wanted their input on the use of some discretionary funding earmarked for furniture, etc. We got a lot of responses! This library has a single point service desk, and the question was displayed there, so there was a lot of foot traffic, by people who were thinking about the library’s collection (because they had just picked out books or movies), and it was something to do while waiting.  Transcription here: Whats your favorite book answers August 2013.

Here are some other people’s takes on this kind of thing:

Gratitude Trees

Cafe Catz Gratitude Tree by Flickr User eekim

People add tags describing or drawing something they’re grateful for.  A bit saccharine maybe, but I think they look really awesome.

Draw the Bay


The Exploratorium, a crazy-cool very hands-on museum in San Francisco, had this prompt to draw the bay.  They scan the results and rotate them through a digital display.

Crowd-Sourced Christmas Tree


Isn’t that a beautiful tree?


It’s actually decorated with paper cranes, folded from wishes for peace from people all around the world. The project is called the World Tree of Hope, and it’s a gift from the Rainbow World Fund.

Voting with Your Dollars

more tips in the jar

Tip jars in cafes prompt customers to vote with their money.  This one is a trivia question, but opinion questions (e.g. Android or iPhone, Tupac or Biggie) also work.

Photos in order of appearance

SVR Board Photo by Me

Seed Library/Leaves Photos by Me

What’s Your Favorite Book by Me

Photo: Cafe Catz Gratitude Tree by Flickr User eekim

Draw the Bay Card Photo by Me

Photos: World Tree of Hope by World Rainbow Fund

Photo: Birch Cafe, via What’s Your System on Tumblr

A Winter Tree Walk

japanese mapleOur city has a non-profit organization that is dedicated to supporting, contributing to, and enhancing the city’s urban forest. They plant trees, give tree care advice, and lead educational tree walks. And, their board meets in the library.

My boss, who is excellent at both lurking and networking, was hanging around the library one day and got them interested in partnering with us to do a tree walk. The library is right next door to a small park, where the city has planted all sorts of interesting trees over the years. Why not have people meet at the library before heading out to see some nature?

What’s a tree walk? Arborists lead a walking tour of trees, identifying the different species, describing their characteristics, and talking about how they should be cared for. They may also discuss broader or non-botanical aspects, such as when and why the tree was planted, or if it’s considered an invasive species.

The non-profit was very excited to partner with us, particularly because they knew we have a wide range of folks that see our event promotions (we flyer all over the library) and because we’ve got a giant copier to run off materials (the non-profit otherwise works mostly off home printers).

We were excited to partner with them because of their expertise and enthusiasm. Their collective knowledge of trees is pretty deep, and although the library has excellent gardening and botanical resources, people are really key in disseminating this kind of knowledge. Tree care is really a localized knowledge (that is, the climate and location of the tree dictates what it needs to flourish), and one that is built over years or decades of experience. Person to person sharing is a vital way to keep this information circulating in the community. Partnering with the non-profit also fed a new group of enthusiastic library-supporters. It gave their organization a deeper stake in the library’s success.

I created the flyer and we printed it out on the library copier. We posted it in the library, and I publicized the event virtually to our usual places (our local Patch, Neighborhood associations, ZEvents, and our FaceBook page). I also emailed an announcement to the list of people who’ve used our seed library and asked to be kept informed of seed library-related events. The non-profit took a stack of about 50 flyers and posted them around town.

We held the event at 1 PM on a Saturday. We attracted about 40 attendees, and three dogs. About two thirds of those came specifically for the tree walk, and another third wandered over when they saw what was going on. I met people in the lobby and directed them outside, where the non-profit had set up a table with nut bread, fruit, hot cider, and assorted pamphlets and tree-related literature. The non-profit had created a brochure which included a map of the park’s trees, and a little blurb about each one. Each participant got one of these brochures.

Then they set off, making a slow circle around the park (about an hour). The walk was conducted by three arborists, with most of the talking done by two of them, and the third mostly scooping up quiet questions from the back. It was a little hampered by a festival that was taking place in an adjacent courtyard. It was a little hard to hear, and a portable PA system may have really improved the experience. The festival included a children’s train ride, which circled the park along the route of the tree walk. So the arborists would have to pause every ten minutes or so to wave to the children. But, this also contributed to a generally festive atmosphere.

