by Deb Roe
I’ve worked in libraries coming up on thirteen years now and, consequently, have sat on my share of hiring panels. If you’ve ever been on an interview committee then you too will know that sometimes you see and hear the most astounding things. There was the candidate that pulled a tissue out of her bra, blew her nose and then tucked the tissue securely away again. There was the man interviewing for head of a children’s department who had not a clue as to who Eric Carle, an incredibly famous children’s author, was. Then there was the lady who, when asked why she’d like to work at the library, replied “I’m looking for a stress-free job where I can read a lot.”
Guess who didn’t get the job? As you probably surmised, none of those applicants were hired for those particular jobs. They exhibited a lack of professionalism, a lack of knowledge, and a lack of understanding of library communities – all pretty severe transgressions in the eyes of a librarian.
When it comes to hiring performers, librarians are looking for some of the same qualities that they look for in staff and some additional ones as well. I’ve hired many performers over the years for library programs and so I thought it might be helpful to give an inside look at this process.
There are four phases in the process: hiring, pre-performance, the performance itself, and post-performance. All of these need to go well for me to consider a repeat performance. This article will focus on the hiring process. A follow-up article will address the other phases.
From a librarian standpoint, there are many considerations factored into hiring a performer. Aside from quality and professionalism of the performer, three of the big ones are money, time, and cultural understanding.
Most people realize that money is a big issue for libraries. Libraries tend to be underfunded, particularly the children’s departments. It’s been one of my pet peeves for a long time that adult departments often get three times the funding of children’s departments. This might sound like a tangent but trust me it’s not. How each department is funded determines the amount of money available for programming. Generally, children’s programming and adult programming are independent of each other. If you offer programs for both adults and children, then there’s a good chance that you will have to contact two different librarians. In some libraries, it’s not even the librarians doing the hiring, it’s the library’s friends group. If the library system has branches, then there is probably someone within each branch hiring performers as well. I recommend, before approaching any unfamiliar library, try to get as much information from their website as possible. Look at the listings for performers. See what types of performers they’ve hired recently. See if it lists a contact person. Also check out the staff list if it is available. That may help you determine who does what. If the library doesn’t list this information, use the general information number or email to find out. Keep this contact brief. Explain that you are storyteller and that you are interested in doing a performance for the library and would like the contact information for the people that hire performers for the children’s department and adult department.
Before trying to make contact, make sure that you have a good pitch for your program. Why should the children’s librarian hire you, the storyteller rather than the bubble man? Yes, this is a serious question. Look at it this way. The bubble man charges the librarian $300. Patrons love him. In summer, he can pack the room with 150 kids and parents. His show is entertaining, humorous, and educational as he talks about the science of bubbles. He draws in families who may not be frequent users of the library. People almost always leave the program happy and wanting more. The librarian has given families an excellent experience for $2/person.
Let’s say instead, the librarian hires a storyteller for the same $300 but instead of 150 only 20 people attend. Already there’s a problem from a wise-use-of-funds perspective. She’s paying $20/person for the event! If she only has an annual program budget of $2000, this is a big deal.
Then we can look at it in another way. Libraries have to market themselves and prove their worth just like any other organization or business. If I’ve only reached twenty people, probably the same 5 or 6 families that come to every library event, what value have I added to the library community? Yes, these twenty people had the chance to experience some good storytelling but what about the rest of the community?
This may seem a bit harsh but it is a reality of shrinking budgets and a world with a plethora of entertainment choices. You’re not only competing with the bubble man but Park & Rec soccer games, PTO family fun nights, and so on. Regardless of the inherent value of storytelling, if few people come to listen then what kind of impact has been made?
So what can you do? Plenty. Think about how you can reduce the per person cost to the library.
- Can you find a way to bring in bigger crowds? Perhaps plan an event at a local school the week before with a handout for the kids about the upcoming library event. Use social media outlets, etc. to advertise the event.
- Can you offer a special discount to the library for the first time they hire you? Or offer less expensive performances in your slower seasons?
- Can you get a grant to offer programs to libraries? We had a new dentist in town that wanted to sponsor a program with the caveat that each kid could leave with a bag from the dentist of toothpaste, etc. Maybe something like this is a good opportunity for tooth fairy stories. Because it is a library, you just have to be careful about commercialism.
