Beyond Collections: Building Librarians' Competencies to Engage Families

Your Name and Title: Margaret Caspe, Director of Research and Professional Learning

Library, School, or Organization Name: Global Family Research Project

Co-Presenter Name(s): M. Elena Lopez, Heather B. Weiss

Area of the World from Which You Will Present: USA

Language in Which You Will Present: English

Target Audience(s): Library Leaders

Short Session Description: Library leaders will learn about the expertise and competencies children’s and youth services librarians need to engage families and professional learning strategies that can be used to achieve them.  

Full Session Description:

Public libraries today provide families a welcoming environment in which to learn, to connect with other parents, and to find other community resources that can help them thrive. They are also becoming an important space where parents are gaining the confidence, knowledge, and skills they need to support their children’s learning from birth onwards. On any given day, for instance, it’s not uncommon to find the public library serving as a space for adults to take computer literacy classes, for families and teens to work together in makerspaces, and for parents and young children to talk, build with legos, and read stories. 

As libraries evolve in these ways, so too does the role of children’s and youth services librarians. Their roles are expanding to include not just collections, child development, and literacy but also to bringing in families as partners in promoting learning. For this reason, children’s and youth service librarians must develop the expertise and competencies to work with families effectively. Based on a 1-year study designed to investigate the role of family engagement in libraries and conducted in partnership with the Public Library Association, this proposed presentation examines three competencies librarians need to engage families and highlights different professional learning strategies that can be used to achieve them. Data sources for this study included a national survey, conversations with a learning community, and interviews with library directors and staff.

Communicating: Communication is one of the most important competencies librarians need to work with families. Families are more likely to become engaged in their children’s learning and participate in events when staff reach out to them and communicate consistently. Results of our survey show that this is an area of strength for librarians: 96% of directors report that librarians are always or often greeting families warmly when they come through the doors and 82% report that libraries always or often communicate with families in multiple ways. 

Many libraries provide ongoing training and coaching to librarians to communicate effectively with families. For example, at the Ignacio Community Library (CO), a small rural library located within the boundaries of the Southern Ute Reservation, senior librarians train novice staff on what to do and say when families come into the library, for example, by asking, “How can I help you?” Staff use “cheat sheets” that include question prompts and a list of current events to promote conversations with families. Many libraries are also training staff to use technology as a way to communicate regularly with families. For example, the Brooklyn Public Library sends text messages to parents enrolled in their Ready, Set, Kindergarten! program letting them know about upcoming events to encourage regular attendance and giving them ideas they can use at home to promote learning. 

Building relationships with families. Family engagement is about building relationships with families and librarians need concrete resources, knowledge, and skills to do it. For example, in our survey of library directors, whereas directors report that 64% of librarians are extremely or very knowledgeable about child development, only 52% are extremely or very knowledgeable about family engagement. Moreover, the top family engagement professional-development interests are:

  • making the library a welcoming space,
  • helping families feel confident in supporting young children’s learning and development, and
  • supporting families in using technology.  

Libraries across the country are adopting capacity building strategies to help librarians develop the knowledge, skills and confidence in these areas.  For example, as part of a larger statewide initiative, all children’s librarians in the King County Library System (WA) are trained to use Every Child Ready to Read (ECRR). Developed by the PLA and the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), ECRR is a research-based curriculum and resource guide for librarians and families to build relationships around early literacy development. As a different example, many libraries have invested in Family Place Libraries training, in which librarians learn about children’s development and how to transform physical spaces to meet children’s and families’ needs. 

Designing family-focused services: Librarians need to understand families’ lives and be able to take their perspectives. By coming to understand families’ thoughts and feelings, librarians are better able to develop services that address their concerns and desires. To achieve this, professional learning opportunities might include role-plays and in-person and virtual simulations. For example, to build librarians’ empathy and understanding of families, librarians at the Cleveland Public Library (OH) participate in a Community Action Poverty Simulation. The simulation focuses on the experiences of individuals going from one public agency to another, trying to gain access to resources. After the role-play, librarians discuss how the library should not be another bureaucracy but rather an institution that builds up people and communities. In this way librarians learn to build nonjudgmental relationships so that families are drawn to the library.

Libraries might also adopt human-centered design thinking approaches which involves asking librarians to put themselves in families’ shoes and to develop and refine services from the family perspective. For example, child services librarians at the Watertown Free Public Library (MA) used this approach to reimagine how families with very young children experience story time. To understand families’ needs and feelings, librarians observed a story time for children ages birth through twelve months, and then talked with families about why they come to the library, what they like, and what improvements they would like to see. From this experience, librarians became more aware of how families with young children need to feel connected to other parents with new babies and have a way to get and share information in nonjudgmental settings. Librarians are now planning to dedicate a portion of their story time sessions to a collective conversation among families about questions they have, such as when babies can change car seats and the best foods for babies to try first.

We hope you will join us at this session where we discuss these competencies and professional learning strategies! 

Websites / URLs Associated with Your Session:;


Views: 128

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

Hi, Margaret and M. Elena! This is terrific material, we're just not sure it fits in the framework of "Expertise, Competencies, and Careers." You could either save it for a future event, or if you'd like to modify it to be centered on the competencies needed to engage with families, we'd be open to reviewing again. Many thanks, Steve



Follow #Library20

The Learning Revolution

© 2019   Created by Steve Hargadon.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service