All in all, I heard a lot of wonderful comments from participants. One patron, who is a library regular but never attends programs, was really very enthusiastic. She enjoyed the walk, and then was delighted to also be able to get advice about some rose bushes she had recently rescued from a construction project. We are all excited for spring, when we will recreate the event, this time as the trees are waking up from their winter’s slumber. The library also hopes to be able to provide the tree walk brochures to patrons, so that they may do self-guided tours.

Photo: Coral Bark Maple by Flickr User TexasEagle via Creative Commons License

ESL Cookie Party!

One of the libraries I work at serves a very international community. People come from all over the world to work in the area, and often bring along their significant others, or mothers, or children, etc. In some cases, the person working is still learning English, and is looking for an opportunity to practice speaking and learning, especially non-work related conversation and American culture. In some cases, the person working has a firm grasp of English, and opportunity to practice at work every day, but their family members do not.

So having an ESL Conversation Club at our library was kind of a no-brainer. Patrons even asked for it! If multiple patrons are making a point of getting ahold of staff members in order to ask for a program, well, the library should probably deliver.

I started ours by finding a local TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) student to help us. As his practicum project, our TESOL student put together “lesson plans” for the first few meetings, and drafted the flyer for us. He helped us publicize by dropping off flyers at the adult school, and by posting them around town. We also publicized with flyers in the library (including the ESL section), a notice on our website, an event on our FaceBook page, and by posting to the local online paper (the Patch), the Chamber of Commerce, Neighborhood Associations, and a site called ZEvents, which populates the calendars of several local papers.

We’ve now had about three months of ESL Conversation Club.

We meet for one hour, from 5 to 6 PM, with about 15 minutes of spill over either side. We set up the room with six tables, each with six chairs. Generally, attendees choose a table at the beginning, and stay there throughout the meeting. The tables and chairs are not in neat rows – they are higgeldy-piggeldy around the room, to encourage a more casual, conversational atmosphere. We have water available, and treats for some of the meetings (the first few especially). We’ve consistently had between 30 and 40 people attend each meeting. We try to have a native English speaker at each table. Our native speakers attend on a drop-in basis, just like non-native speakers. This way, the library provides a no-commitment option for people that are interested in volunteering. We’ve had four native speakers attend very consistently and three or four more infrequently. When needed, library staff, or, for the first couple months, our TESOL volunteer, sit in to provide native speaker help.  And in a pinch, a table of ESL speakers can do without a native speaker.  The point of the club is more to practice and gain confidence, than it is to learn and perfect language skills.

Each meeting begins with me welcoming everyone and introducing myself. For the first few meetings, our TESOL volunteer put together formal lesson plans, although the activities were not particularly formal. Our TESOL volunteer would describe what the theme or activity was. Each attendee would receive a handout. The themes included countries, food, transportation, and parts of the body. The handouts would have an activity (usually matching or defining), a list of conversation starter questions, and generally some idioms. People would discuss and complete the activities as a table group. Now that we are running the Conversation Club ourselves, I generally put together a packet of a few short news articles, some conversation starter questions, and a description of anything special that we did. For example, for Thanksgiving, I showed a few clips, so I included the link to the YouTube playlist.

It’s been fairly easy for me to pick a focus for each conversation club, because we’ve been right in the center of the holiday season. Explaining and exploring American holidays provides a wealth of things to do. My two favorite meetings have been the one before Thanksgiving, and the one right before Christmas.

For the meeting before Thanksgiving, I put together a packet of articles that included discussion of: the best way to cook a Turkey, Black Friday (versus Cyber Monday), the origin of Thanksgiving, a sunrise ceremony put on by Native Americans on Alcatraz, and travelling on holidays. I also gathered clips on YouTube, including ones from a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, that Friends episode where Joey puts the Turkey on his head, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (I really wanted to show this scene, but decided it would be a bad idea). While we talked to each other, using the conversation starter questions or whatever we were interested in, we made hand turkeys. Then, in the last 20 minutes, we had pumpkin pie and whipped cream. For many attendees, it was the first time they’d tried it. Although I started handing out the pie, the task was quickly appropriated by two of our regular attendees, who had fun learning how to work the whipped cream in a can. It was a nice way to go on break.

