Natalie Cole and Virginia A. Walter share insights into transforming summer library programs

Summer 2018 might be winding down, but children's and YA librarians are already beginning to think ahead to next year's programming. In their recent book Transforming Summer Programs at Your Library: Outreach and Outcomes in Action, Natalie Cole and Virginia A. Walter detail case studies of several California libraries that have successfully reimagined their summer initiatives. These include Summer Matters, which works to provide equitable summer learning opportunities, and Lunch at the Library, a public library summer meal project. In this interview we discuss their collaborative approach, the biggest challenges to summer outreach and participation, and the inspiring lessons librarians can draw from the summer programs the book covers.

Was this your first writing collaboration?

Virginia A. Walter: We collaborated on a youth development manual for Los Angeles County Library almost authors Natalie Cole and Virginia A. Walter with their book "Transforming Summer Programs at Your Library: Outreach and Outcomes in Action"twenty years ago! More recently, along with Eva Mitnick, we wrote an article for Public Libraries (March/April, 2013) called “Outcomes + Outreach: The California Summer Reading Program Initiative.” But yes, Transforming Summer Programs at Your Library is our first full-length published monograph.  

Tell us a little bit about how the book project started and what it was like working together on it.

Virginia A. Walter: Like so many good ideas, I think it started at lunch. We had both been so inspired by the ways in which California librarians have taken these new ideas and put them into practice; we just wanted to share the story more broadly. We are a good team. Natalie has all of the first-hand experience through her work at both CLA and the California State Library. She is a great administrator and a natural change agent. I always say she could be running whole countries if she set her mind to it. I’ve got the academic background from my PhD in Public Administration and my years of teaching graduate students so I can articulate the theories behind the practice. It was easy to divide up the chapters that played to our individual strengths. We each took the lead on our assigned chapters and reviewed what the other had written.

Describe the biggest challenges to summer outreach and participation.

Virginia A. Walter: Change is always hard. The summer reading program has been a tradition in public libraries for more than a hundred years. It is a popular program in most libraries, with large numbers of participants. It has always been about reading promotion, but the new focus on “summer slide” from the education community highlighted a big problem. The very children who would most benefit from summertime reading and learning were often the ones who were not participating in large numbers. This growing awareness led to a need for more outreach, and that created another challenge because outreach takes time and resources. Outreach requires looking at the community in new ways, designing programs that will appeal to underserved people, and promoting those programs in appropriate ways. Taking on this extra effort can be challenging for librarians who are already working hard and serving large numbers of children who have already developed the reading and library habit.

How have libraries in California tackled these challenges?

Virginia A. Walter: Training, training, training. We have conducted many workshops and webinars that help librarians develop strategies for assessing their communities, identifying underserved people, finding effective ways to reach out to them, and evaluating their outreach efforts. We provide training on developing community partnerships. And we encourage people to “think small” at the beginning.  Can you reach five Spanish-speaking families this summer?  Ten Somali children who have never set foot in the library before? The success of the outreach and outcomes approach has also been helped tremendously by the group of librarians from around the state who have been advising us since the beginning. They are the best advocates for taking the time and trouble to do the right thing with summer programming.  Their testimonials are inspiring. These librarians also contributed in a major way to the development of four Quality Principles and Indicators that serve as practical guidelines to implementing an outcomes -and outreach- oriented summer reading program. (They're in Chapter 6 of our book.) Together, the quality principles and indicators make it easy for librarians to engage in reflective practice.

What was the genesis of the Lunch at the Library program?

Natalie Cole: The Lunch at the Library program grew out of great work being done in public libraries! Several years ago, my colleague, Patrice Chamberlain (director of the California Summer Meal Coalition and co-author of the book's Lunch at the Library chapter), and I became aware of a few California libraries serving summer lunches to children. We saw immediately that libraries are ideal spaces for serving free meals while school is out: they are trusted and welcoming spaces at the heart of the community, providing learning and enrichment activities, free of charge, all summer long. So we worked with a team of librarians to develop a program that would expand best practices and successes statewide (and in some cases, beyond!).

Are there any positive outcomes of the program that have really surprised you?

Natalie Cole: The program has grown more quickly than even we imagined! This year, meals were served at almost 200 library sites in California, and the number of meals libraries served increased from 21,800 in 2013 to 228,600 in 2017. The program has fostered new community partnerships and collaborations for libraries. And we consistently hear positive feedback from families. A positive outcome that we didn’t plan for at the start is the teen development component. Lunch at the Library provides great volunteer opportunities for teens—giving them workforce readiness skills and helping support their social-emotional development.

Have the programs you cover in the book affected overall library usage? Did you see increases in visits by new patrons or repeat visits by existing patrons?

Natalie Cole: Across the state, summer meal programs are bringing new families to the library and providing library staff with great opportunities to connect families with library services. Each year, around 90% of the children, teens, and adult who fill out Summer @ Your Library surveys tell us they plan to return to the library after the summer. And many of the case studies we feature in the book describe creative book cover for "Transforming Summer Programs at Your Library: Outreach and Outcomes in Action"summer programming that has increased both program quality and participation in California libraries.

What are some of the ways libraries can extend the successes of these initiatives to the remainder of the year?

Natalie Cole: The strategies we describe to help library staff carry out outcomes-based planning and evaluation, conduct community outreach, and develop community partnerships can easily be applied to library programming for all ages and at any time of year. Once libraries have honed these techniques during the summer, they will definitely be able to apply them at other times! Similarly, the tenets included in the quality principles and indicators framework—building strong communities, providing opportunities for learning, celebrating reading and literacy, and designing programs that are intended to reach and engage everyone—can guide program development and support reflective practice at any time of the year. More specifically, we encourage Lunch at the Library sites to offer after-school snacks, too, to help ensure children in our communities are nourished and engaged all year round.

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