Sarah Spence is one busy lady. But in a couple of weeks she and her Children's Department staff with the Chattahoochee Valley Libraries system will get even busier.
The annual summer reading program kicks off May 16 with Fanfest and will run exhaustively through the end of July. But that will be on top of other activities on the schedule in the coming weeks, including a community heroes program, a writing workshop and book festival, a young author's contest, a Lego program and regular movie showings.
And that doesn't even include the weekly storytime sessions Spence enjoys doing for pre-school children in the Aflac Storytime Room at the Columbus Public Library on Macon Road, where she has an office.
With the hustle and bustle, there literally is no time for a personal vacation, at least until August after the reading program is over. But such is the life of the Children's Department head at Chattachoochee Valley Libraries, with Spence, 38, handling those duties for about two years. The California native and Columbus resident has been with the system for about five years.
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The Ledger-Enquirer recently visited with her at the main library, taking in a storytime session and then sitting to talk with her about the job she dearly loves. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity, with an expanded version available at www.ledger-enquirer.com.
What are your duties?
I do scheduling and reports for this branch. But then I also oversee what we're doing in the other branches children-wise. We have a monthly meeting with all the children's (department) staffers. I lead that meeting here, and we can plan for the future and what we're all doing systemwide.
How many branches are there in the system?
We have seven total. We have four in the city of Columbus. We have three county branches -- one in Cusseta, one in Richland and one in Marion County (Buena Vista).
Each library will have the summer reading program?
Oh yeah, we all have it. And this year we're trying to do family summer reading. So we're going to have programs for children and for teens, but we're also going to have one for adults, too. We're hoping that more families will be involved because we want the whole family reading together.
How did you get to this point in your career?
I grew up in California and I started as a library page, which we don't have that term here. But it's basically shelving books. We call that an assistant in our system here. My mom works at a library and she thought, 'Oh, this might be good for you.' I didn't know what I wanted to do career-wise. I went to college right after high school, but it was just a junior college and I really didn't have any idea.
Then I became a clerk at the library and my supervisor said, 'Have you ever thought about going to library school? I think you would be a really good children's librarian.' I never had thought about it, but I really love working with kids. When I was a clerk I had that interaction with patrons all the time, and I really loved customer service. After that it was a long process because I hadn't even gotten my bachelor's degree, and to go to library school you have to get a master's.
At least you found something you truly enjoyed?
Yeah, it was just that moment where (deep breath) this is what I wanted to do and I was just waiting for that. Then I got my bachelor's degree in English and got my master's in library science.
It was a hard time in California with library budgets. They weren't really hiring librarians. I had probably been out of school a year and was still a clerk. Then I was working as a library assistant kind of as-needed at another library to get experience on the reference desk and the children's desk. But I wanted something full time, so I just started looking and I can't even believe I looked in Georgia.
You were searching everywhere?
All over the United States. But my husband's family lives in Warner Robins (Ga.), so we thought if we moved here we would at least have some family nearby. I got hired initially as a children's librarian here. That was five years ago. I had never been a children's librarian, so this is like 'it,' the start of my career.
What does a children's librarian do?
A children's librarian basically does storytimes, does a lot of outreach. We have so many schools in Muscogee County. What we've done is divided the schools among all the branches. The schools that are closer to each branch, those are our schools that we have to go out and outreach to. Basically, we want to partner with the schools. We try to get with the media specialists and see if they want us to do programs. Usually, they want us to do stuff for pre-k and kindergarten. But if they have other requests for older kids and teaching them about our database or catalog or anything else, we do that.
When I was a librarian, I also got to start ordering material for the children's department, which is one of my favorite things.
To do that, you have to search online and elsewhere to find good books, etc.?
Yeah, you have to find reviews and look through library journals just to see what's new. You have to be on it, to see what's coming up. Right now there are two other children's librarians in our system, so they do the ordering, too.
Do children's books actually get bad reviews?
Some of them do. Not really bad. They may be a little boring or something. It just depends. Some reviews have stars. Those are more likely to win awards, and there are some that are really popular. So you just kind of have to know what's being offered. But you also have to think about what the community might want. That's why I like to be out there (on the floor) to hear what people are asking for ... You have to be open to what everyone's interested in.
In essence, you're a bit of a children's librarian today?
I am. I got this job about two years ago as department head. I'm still really passionate about going out and working with kids. I don't want to just be doing the paperwork at my desk. So I'm still doing storytime. We go out to the schools. We go to the jail.
What do you do at the jail?
There's a fatherhood dorm in the county jail. We started that (reading program) about four years ago. Every six weeks they change this group of men. They're either fathers or grandfathers, and they go into this dorm. For us, it's basically to help them better their lives and become better fathers, become better men. There are other organizations that go in there, too, but we go once a week and we talk to them about the importance of reading with their children and how it's fun.
So you're making an impact there?
Yes. The fun thing about this program is they have a graduation at the end and we provide books for their kids, and their kids get to come to the graduation and they get to read with them at the graduation. It's amazing.
I think the sheriff was very interested in doing something like this, and I've heard that other states are trying to find out about it just because the statistics show that if they're connecting with their children when they're in jail, it's less likely for their kids to go into jail, and it's less likely for those released from jail to come back.
