Read Sing Play

Adventures in early literacy

Storytime: Entertainment or Education?


In the spirit of full disclosure and in the hopes that we can all learn from each other’s mistakes as well as victories, this post is about two patron complaints against me in reference to storytime. After getting over the initial shock, I reflected about the incidents surrounding these complaints to figure out what I might have done differently or could/should do differently in the future. And this got me thinking about the whole idea of storytime and it’s purpose in the world.

But before I get in to that… the complaints:

1) She made us stop talking during baby storytime but we were just excited that her (friend of complaint issuer) son took his first steps. She was condescending (this part I’ll work on!)

Response: this is true. Although my memory is that when this kid took those steps we were in between activities and everyone actually clapped for him. Then later, while I was attempting to share a book and they were talking more, I paused to say “Could you please wait until after storytime to continue your conversation?” It’s very possible that my tone was not that great as I was pretty frustrated at that point and I hate ever having to do this, even when I feel it is necessary. Especially when you cannot continue with your story or activity because the talking is so loud. An addition to this the mother of the walker also said loudly “Oh sh*t, I can’t believe he’s doing this.” That was the kicker for me to decide to quiet them. I’d rather have one mom upset with me for asking her to be quiet than 20 because I didn’t shush her, letting the language and disruption continue. It’s a pretty conservative community and judging by the faces of the other adults in the room the outburst was not appreciated.

Okay, so that one was easy. Sorry you are mad I made you stop talking, but frankly, TOUGH! It’s storytime. Be respectful of the presenter and of the time you have with your child and only open your mouth to sign along.

2) Kendra is rude and makes us clap and sing and do things with her (this is not verbatim as I don’t have the comment sheet, but the words, rude, clap and sing were used in the same sentence.)

Response: This is the one that really got me. All the training I have says “Get those parents participating!” For both baby and toddler storytime our advertisements say “participating adult”. At the beginning of every storytime I say “This is ____ ST and my name is Kendra. There are only 2 rules for storytime. You have to have fun and participate and play with your child. And please hold any conversations until after storytime because it can be really distracting for the children.” So, ok, I can change “have to participate” but anyone who knows me would see the smile on my face and know I’m not saying this like a boot camp leader. But, it’s easy to change so fine.

Also, I have kind of a dry, snarky sense of humor. Most parents appreciate (at least in my past experience) my terrible jokes and this has really helped with building a good rapport with them. So I’m thinking this complaint could have been compounded by the fact that in storytime last week a dad answered his phone and took a call right after our opening song. He has a booming dad voice so it wasn’t possible for me to continue storytime while he was talking and he’d slipped behind the post in the story room so eye contact to get him to stop was not an option. So, to stop the crickets in the room I jokingly said “Oh and one more rule: no cell phones in storytime!” Ha. Ha. Ha. There were lots of chuckles. But maybe that was too harsh. So hard to tell these days! The VERY embarrassed dad got off the phone, I did NOT feel the need to say anything to him and I continued with storytime.

Now on to the big picture of this complaint: why do we do storytime? And why is it important (if it is) for parents to participate when they clearly don’t want to? These might be the only formal complaints we’ve had, but I know it’s hard getting parents to participate because after all this time mine are still awfully lackluster in their participation. They just want to sit there and watch me entertain their babies and toddlers.

So, my question to you: what is the purpose of storytime? Do we just want to get these people in the library and give them a positive experience? In that case, can we just stop with all the early literacy message stuff? Just do a dog and pony show and say see ya later? Or, do we want to educate parents? Impart our knowledge of children, early literacy, books, music, playing, etc. and hammer in how important it all is? Is it too overwhelming? Do we even know for sure? We aren’t teachers, we’re librarians. While I have a degree in psychology with lots of early child development credits, it’s been a while and it’s not what I practice 40 hours a week. So, are we really the experts? Should we be giving them tips or leaving that to educators who are trained in that kind of thing?

I’m reserving how I feel about this topic for now because I’m really interested to see what all of you have to say (maybe you’ll change my mind about things!). It’s a topic that comes up fairly often in libraries, but it hasn’t come across my desk for a long while. So let’s hear what you have to say!