ESL Turkey

My other favorite meeting was our ESL Holiday Cookie Party, which again occurred right before a break. After having the pumpkin pie, participants had talked about bringing their own favorite holiday foods to share. So it seemed natural to throw some sort of potluck (a good vocab word). To simplify things, finger foods (another good bit of vocab) seemed like a good focus. So two weeks before the event I broached the idea at Conversation Club. People seemed interested, so I made flyers to hand out the next week. I didn’t advertise to patrons about the party (other than to people attending the conversation club), but I did invite our library staff.

Holiday Cookie Party

After so many weeks of sitting at tables together, it was nice to break things up with a mixer-style event, where people walked around and mingled. As attendees came in, I handed out Human Bingo cards, having in many cases to not only explain the human aspect, but to explain what BINGO is. The game provided an excuse for people to interact with each other. They enjoyed it so much, that they neglected to start in on the refreshment table until the last 15 minutes or so of the program. I was blown away by the refreshments, by the way. People brought all kinds of cookies, of course, but we also had rice balls, sushi, and a warm Mexican punch (“No Tequila!” the man assured me as he brought it in). People also brought family members – husbands, mothers, children, etc. For a few attendees, it was their first time. “You picked the best time to show up,” I said, “We’re having a party!”

Although the ESL Conversation Club is a program for adults, we put on the flyer that all ages were welcome. We want to allow people to practice their English with all kinds of people – of all ages as well as all nationalities. We also want to make sure that people who are new to the country, who might have small children and no established network for their care, can still attend the program. We have coloring sheets and crayons ready, and they’ve been used and enjoyed by the couple of kids who usually show up each session. The mixed ages seems to work just fine. Because the nature of the club is a bit chaotic anyway, a child scooting around the corners of the room making airplane noises isn’t particularly disruptive. In fact, children and their antics help people find things to talk about.

For me personally, the Conversation Club has been a great opportunity to have a different kind of conversation with patrons – one that is positive, slow, and encouraging. I have found it incredibly valuable to talk to people without the pressure of the reference desk. I am not helping them find anything, I am not hurrying them along so that I can get to the people waiting behind them, and I’m not addressing any concern. I’m just chatting. Speaking to people who are in the process of learning English – being understood and getting clarification in a way that is welcoming and friendly – is in itself a skill. I am grateful for the opportunity that ESL Conversation Club gives me to practice this.

Our patrons enjoy and value the club. I have seen new friendships develop. We have issued new library cards and been able to highlight some of our ESL materials. Each week, between 30 and 40 people get to come to the library and find positive encouragement. We are helping people to understand American culture, and to make themselves heard clearly.

Notes From Story Time

Even though I am mostly an adult services librarian, I was lucky enough to be sit in on a few days of story time training led by Gay Ducey. Il Ducey has been a children’s librarian for 30 years, folks, and in between that has traveled the nation telling stories on stages large and small.


Here’s the kind of experience she’s got: In addition to being someone who’s provided library service to Eldridge Cleaver, the blurb on her bio is:

“Everyone should tell stories like Gay Ducey tells stories” – Mr. Rogers.

Here’s the kind of librarian she is: People show up at the library asking,

“Is Gay Ducey here? I used to go to her story time. I just wanted to let her know that I just got my first job as a librarian (sometimes they say teacher), and it’s because of her.”

Here’s the kind of person she is:  She says

“Children are my natural peer group.”

Kids light up like a Christmas tree when they see her behind the desk.

She’s got a lot of library knowledge, to say the least.

The training is for a program called Books for Wider Horizons. This program trains community members to visit preschools as volunteer story readers.  It is provided through the Oakland Public Library as part of Oakland’s Head Start program.  It started in 1994!  If you’re interested in reading to kids, and live in the East Bay, you should consider donating your time.

Here are some of my notes from the training.

Day One

Story time is not for teaching children; children spend so much of their lives being taught, that they don’t need that from us.  During story time, we don’t teach children, but they still learn. Learning is what children do naturally.

Story time is to induct children into the private joy of reading. Our primary job is to model the pleasure of reading.

