While I was working the youth services desk one evening in 2018, a girl shyly told me she wanted to be a librarian when she grew up. When I asked why, she credited a library class at school.
That short exchange planted a seed in my mind: Could public libraries find ways to give kids hands-on library experience in a real-life work environment? If we are to foster learning in innovative ways, shouldn’t we offer opportunities for children who have an interest in libraries? Is this feasible on a library-wide scale?
It turned out the answer to each of these questions was yes. At Johnson City (Tenn.) Public Library, we recently finished the third year of our 14-week Librarian-in-Training (LIT) program. Every year, we accept up to a dozen kids ages 9–12 and rotate them through our library departments—including adult services, circulation, maintenance, teen services, and technical services.
In technical services, for example, trainees might find themselves placing RFID tags on DVDs. In maintenance, they might set up tables and chairs for a book club. In adult and teen services, they might create a book display or make buttons for an event. Participants are required to attend a board meeting to see how the library’s governing body functions. The program culminates with a celebration that includes families, school administrators, and the librarians who recommended the kids.
In my experience, three components have been crucial to the program’s success:
Staff buy-in. With my supervisor’s approval, I called a meeting of department managers before the LIT program began. They offered valuable ideas for structuring and scheduling the project and suggested an application process. For many staffers, this was their first time working with children. As the program facilitator, it was important for me to lay out expectations for those interactions and provide guidelines akin to classroom management strategies.
Kids come away with an appreciation for how hard we work to provide the best possible collections and services to our users.
Intentional marketing. To promote the LIT program, I reached out to those who know children and their library habits best: school librarians. In a letter to all city, county, and private school librarians in the area, I asked for recommendations of kids who have shown the most interest in the library, either by volunteering their time or through a deep love of literature. This ensured children were vetted before we invited them to apply. Application forms ask kids why they want to be in the program, which books are their favorites, and what their special skills or hobbies are. We also ask parents to sign media release forms for photos and videos.
Adaptability. The beauty of the program is that it can be as large or as small, as involved or as basic, as you need it to be. When the pandemic began, our program was put on hold for nearly two years. The break gave us a chance to evaluate and restructure the LIT curriculum for 2022. Based on staff and participant input, we made adjustments that allowed trainees to spend more time in the departments they are most interested in and allowed staffers to go deeper into projects with them.
The favorite department of participants, by far, has been circulation. Children love the many manual tasks and working with our automated materials handler.
The LIT program continues to grow each year, with more applications than we can accommodate. Our relationship with school librarians continues to grow too. Feedback from children and families has been overwhelmingly positive, and some staff members have enjoyed the program so much that they have asked that we host it more than once a year.
We can’t know, of course, if any of the trainees will go on to become librarians themselves, but it’s clear that many come away with an appreciation for how hard we work to provide the best possible collections and services to our users. By providing a greater understanding of the roles that library workers play in our community, we strengthen our support and create future library advocates.