Column Description: Celebrating the good things happening in New York's small and rural libraries.
My kids used to be involved in Scouts, both Girl and Boy, which meant I was involved with Scouts because I have yet to meet a call for volunteers to which I can say “No.” When my oldest, now in college, was starting Kindergarten, another parent announced, “We need someone to be a Daisy leader!” Knowing nothing about what this entailed nor that something called a “latrine” would now appear more than once in my future, I gave a mostly enthusiastic “Sure.”
Six years and many Camporees later, my middle was starting Cub Scouts. I was tied up with Girl Scouts and left Cub Scout chauffeuring and chaperoning to my husband. (By now, I was also the co-Service Unit Manager, supporting the volunteers in our Cookie Territory.) It was only when my son came home with a little block of wood that I became keenly interested in his pack activities. It was Pinewood Derby time, and there is nothing I love more than some fierce yet friendly competition!
The Big Morning arrived, and I was excited to be a little bit extra about race cars designed by first graders (plus, there was breakfast pizza). The crowd went wild as the Cubmaster started the first heat. I noticed the loudest cheers were coming from the front row, lining each side of the track. And that it was all girls.
The sisters were so into the Pinewood Derby, yelling, stomping, and fist-pumping. But it made me sad that the girls were relegated to being spectators when it was clear they loved this event and would love to be a part of it. Not that Girl Scouts didn’t have some neat activities, but this totally awesome, totally STEM project (at a time when a push to get girls into STEM was burgeoning; see: Girls Who Code) was not available to these girls. They, too, should have the opportunity to design, build, and race a car. As Lindy West writes in The Witches Are Coming, “Girls deserved more than just a glow reflected.”
I immediately texted my co-Service Unit Manager the all-caps declaration, “WE WILL BRING THIS TO OUR SCOUTS NEXT YEAR!” I knew it wouldn’t be a simple undertaking, but we had twelve(ish) months to plan. (Spoiler Alert: We succeeded.)
It wasn’t an identical event to the Pinewood Derby (for example, we were not allowed to call it the Pinewood Derby), but in February 2017, ninety Girl Scouts entered cars on our first Derby Day. We had so many registrants we needed to split into two races. In 2019, with our event ballooning to 130 registrants and three races, our Cub Scout hosts had to abandon their long-term church basement venue and move to the high school cafeteria.
I think of this experience when I see our small libraries sitting on the sidelines. So often, we are cheering for our medium and large counterparts (or looking on with envy), and we don’t think that a program, service, or collection is for us. But it can be! Small libraries can be more than just the glow reflected. It takes time, scaling, adjusting, and shifting the mindset from “This will never work” to “How can we make this work?”
To make Derby Day work, we needed a partner which was the aforementioned Cub Scout pack. They owned track and timing equipment and offered to extend their day to host our race. (They were probably so very agreeable because I said, “Eh, we’ll get thirty to register.” Ope.) Likewise, community partners can be essential to helping small libraries get “bigger” initiatives off the ground, and people love to help! Don’t be afraid to ask. The very worst thing that will happen is that someone may decline – but then you can just ask someone else. We had two other packs in our town we could have approached if the first had passed.
When I was at the Clifton Springs Library, I attended a workshop called VELI-STEM: STEM Learning in Vermont Libraries. It was a fascinating presentation outlining a three-year program to engage preschoolers in hands-on learning. While this was something I could not implement in our library, the scope was far too big and expensive, I could implement something. I applied for a grant to create eight circulating STEM Kits. Each kit contained several challenges, all the materials needed, and related picture books. Many of the “challenge” ideas came from the activities described at the workshop. I did not allow our limitations as a small library to stop us from bringing hands-on learning to our community. Our hands-on learning was just a little bit different.
Our system’s Books by Mail program, launched in January, was modeled after Buffalo & Erie County Public Library’s Library by Mail program (Thank you, Samantha!). BECPL is a bigger system (which means more staff and more funding), but we kept asking, “How can this work for us?” The result is not an identical program, but it is a program that is successfully meeting a community's needs.
Limited personnel, budget, and space are hurdles small libraries most often face. However, we should be encouraged to find a way over/under/around and find what works best for our libraries and our communities. Create your own glow!
Suzanne Macaulay is the Program Director at the OWWL Library System which supports the 42 public and association libraries in Ontario, Wayne, Wyoming, and Livingston Counties. Her responsibilities include Outreach Coordinator, Youth Services Consultant, State Aid for Library Construction, Continuing Education, and Social Media & Communications. Suzanne was named a 2022 New York State Outstanding Librarian (Finger Lakes) by Senator Sean Ryan. She is the Co-Chair for the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL) Marketing & Communications Committee and the Vice President-Elect for NYLA's Rural Libraries Round Table. She received her BA in English from Molloy University and her MLIS from LIU Post. Originally from Long Island where she started as the Children’s Librarian at the Henry Waldinger Library in Valley Stream (Hi, Mamie!), Suzanne now lives in Rochester with her family (spouse, three teenagers, three dogs). During non-library time, she runs, officiates girls lacrosse, plays golf, loves Dunkin’ and donuts (both separately and together), and is a very supportive but very non-shouty sports parent.