This is the first in a series of blog posts contributed by scholarship recipients to CLEL 2020.
When poet Robert Burns observed that “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” he was on a farm in Scotland, not a library in Colorado. As many librarians can attest, however, those words penned in 1785 are still just as relevant in a contemporary setting. At a recent CLEL session filled with confessions, laughter, and lessons, Englewood librarians Megan Kennedy and Kimberly Powers stressed that despite our good intentions, things can and will go wrong. Fortunately, we all can learn from both our successes and our failures.
The librarians’ memorable missteps at their own programs in suburban Denver included the snowing styrofoam disaster, the tie-dye debacle, and the feather frenzy. Other adventures were the black paint bonanza, the hot glue incident, and the magical misfortune. As Kennedy and Powers noted, surprises arise for a variety of reasons - planning mistakes, control issues, and misguided attempts - or simply by being blindsided or unlucky. Through their self-deprecating humor and colorful stories, the duo instantly bonded with the audience of librarians and storytime staff.
Not to be outdone, participants at the CLEL conference revealed that they too had experienced storytime or programming disasters. Accidentally stepping on toddlers, forgetting storytime books, propelling items across the room, imploding technology, coming down with sudden song amnesia and even tracking in deer ticks from an outdoor program were a few stories shared. One participant confessed that no one showed up for an event she planned; another was overwhelmed when 80 people turned up for an event planned for just 20. Without a doubt, the best-laid plans often turn into very different actualities when it comes to storytime and library programming.
As reflected in the Yoda-inspired title of their breakout session, “The Greatest Teacher Failure Is,” Powers and Kennedy also provided practical advice on how to learn from failures. Like the wisdom of the legendary Jedi master Yoda, their advice was applicable to pros and novice librarians alike. For example, when dealing on the spot with projects gone awry, they offered the following tips: stay calm, smile, be positive, ask for help, improvise, allow kids to finish, minimize damage, and keep moving forward. In the heat of the moment, act like a duck, peacefully floating across a pond while paddling furiously under the water. In the days following an event, evaluate programs honestly, weigh resources, adjust timing or marketing, modify plans, and organize differently if needed. By being flexible, creative, and resilient, planners can move forward with new and improved programs the next time.
Overall, when evaluating programs, the Englewood librarians said it is helpful to ask the question, “Was this worth the time, energy and stress?” They noted that numbers alone do not determine the value of a program, because even a lightly attended event might enhance a sense of community and benefit individual families or participants. At the library, even a messy project with a high fun quotient might be valuable for parents and caregivers who are reluctant to try projects at home.
Reflecting back on what they initially described as failures, Powers and Kennedy concluded that positive “wins” and “successes” can be found in every situation, however humbling they are at the time. “Whether it is a storytime flannel disaster or a full-on art project explosion, we can learn from our experiences, and we might even surprise ourselves by learning that it wasn’t a failure after all,” they noted. Like visionaries Henry Ford, Woody Allen, and Thomas Edison, we do learn from mistakes and must be willing to try new things and overcome challenges. Ultimately, creating better library programs means laying out our best plans, taking risks, identifying successes and learning from failure - the greatest teacher.
*translated from To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, 1785