Some education is ok, but avoid leading kids to listen for the right answer, rather than enjoying the story. Don’t create pressure to identify vocabulary words, or right or wrong choices.

When reading is no longer an assignment, when they someday leave school and no longer “have to” read, they will not pick up a book, if they have not already, discovered the private pleasure of reading.  Story time creates positive memories of reading that last into adulthood.  You remember having a good time reading.

Everyone has trashy reading – a juicy mystery, a gossip magazine – its ok for kids to have trashy reading too.  Not everything needs to be a high quality classic.

If you’re interested in rhymes and meaning, Iona and Peter Opie have a good book on it.

Our society is big on levels of competence.  If you ask a five year old “can you sing?” she will say “yes of course.” If you ask a ten year old, she may say yes.  A fifteen year old will often say “no way!”  And by the time we are adults, many of us “can’t sing.”  But you can sing.  Everyone can sing.  Singing is our birthright.  All five year olds can do art.  Art is everyone’s birthright.

SONG: “I Have a Dog and His Name is Rags

*Note: there were multiple requests by participants to do this one again, at the end of the class and on day two.

Songs implant memories -> singing is also literacy. Songs are another way to implant literature.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time before age 2.

beware of the frog

BOOK: Beware of the Frog by William Bee.  Illustrations = primary colors.  3rd grade is about the youngest that “gets” this book.

Test the waters.  Not all your favorites will be kids’ favorites.

Kids that want repeated readings are taking something new each time the book is read to them, and its none of our business what that is.

bark george

BOOK: Bark, George by Jules Feiffer.  Notice colors -> muted.  Just a few words on the page.  2-5 is an ok age range, but 4 is best age.  Understanding the sounds are wrong takes the sophistication of a four year old.

little black crow

BOOK: Little Black Crow by Chris Raschka. Natural colors, 4-6 years. Even though it ends “are you a boy like me?” girls can identify with the story as well.

Don’t point out small secrets in the illustrations, let kids discover them.

Kids do have an appetite for quiet. Although, kids don’t necessarily like this book.

Repetition is a tool for learning and kids like it.


BOOK: Froggie Plays Soccer by Jonathan London and Frank Remkiewicz. Visually complicated.  Age 6 or even later.  Tough to read -difficult choice for story time.

If there are several images on a page, you can point to them as you read to help children see the progression.

come along daisy

BOOK: Come Along, Daisy by Jane Simmons.  Ages 2-5.  Beautiful book, good story, excellent story time.

Doesn’t use paper clips, turns every page.  My theory: Gay’s not afraid to go slowly and take time, she knows the children will come along with her.  It gives them room to think and process.  Children need more time for this than adults do.

How scared do you let kids get during a story?  Not very.

an egg is quiet

BOOK: An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long. Pretty illustrations, long paragraphs of text, a little complicated but maybe still ok.

Kids like to know.

Skipping some text is ok.

Put some room for socializing after the story time. Give kids a chance to talk to you after story time, but otherwise don’t really respond to interrupters.  This is not an interactive program.  The rules are different during story time.

Day Two

SONGS: “My Rhinoceros” and “Down in the Valley Two by Two

Songs get us excited, involved and happy.

a snowy day

BOOK: The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.  Spare, abstract illustrations. 3-5 year olds, even twos.  Book for children – they understand it, adults don’t.  A solitary adventure.  No hint of violence.

Gay says the author’s name at the beginning (e.g. This book is called Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats). Sometimes she will say the illustrator’s name at the end.

Just a little bit

BOOK: Just a Little Bit by Ann Tompert. Action packed, voices. Up to 2nd grade. Bug detail on the cover Gay never mentions – it would spoil the story.  Children have come up to her weeks later and pointed it out.

You can stop reading and look at a picture.

Pan slowly occasionally.  Not every page, just once in a while.  Good when there’s a double page illustration.

Hold the book so it doesn’t go anywhere.  Two fingers on the spine.  Gay rests the corner on her should to anchor it (my note: this also puts the book on the same level as her face).

Read slowly.  Children need you to go about three times as slowly as you think you should.

The story can do the work.  No need to tart it up with voices, etc.  You can a little bit, but you don’t need to.  The story is the focus.

Gay sits on a low chair.

Know what distance you need between you and the children and keep that space.