Think about how you can add significant value to the library community.
- Can you can develop a series of storytelling programs for struggling readers? Perhaps the participants read fairytales and create their own storytelling performances. Maybe the library works with the schools to have them recommend children for the program. Added value: library may gain new patrons, library may strengthen its relationship with the school, etc.
- Create a program that’s of special significance to the particular community – maybe they’re struggling with an issue or maybe they had some famous historical event that took place in their town. Added value: the library program has helped the community to look at an important issue from a new perspective
Another barrier between storytellers and librarians is time. Much of the general population has a persistent image of librarians as staid individuals who spend half their time reading and the other half shushing people. The reality is that many librarians are extremely busy and don’t have time to read anything longer than a book review while at work. In my last library, I was the only full-time children’s librarian for a town of 30,000 people. Trust me when I said I was never bored. I did weekly programs for children from birth through pre-teen. In addition to creating and implementing all variety of programs, I oversaw and trained a staff of 10 part-timers plus volunteers, prepared budgets, purchased supplies, took photos and created articles and press releases, purchased new books, repaired books, weeded old books, attended staff meetings, configured the online summer reading program, met with public school staff to work on coordination, wrote grants, and the list goes on and on. The point is that librarians are often very busy people.
I personally found it frustrating to get a lot of calls from performers especially during May and June when I was preparing for summer reading. I much preferred an email or snail mail flyer. That way I could take a quick look when I had the time and see if I was interested in what was being offered. Truth be told though, word of mouth from other librarians is how many librarians find out about good performers. Connecticut children’s librarians share a lot of information. If a librarian in Middletown is raving about you on the listserv, there’s a good chance other librarians will soon be seeking your contact information. Of course, this method isn’t foolproof. Based on the recommendations of other librarians, I hired a group that supposedly did a performance combining storytelling and science. Well, the story was tangential at best and the science was ghastly. They filled one of those transparent blue water jugs with gas and lit it on fire in my library! Well, I definitely had something to say about that on the listserv.
The takeaway in all of this is that you must respect the librarian’s time. A sale’s pitch over the phone is usually not the best way to start. A better way would be to send an email with your program info explaining why your program is a perfect match for her library. In the email, provide a link to your website (I really think if you want to attract libraries a professional-looking website is very helpful) and then ask if you could follow up with a call the following week.
Every storyteller knows about the storytelling triangle – teller, tale, listener (audience). We also know that not every tale works for every audience. Then it stands to reason that the performance that you do for a small rural town may not resonate with a city audience. This probably seems obvious but I have seen performers attempt to use the same content in every circumstance. Working in urban and semi-urban libraries, I specifically did not hire performers whose programs and personalities came across as rural-focused and who didn’t seem to understand the diverse nature of the community.
I will use an example from my teaching days of why this is a problem. My last year of teaching I was in a magnet school. Half of the school population was from towns like Avon and Simsbury, very wealthy towns and half of the population was from inner-city Hartford. Well, I had a parent who asked if she could come in and read to the children. Sure, why not? It so happened that this parent was a professor of poetry. If you are imagining at this point a sweet somewhat weedy bespectacled woman with her head in the clouds then you’d be stereotyping a bit but, in this case, you’re actually right on the mark. The book she chose to share? The Owl and the Pussy Cat. Oh dear, why didn’t I think to ask her ahead of time? So I hoped against hope that it would be all right.
When she read the title there was a bit of snickering. By the time she got to the verse, there was outright laughter from the Hartford kids who, though only first graders, had heard this word in a much different context. They started chanting along.
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”
I was mortified and could only imagine what the students would go home and tell their parents. I can thank the god of short-attention spans that I received no phone calls that afternoon. So months later when this parent asked to read again, I thought, “No problem. She’ll be choosing a different book.” However, when she arrived book in hand, the kids remembered her and some shouted, “Pussy, my Pussy!”
This is a pretty blatant example of someone that didn’t understand the community and hence didn’t understand her audience. So do some research on the town. Is it very diverse? Is there a literacy problem in the community? Is there a large Latino population or Nepalese population, etc.? What is the socio-economic status? The more you know, the better you can tailor a program.
To wrap up:
- Research the community and design an appropriate high-quality program that is cost-effective and value-adding for the library
- Respect the librarian’s time and understand that each librarian is looking for the best fit for her community