By Bianca Schulze, The Children’s Book Review
Published: April 21, 2013
Joan VanSickle Sloan is the Community Outreach Coordinator at Blount County Public Library in Maryville, Tennessee. She has been a presenter at the state Tennessee Library Association conference, co-chaired the Public Relations Committee of the state Tennessee Library Association (TLA), and, as a 2006-07 committee member of the Legislative Day Committee, she successfully persuaded the state legislators to fund $1 million in the budget for purchasing additional databases for the Tennessee Electronic Library (TEL).
Sloan says, “Whether interviewing prospective speakers or musicians, writing media releases, helping patrons with genealogy or reference questions, working with a committee to bring about a festival, partnering with a community organization to provide a service to the public, there’s something different every day. I have a great job, and I love what I do.” After reading this interview, you’ll love what Joan does too!
Bianca Schulze: Why did you choose to work within a public library?
Joan VanSickle Sloan: Libraries have always been among my favorite places because reading a book, watching a DVD or searching on multiple databases can transport a person to anywhere in the universe and bring acquaintanceship with people and experiences from all walks of life. Earlier in my life, I have been an educator in higher education and in adult education at the college level, so I am continuing to be able to present noncredit programs and participate in lifelong learning with the community.
As Community Outreach Coordinator at the Blount County Public Library, it is my pleasure to help the community know more about the resources and materials that are accessible at their fingertips, so I get to plan and conduct events, write news releases and maintain a friendly working relationship with print and electronic media throughout the region, and develop and maintain partnerships with literally hundreds of individuals and organizations. Because libraries are transitioning, any library must create ways to bring people into the buildings and to keep the public involved and interacting with the library.
Eleven years ago, when the current Blount County library building was constructed, the library board established a goal for the library to become a community center, and it has become a vital, dynamic meeting place for the community where an average of 1,500 people per day access materials and resources; attend informational presentations, concerts and festivals; meet with clients or friends; study; conduct professional business by wireless laptop or in person; do personal business, research or leisure activities on public computers; bring children to story hours, summer reading activities or to learn educational games in the Children’s Library; bring teens to be tutored in chess two days per week or participate in other teen activities; research genealogy of families; and more.
BS: Librarians and library staff are the ultimate evangelists for reading. How do you encourage students and children to read?
JVS: Our library has ongoing, almost-daily programs and activities for children, birth to fifth grade in the Children’s Library—storytimes for the pre-K & toddler groups, crafts, programs by various community storytellers, magicians, science advocates and more. Summer Reading Programs are always theme-based with many presentations and activities and books related to that thematic topic. Children earn rewards for reading books in the summertime.
Fifth grade through about 16 years old (the Tweens & Teens) have a separate Summer Reading Program geared for that age group—but with a variety of programs, DIY crafts and a rewards program for reading, based upon so many pages per reading log entry. Often, there is also a book club, writing club, anime club or photography club. In addition, a chess coach (retired Boys & Girls Club Administrator) instructs students in chess—year-round—on Saturdays and on Thursday afternoons. We’ve had successful Teen Mystery Nights where, after the library is closed on a weekend, teens come to participate in groups to solve some mystery, usually a “murder.” A Twilight after-hours night for teens was also a success—with Twilight book-related activities, games and costumes. A teen band jam brought local teen band participants. Food is always an essential element of any teen activity! For Tweens and Teens, our goal is to keep them engaged with the library.
College students, of course, often use the library for research and study.
BS: Which kids’ or teen book is the most frequently checked-out in your library? Why do you think it is?
JVS: Children: Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems; they are colorfully illustrated, funny and interactive.
Teens: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins; The Hunger Games series is still in its popular phase, along with the movie.
BS: What is your favorite read-aloud for a preschool story-time? Why?
JVS: Any book that can be participatory—songs, counting, guessing books.
BS: Which new releases are you dying to lay your hands on?
JVS: The next one that I write! 🙂
BS: What steps do you take to strengthen the relationship of the library with local schools and the community?
JVS: Schools: We host workshops for teachers, reading teachers, English teachers and librarians with the goal of helping the local school systems’ teachers and librarians keep abreast of resources available at the library, including an ever-increasing array of online databases, e-books, and digital media. With permission from each of the Directors of the local school systems, we email to teachers and librarians the monthly calendars of library events and news releases related to services, databases and programs.
Community Outreach: With the ever-increasing trend toward electronic materials, libraries aren’t just books any more…but many people don’t know that if they haven’t been in the library building for awhile. One of the biggest challenges for any library, staffed with professionals who are eager to assist residents, is to help the community know of the resources that are available in modern libraries. Eleven years ago, Kathy, the Library Director, and the library board decided to hire a person to be responsible for media relations and community outreach. A key part of community outreach is interacting with, and serving on, community nonprofit organizations and boards, local history and genealogy groups, Chamber of Commerce activities, and other appropriate agencies. As requested, we give presentations to groups and try to continuously form partnerships and maintain collaborations with groups and individuals.
