Numbers Lie. Stories Don’t.

One of my favorite quotes is commonly attributed to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  Obviously metrics, surveys, and other statistic-gathering tools do have a place in the library.  They tell us how often books are checked out, or which days have the highest foot traffic in particular branches.  But they don’t–and can’t–tell us how much of an impact we’ve made with our programming.  Looking at numbers, especially for teen programming, you might feel a little down.

Okay, let’s be real: you might be feeling a level of panic approaching DEFCON 1.  It’s so, so easy to blame yourself for not getting all the teens in your city to also come to your library.  It’s like the Pit of Despair of Teen Librarianship that we all willingly throw ourselves into.

Dawson crying
Stop.  Think.  That doesn’t make sense.  Unless you live in, like, Iceland, it’s highly unlikely that every teen in your village, town, or city will visit your library and come to a program.  I live in a large-ish (technical term alert!) city north of Chicago.  It’s not just cows here, ya know, eh?  We have myriad Starbucks, lots of shopping, quick access to Six Flags Great America, and a huge lake–in fact, it’s so awesome(ly polluted), it’s a Great Lake–to the east.  It’s not like teens don’t have other things that they can choose to do.

Now, I’m not saying that publicity and word-of-mouth should be abandoned in despair, but teens will make choices about what they want to do.  Even if you live in a smaller or larger community, there are certain universal constants of the teenaged existence.  Could it be that teens have chores to do?  After-school jobs?  Egads, homework???  On the weekends, maybe they’re just so wiped from the week that the idea of getting dressed and schlepping to the library for your (obviously awesome) superhero craft just doesn’t have the same pull as that of the comfy bed.  I mean, I was pretty much the consummate book geek girl as a teen and the idea of going to the library to “hang out” with other people filled my introverted self with a horror approaching paralysis.

So you’ve got competition.  That’s okay.  Some of that competition is inevitable (homework, work-work, band, theater, etc.) and it tends to occur right at the time that you are probably planning programming.

But let’s say you’re working hard on talking up programs to the kinds you see in the library.  You try to have a fun social media presence.  You contact the schools.  In short, you do what you can do.  And yet,  you had three people at your super-amazing program.

Ignore the numbers.  Numbers lie.  Numbers tell you nothing about what a teen got out of a program, or what you learned doing a program, or anything else that has to do with emotions and human experiences. Instead of saying, “Oh, I only had x people at my program.”  Say, “I had x teens come to my program and we had so much fun!”

anchorman jump
Let me give you a few examples.  This is a case, by the way, in which anecdata are totally acceptable.

Last year, a local university hosted the NEA’s Big Read and featured Fahrenheit 451.  I held a banned books discussion during (when else?) Banned Books Week.  One teen girl came.  So we talked about books.  And as we talked, she told me about how she felt stifled by her mother’s restrictions on what she could and could not read.  The teen lamented that her mother used religion to rationalize these rules.  I mentioned that we need to respect people’s beliefs, but that it is ultimately up to each individual to decide what to believe.  I told her that I was a religious person, but I don’t use what I believe to restrict access to books, because that’s wrong.  Everyone has a choice.  We talked a bit about Harry Potter–she said, “I don’t know anyone who’s read Harry Potter and become a Wiccan.  So I don’t get why these things are banned!  Just because you read it doesn’t mean you automatically do it.”  I am pretty sure we high-fived during that conversation.

Looking at stats for my teen programming that month, someone might have thought, “Wow, book discussion fail.  Only one kid.”  Yeah, but that one teen unpacked a lot of emotional baggage about parents, religion, and the freedom to read in our hour-long discussion.  The impact is what matters, not the integer.

I recently started a program called Fandom Frenzy.  It’s open to members of all fandoms, and mostly we sit around on the floor of my library’s teen center and geek out about various things.  It’s a different group almost every time we meet, and the largest group I ever had was seven.  But, you know what?  It’s a ridiculously fun program.  I’ve had teens say things like, “I can’t talk about this at school, because people make fun of me.  But you guys get it.”  Last time, I had a group of kids flip out over my haircut because I looked like Tris in Insurgent (note: I look nothing like Shailene Woodley).  We’ve been shushed by adult patrons!  The only rule I’ve had to impose is that no one can say they want to kill Peter Capaldi.

Seven kids.  In a city of 100,000, that might seem miniscule.  But those seven kids felt safe.  They had fun. They shrieked with laughter and thanked me for letting them take home perler bead crafts.  They devised an elaborate Harry Potter program that I’m trying to implement (seriously, you guys, they wanted me to sew robes!  I am not sewing robes).  They make me a better librarian, and I can only hope that these programs make life for these teens more meaningful, fun, and just plain bearable.

You do good things.  You do amazing things for teens.  Having to wade through hordes of teens doesn’t really mean much if you haven’t changed them in some way.  If you can just impact one teen, that’s enough.

I win


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