Author: Kendra

Children's Librarian in the Northwest. Lover of toddlers, twitter, and TV (T's, too, apparently!).

9 thoughts on “Storytime: Entertainment or Education?

  1. This is a great question! But ultimately I don’t think there is only one answer. I think each library has to decide what their goals are for storytime and THEN structure their storytime & staff training & PR to support those goals, making sure everyone–storytime staff, management, other staff in the library, parents, community partners, whoever–is on the same page. Then whenever there is a comment or feedback, the manager can assess what the library’s response will be based on those goals. It is really, really hard to manage expectations and behavior in storytime, and really hard to work with a group of grown-ups to help them feel safe and comfortable with participating in storytime with their children, but definitely a place to start can be with outlining goals and objectives and using them to craft your behavior expectations and statements and staffing.

    I believe we can get people in the library, in to storytime, give them a positive, entertaining experience, AND share with them messages about early learning and how they are having such a wonderful impact on their child’s development by bringing them to the library and reading to them and playing with them at home. I believe that it’s possible to share these messages a little bit at a time, in a conversational way, so that parents and caregivers do not feel overwhelmed with the information, and so storytime is still felt to be a fun and engaging time.

    I appreciate your point that librarians are not all early childhood experts, or certified teachers, but we are book-and-reading experts, and we are learning more all the time about how early literacy experiences make a difference in children’s lives. Librarians don’t all have education degrees, but librarians have always been teachers; there’s nothing new about that, and I feel it’s completely within our role to share what we’ve learned.

    Thanks! I can’t wait to read what everyone else has to say.

    • As “teachers”, doing your work in the library to instill and nurture an appreciation for literature and the library, you interact with the public. I think for the most part the public’s perception of a Librarian is that of “expert” and “teacher”. We count on you to share your education and expertise for our benefit and at our demand. I also expect that other community members who share the library will respect my right to use it and benefit from its’ services. I’m equally responsible in modeling the societal norms for the library and letting others know when their behavior is infringing on my privilege.

      It’s unfortunate your what I’m sure was an amazing Story Time experience was interrupted by the inappropriate behavior of other adults. You had a choice and you decided to enforce your expectations – that was embarrassing for the perpetrators. You’ll have to continue working out your responses to others to your satisfaction, it’s what we do as professionals working in the service industry. Stand behind your education and your experience, share your passion for the written word with those who solicit it, then soak your sorrows over those who are still learning in good food and wine and start again. πŸ™‚ ox

  2. Hey Kendra,

    This is a great topic that could literally have an endless supply of opinions. As an educator, I have to say that there is definately an “entertainment” factor when it comes to capturing your audience for the presentation of, or introduction to learning.

    I’m sure storytime philosophies vary quite a bit from library to library as does their implementation and interpretation. What shouldn’t vary is the respect patrons should have for the librarian leading the storytime. I have never understood why patrons attending storytime feel it is ok to chat, talk on the phone, or even expect the librarian to watch their child. The fact of the matter is that EVERY parent should be there to support the learning.

    Handing out expectations with a good sense of humor to help people understand the value of the service they are receiving is a good thing. Even something like the new intro the theaters do regarding cell phone usage could be fun if modified for storytime. (Turn it into book form.)

    Participation is a given. Again, using humor to help relay this obvious given to those not in tune with “obvious” could be done in a fun way. (Maybe coming up with a fun chant that encompasses the expectation.)

    Keep your chin up. There are always a few people looking to complain because they have nothing better to do. Don’t let them outshine those that see the amazing value in storytime and YOU!

    P.S. A spray bottle can work wonders too! Or strategically placed bouncers!

    • Ha ha ha! The spray bottle seems like the best solution here. πŸ˜‰

      Thanks for your comment! I really like the idea of a chant.

      The fact that someone complained doesn’t really bug me that much- it happens. It was more what they were complaining about. My mistake was assuming everyone has a sense of humor. But I don’t want to change mine because of that since I’m sure others appreciate it. The fact that people are banging down the doors for a spot on the Farm is proof of the powers of humor and entertainment in education. πŸ™‚

      Thanks again- such good ideas here!

  3. If you had only stayed here at GHL… Your story times rocked and we do have the best patrons! I think it must be very different in a bigger library. Keep on doing what you do.. you are the best!