The bottom line is they become better fathers and better citizens?
Yeah, and the greatest part about it is they come in here after they get out of jail, often with their kids. So many of them. They come in just to say, 'Hi, we're out.' It's really cool, probably one of my favorite things.
I saw a guy at Jason's Deli last week and he was a busboy and he stopped me and said, 'Do you remember me?' I was like, 'Yeah, I remember you.' My husband was with me. He (told my husband), 'She did some great work with me when I was in jail. I'm so proud and happy.' He was like, I'm bringing my daughter to see you.
In essence, you've given them a positive experience to build upon?
The main thing we want them to know is it's fun to read with your kids. We don't want them to be waiting until their kids start school to be reading with them. That's a big misconception for a lot of parents. They think when their children start school, the teacher will be the one (solely) teaching them how to read. We want them to know, as their parent, you're their first teacher. You need to be reading with them everyday.
I have to ask, aren't books old school in this digital world?
How has that evolved even in your relatively young career?
That's a good question. I don't know if you saw that we have the iPads out there. We got a grant for technology, so we got iPads that we have bolted to the desks out there so they can't get stolen. I found a bunch of apps. It's the same as books. You can go online and find reviews for different apps that will help kids getting ready to read. There are stories. They can draw, sing, play like on a keyboard. There are different books they can listen to.
What's a typical busy day like for you?
Like today, I came in and got ready for storytime. I kind of planned it a little bit on Friday. I have a lot of kits back here and I have basic stuff in there for each subject, like Black History Month, different letters, dogs, all of these songs and rhymes. So it's not as hard as it used to be for me to plan.
You meet with staff?
I'm not meeting with anyone today, but I have a monthly report due so I have to collect all of the statistics for all of the programs that we've done this month. And I include any anecdotes (and comments) from any patrons. It's just ways that we impact the community.
I also do the scheduling here for the department. That's a little challenging because I have three full-time people, two part-time people, and we're going to be getting another full-time and a part-time.
Not enough staffing, it sounds like?
Yeah. But we're going to get a new part-time and that person is going to hopefully be doing a lot of outreach because we have this huge list of schools and day cares. I think that's the hardest part for us is getting out to the people that can't come to the library or that don't know what we have to offer at the library.
We do another program where we go out to the different housing communities. We do that once a month and go out and basically bring a storytime to the families with young children so that they can see what we do. We call it Simple Steps. It's a program where we talk to them about the importance of reading and how much fun it can be.
What's the most challenging aspect of your job?
Not enough time to do everything. (chuckles) For me it's really hard to delegate. I'm that kind of person where I want to do everything. But now we have a new children's librarian and a new associate, and they're really great, so I'm learning to delegate stuff to them.
What's the most rewarding thing about your job?
I love seeing the kids outside of the library. I like being around them in general in the library, but it's just funny to me when I see them at the grocery store or I'll see them when I pick up my son at pre-school. They'll just look at me and point. Their mom will say, 'Who is that?' (The children say) 'She comes to my school' or 'She works at the library. I know her, I know her.' And they'll ask me, 'When are you coming back?' It seems so funny to me because I never thought I would be like a teacher. You know, it's like when you see a teacher outside of where you normally see them. I just love it. I can't even imagine doing anything else. This is the best.
It sounds like you could have become a teacher?
I don't know. It's so funny because I was always super shy (growing up). I never wanted to talk very much. I think that's hilarious because now I basically perform (during storytimes). But I still get super nervous when I have to talk in front of adults, like having to lead the steering committee. I don't know if I could have been a teacher, though, although my sister is a teacher.
Finally, what kind of skills do you need to be an effective children's librarian?
I think the main thing is you just have to love kids. That's something that you just can't learn, you can't change that. If you don't like kids, it's not going to change. When I hire people, that's what I'm really looking for. Everything else, like learning to do storytimes or going out to schools or working on the floor and shelving books, all of that stuff you can learn. But you have to like kids.
One of my questions (when hiring) is how do you make yourself approachable to kids? Because this is where it all starts. If children come in here when they're little and they're not happy or their parents aren't happy about the way they are treated by staff, they're not going to continue. Their parents aren't going to continue bringing them. We have to realize that it all starts here.
Name: Sarah Spence
Hometown: San Lorenzo, Calif. (San Francisco area)
Current residence: Columbus
Education: Graduate of Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo; bachelor of arts degree in English from Mills College in Oakland, Calif.; master's of science degree in library and information science from San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif.
Previous jobs: Children's librarian with Chattahoochee Valley Libraries in Columbus; library assistant in Livermore, Calif.; library clerk in Pleasanton, Calif.; and library page in Pleasanton
Family: Husband, Leon, three sons: Atticus, 11, Aidan, 9, and Alex, 4; a dog, Mazie, and two cats, Sam and Ash
Leisure time: She loves being with her family, playing with her boys, taking them to the park and walking their dog Mazie (when Georgia weather allows); she also loves to nap when she can
Of note: She had never lived outside of California until she moved to Columbus to be a children's librarian