Soft cover books are generally too much trouble.  Giant books are cool but hard to handle. Caveat Emptor.

The order of presentation can help a book succeed.

Songs can be used to focus or quieten.

Themed story times are nice but not necessary.

Transitional activity first, in between each book and at the end.  Gay only reads three books.  Middle can be quiet, or can be a song, or song with props.  Flannel Board.

Religion teaches us how to put things into the head.  Ritual prepares you for a certain type of experience.  Story teller should create a safe, quiet space where grown-ups don’t interfere. **STORY TIME IS DIFFERENT THAN ALL THE OTHER TIMES** You have to help kids understand how it is different and what it is like. Becomes an enchanted space. **Create a beginning and an ending that is the same each time. ** Knowing how something begins is reassuring, understanding how something works.

SONG “Good Morning, Dear Earth” (Gay’s opening)

Take control of the end.  Never go “that’s it good bye!” Ease them out. Take time. End song could be anything.  Have seen: Splish Splash, KISS, Phil Collins, Na Na Na Na…

Childhood is Revealed Secrets.

Took a pledge never to use a book we haven’t read first.

Day Three

Missed it because I had a program at my other job (Easy Peasy Super Easy Seeds to Save). Got a summary from Gay the day after.  Participants chose books and read to each other. They also learned some fingerplays, which grown-ups think are weird and dorky, and kids really enjoy.

Assignments for next week: attend one story time.  Work out what your opening and closing will be (use same ones every story time, to create the story time ritual).

Gay also told me this story, when we were talking about introducing the pleasure of reading.

One day a child she knew and liked a lot came in to find a book.

Gay noticed that the child was looking at Tuck Everlasting, one of Gay’s favorites.

Gay said, “Ohhhh, do you like that one?”

The child said, “We read it in school. I hate it. I hate that book.”

Crestfallen, Gay asked, “What do you hate about it?”

The child responded, “The worksheets.”

School ruined a perfectly wonderful book for this kid.  Worksheets after every chapter aren’t the way to create lifelong readers.  The value of story time is in creating positive experiences.

Firefighters, FTW

Recently I organized a library field trip.  Patrons met in the lobby, and then we walked (or rolled, in the case of those who had cushy stroller transportation) just under half a mile to a local fire station, where they have a wonderful vegetable garden, and even some fruit trees.  The Firefighter/Gardener told us how and why he started his garden, and then gave us a tour of what he was growing, explaining his processes.

Fire Station 1 GardenIt’s a really cool story actually. The firefighter grew up gardening in Napa County, and so it was kind of natural for him to put in a small garden at his previous fire station, just taking advantage of a weedy side area.  His garden was so well received, by the neighbors as well as the city, that when the city built a brand new fire station, they deliberately included space for a garden.  The firefighters enjoy fresh vegetables with their staff meals, and the neighbors even get a share in the bounty.  It builds community and strengthens the connection to our food.  Several articles have been published about it, and the local news team visited.

The field trip was awesome!  Despite a bit of a disorganized start (mostly due to me trying to manage too many things at once), it was a beautiful day and a nice walk.  It was such a treat to be able to do some easy exercise with my patrons, to enjoy the neighborhood, and to discuss what people were growing. The firefighter was charming, funny, and super nice.  One patron said, “I used to have a garden but it got really buggy so I got rid of it.  But this is really inspirational, I think I will try again.”  We even got some press – an article was published in a local paper a few days before, and a photographer for another local paper joined us on our visit.


There was a little crimp for me the librarian though.   Both newspaper articles are about the garden, rather than the library field trip, although the first one did mention our visit as upcoming.  I’m very happy to see the garden in the news (again).  But what about the library?  It reminds me that I’ve got library-vision.  One of the reasons I was so excited about the program is because it is something I’ve never done before.  I felt revolutionary: We’re leaving the library!  We created a program that people of all ages could enjoy!  We’re supporting lifelong learning in a new way!  We’re working with other city departments!

But really, the cool part of the program was the fire station garden, and the firefighter.

Here’s the next challenge I’m working on.  Make a cool program that does all those things, and have people see and talk about why it’s cool that the library is doing them.

Fire Station 1 Garden Scarecrow