The Expert-Based Staffing Approach to Library Programs (Fall 2014)

Future of Library Services for and with Teens report coverMany libraries have experienced shifting transitions over the past few years in an effort to maintain transcending services in response to changing community demographics. With the extension of the common core in schools across different states, as well as a wider emphasis on science, math, technology, engineering and arts, some such libraries have begun a shift in the ways they think about programs and staffing models. It has been a longstanding idea that the library is everything to everyone, but is it time for libraries to start thinking in other directions in regards to staffing models? This lends to consideration of staffing models like the one that has been taking shape in The Free Library of Philadelphia via a program called Maker Jawn.

In an interview, K-Fai Steele, who previously managed the Maker Jawn Initiative at The Free Library of Philadelphia, shared advantages and challenges of the Maker Jawn approach, including information about the staffing model.

The Maker Jawn staffing model employs experts of various fields to provide valuable STEAM based programs and resources in libraries where community residents wouldn’t otherwise have access to such resources. Currently in its second year, the Maker Jawn Program was initiated through a grant fund and has played a role in bridging the gap to under-privileged neighborhoods in Philadelphia where schools have less funding and therefore less programs and resources of such nature. STEAM related contents offered through the Maker Jawn enables participants to think outside of the box and develop critical and creative skills while developing knowledge of job fields that most times are far removed from the daily experiences of these community teens.

Benefits of the Maker Jawn Approach

As mentors in the Maker Jawn program local artists get the opportunity to become better connected to their communities through their interactions with program participants. These connections help the artists to become more vested in their community libraries and in the patrons that attend the maker Jawn programs. Likewise, teens also gain valuable experiences by connecting with these professionals who in many cases act as mentors to them after they’ve built connections and develop relationships from ongoing program participation.

Whereas libraries sometimes have occasional one-time programs that are run by hired professionals, Maker Jawn’s program mentors are employed on an ongoing basis that models a two days a week or a five days a week program which takes place at each site. These programs operate alongside the public school recognized days, breaking similarly to the public school systems’ holiday schedules. This model allows for continuity and reliability for students who frequently turn to their public libraries for afterschool activities and a safe place to be aside from their homes.

Maker Jawn and the YALSA Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action Report

In the YALSA Future of Libraries for and With Teens report a chart is included that focuses on traditional ways that libraries program for teens and an “envisioned future” for library programs for and with teens. The “envisioned future” column of the chart calls for programs to be “co-created and co-led by library staff, content experts, and teens,” where “outcomes are measured by skills or knowledge gained” by participants. The Maker Jawn approach fits in well with this future because not only does library staff receive support from experts and artists in their respective fields during training sessions, but it provides consistent programming during after school hours where teens have the opportunity to be creative. One particular program offered was called the art box projects where each participant received objects from a box and was able to decide on what approach to take and the outcome of where their individual projects would lead. This type of freedom enables participants to see that although two people may have the same set of tools and resources, they can produce totally different things, which is quite okay. That means in addition to being an environment that enables creativity, self-reliance and acceptance regardless of differences is also encouraged.

With any program, measuring success and challenges in order to improve and act upon what worked well is usually a concern. Since the mentor artists are specifically hired to run the Maker Jawn initiative, they spend all their time in the program supporting participants in addition to collecting necessary statistics and data. This dedicated staffing format allowed some ease in collecting supportive outcomes-based assessment. Mentors captured how participating in the program changed users’ experiences, noted important knowledge and skills gained, and how what participants learned affected their ways of living and/or thinking.

Having a staffing model where respective artists run these Maker Jawn programs doesn’t mean that library staff no longer offers programs. Instead, having dedicated artists to deliver needed programs on a regular basis in high need areas certainly allows library staff the opportunity to attend to other things like providing reference, connecting with community partners, and conducting deeper research for one-off programs. Library staff can feel less pressured to know and do everything regardless of their particular expertise. In this sense the Maker Jawn program speaks to the YALSA Report that states, “All school and public libraries serving teens can improve their services even more by tapping expert human resources from communities (both real and virtual).”

Having data and outcomes to show the value of continuing or expanding a project before approaching potential funders is always a great approach. This was the case for the Maker Jawn program that operates on the days that public schools are in session. In addition to saying that there were neighborhoods that lacked programs and resources that could be beneficial to teens, but they went a step further to say “here’s what we propose, what we have been doing for the past couple months and data on how it has been working.” This showed potential funders to how the program was valuable and why they should get involved. The Maker Jawn program received funding for part time staff to be dedicated to the program for each site.

Challenges of the Maker Jawn Approach

As with many first time initiatives, one challenge of the Maker Jawn program was the “buy in” process – getting administration and key staff on board for the project. In this case it helped that there was a great need for programs of such nature in some of the underserved neighborhoods. But there needed to be another step since oftentimes a need doesn’t necessarily equal a successful initiative. Being able to show key decision-makers that in fact the program does work helped to bring attention to the whole idea of the Maker Jawn initiative and therefore also helped with securing grant funding.

There was also a challenge to maintain a continuum of reliable staffing because of an inability to create needed positions to help make the program a success. When the Maker Jawn program first began in the summer of 2012, it relied on mostly work-study students to keep running. This proved for unpredictability because the program mostly worked around the participating students’ classes and there was little dedication and investment. More so, staffing was unstable and by the time mentors began to develop relationships, build trust, and become familiar with program participants’ individual learning styles and circumstances sometimes the staff would no longer be around.

Another challenge was ensuring accurate and reliable program evaluation. Because the programs were on a walk-in basis, it was difficult to capture information on long-term participation in the program. Oftentimes, students who attended the program on one particular day didn’t often attend the next, and sometimes not for the rest of a particular week. Information captured then became sporadic and less reliable, which made it difficult to measure success and evaluate necessary learning outcomes.

Is it For Your Community?

With libraries seeking ways to alter directions to meet the changing demographics and needs of the communities they serve, the Maker Jawn initiative and staffing model seem like an option with great potential. Not only does staff get the support they need in terms of having experts in respective fields conduct needed programming, but library program participants also benefit by having dedicated program mentors to whom they can connect and develop a trustworthy mentorship. Program mentors are hired form the community, which gives more meaning to community partnership and connection.

The Maker Jawn initiative is definitely not a one-size-fits-all program. Being fairly new, there is room for growth to allow consideration for adjustments that might be necessary to fit the needs of specific communities. In addition to adjustments to things like program layout and offering another consideration might be to find a way to connect program participants with other library resources to maximize opportunities.

Finally, one of the best things about the Maker Jawn approach is possibly that it encourages and promotes a certain level of self-exploration, collaborative learning, and creativity that in the end can be a drastic life-changing event for program participants and program mentors alike.

Leave a Reply