We also provide multiple programs per week to welcome people into the library, usually about a fourth of whom haven’t before been in the library. Programs range from informational presentations /lectures (e.g., Medicare’s annual changes, Landlord/Tenant Law in Tennessee, garden and lawn tips, author talks and more)to concerts (usually local or regional musicians, choirs and bands) to festivals (heritage, international, book-related) and special services (Career Coach, computer laptop lab for computer classes and more).
While most libraries aren’t able to hire a person to perform these tasks, it is imperative that all libraries have one staff member designated to handle media relations as part of that person’s job. By writing and submitting news releases, the library can present the desired message to the community through newspapers, radio, TV and media and corporate websites as well as the library’s own website and social media. A delicious benefit of this plan is that the print and electronic (TV and radio media as well as media and community calendar websites) are delighted to have interesting, reliable, well-written stories that they can literally cut and paste into their programming. At least several times per week, library programs and services are portrayed in media stories. Usually, several times per month, we are contacted by media for interviews or for taped stories about events or new services. While it takes added time to deal with media, we find that it’s well worth the effort to maintain a cooperative relationship which helps them when they need to fill air time because it, once again, presents the library in a positive light. In addition, social media plays a bigger and bigger role in communicating with the public.
We try to stay involved with nonprofit community service agencies so that we know the services provided in the community. We create and maintain directories of service organizations for people who are seeking jobs or are homeless. We compile a bilingual, Spanish/English, directory of resources for Hispanic people who are new to the area. We maintain a list of places where computer classes are offered in the community. For multiple nonprofit groups, we display flyers and brochures. These materials are available as hand-outs at the Reference Desk.
BS: What kinds of regular reading events or story-time sessions do you host?
JVS: We host at least five children’s story hours each week, with crafts activities included as part of the session. We have a Teen book club, facilitated by library staff members, that meets once per month to discuss a book the teens have selected to read. The Friends of the Library sponsor two book clubs for adults—one for men and one for women. In the past, the library has hosted a Book Festival with author presentations, exhibits, demonstrations and activities. We’ve also had various Festivals (Heritage, World War II, International, Hispanic, Native American) which highlight local history and include the above activities.
BS: Could you tell us one thing about librarians or libraries that you think would be surprising?
JVS: Two things:
1) Although library staff work in a library and are surrounded by books, we don’t have time to read for our own pleasure at work!
2) Every day, people leave items at the library—everything from eye glasses to dentures to wallets, credit cards and drivers licenses, even children in a few instances. Most days, the library serves as a day care of sorts for several elderly people whose spouses or children drop them off as they go to work…and pick them up in the evening after work.
BS: I’m sure that you are asked many interesting questions on a daily basis. What would you say has been the most entertaining question asked of you by a parent or a child?
JVS: One evening after a program concluded around 9 p.m., a lady returned to the building and asked me to accompany her to the door because she insisted she heard a rooster crowing when she had started to the parking lot. (Keep in mind that the library is near the downtown area of Maryville.) I went with her and then stepped outside with her…and sure enough!, I, too, could hear a rooster crowing. Together, the lady and I walked around the corner of the Entry Rotunda to discover a bicycle leaning in the bike rack. Sitting on the seat of the bike was a rooster, tethered to the bicycle with a cord, and he was, indeed, crowing away as if it were daybreak instead of dusk.
BS: If you could be any fictional character from children’s literature, who would it be? Why?
JVS: I’d like to be Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” because then I could click my ruby red slippers…and choose to go anywhere in the world that I wanted to go…instantaneously! (I also happen to have been born in Kansas, and I have personally experienced being in several tornadoes, so I suppose I feel some kinship with Dorothy….
BS: What is the most favorite thing about your job?
JVS: I love being able to meet many different people every day and to select programs that are informative and/or entertaining for the public. We host speakers, musical concerts, festivals, computer classes, exhibits and more—all of which bring people into the library, usually about ¼ of whom have never been in the building previously. Programming is another way to bring the community into the building. Striving to present current, needed information to the public, we recruit experts in various topics to share their knowledge. At a time of change to electronic formats, it’s imperative for libraries to create and maintain collaborations with community individuals and organizations. Libraries are currently continuously evolving to include more and more electronic resources: Databases to replace print materials, especially Reference items; E-Books; DVD movies and documentaries; Music CDs. Libraries who can keep the community involved and establish and nurture partnerships are thriving and successful.
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