  4. Those parents were just embarrassed! End of story. Because they KNOW how they should be acting in a storytime setting. We all learned how to be quiet and listen in school. I feel many times that parents are really just looking for a way to have a “break” for 45 minutes or so while we entertain their children. You and try and try to get them to participate but in the end that’s up to them as parents. I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten the question, “Ok, so I just leave my child here and come back?” NO WAY! I don’t think a lot of parents even understand what storytime IS. In my storytimes I just try to be as flexible as possible. I tell everyone to please try and sing along because I have a terrible voice and don’t like singing alone! Most do, some don’t and I just let that go. Luckily I haven’t had issues with talking parents and cell phones (or maybe I’m just so busy I don’t notice). But you can be for darn sure I would step up and say something just like you did. How could you not?! They are in YOUR storytime, you are trying to make this an enjoyable experience for the children as well as the adults. And that rude comment? Really?! I’ve seen your storytimes and you are the nicest most cheerful person ever! I don’t think I’ve ever heard you be rude. Sorry, I felt like that was a personal attack because I know you so well lol. You are amazing and I know you know that. Those handful of people who don’t agree…well I won’t say what they can do πŸ™‚ I love you!

  5. I do think the perception around storytime has changed in recent years. I know libraries that insisted the parents leave the room during storytime (but stay nearby, obviously). Parental involvement above and beyond just being present is more the norm now. That said, when parents stay in the room, even if you didn’t expect them to participate, they should be respectful of the “performance.” You don’t go to a concert or movie or play and then talk through it! It’s basic common sense! Parents talking is distracting to children and the librarian. Kids are just learning how to sit and listen and parents need to model that behavior for children. While I don’t have parents in storytime (I’m outreach) I’ve had to remind teachers on occasion that holding conversations in the back of the room is not okay – they generally don’t realize how loud they’re getting, and take the reminder in good humor (especially if I tell the kids that I have to “shush” the teachers – they find that hilarious!). I agree with the poster above who said the parents who complained were probably embarrassed about being called out. But you did have to do something! As I’ve told the teachers who apologize to me for a child who asks non-stop questions during storytime: talking is okay, as long as they’re participating in the story and are not making it hard for other children to listen and pay attention. It’s true for kids and parents – we WANT active participation and storytime shouldn’t be museum quiet – but when it’s not participation but disruption, it has to be addressed and stopped.

    Now, on to the question of librarians as “experts.” That’s been a tricky one for staff around here to wrap their heads around as well. For years we DID look on storytime as more of an entertainment thing, with its main purpose as getting kids excited about books. Which it still does. But we’ve also always modeled good read aloud behavior, and used fingerplays and flannelboards that enhance early literacy learning. We’ve ALWAYS chosen developmentally appropriate activities. We ARE experts in getting kids excited about reading and interested in books and songs and language, which are main components of early literacy. The difference is that now we are TALKING about why we do what we do in storytime so that parents can take that home and use that information. While the amount of talking (and whether it happens in storytime or elsewhere) varies from library to library, it’s important knowledge to share as we are the people who get to see parents and children long before they start school. And as we all know, that early literacy learning starts from birth, so who better than us to talk about how important it is to read aloud with your kid? ECRR has given us the research to back up what we’ve always known to be true so it makes it sound more “official”. Yes, it’s hard, when we don’t have the education degree or reading classes, to think of yourself as an expert. But what you (and I and all children’s librarians) are an expert in is how to share books and stories with children in such a way that they will be excited to learn to read but will also be gaining the language skills needed to make that learning easier. Most parents know that reading aloud is important. But do they know HOW to do it so that kids will love books and reading? Maybe. Do they know that singing songs is important for building phonological skills? Probably not. Do they know that simple things like having books available around the house will help grow a reader? Probably not. THAT’S where we have expert information to share.

    *stepping off soapbox now*

    Kendra, you did the right thing. If you think you need to work on your tone, then do that. But I see no fault in what you did.

  6. In each situation, you clearly expressed your expectations. You did the right thing by sticking to your guns.

    Storytime should first be educational, and second entertainment. This does not mean, of course, that parents can just expect that you’ll take care of everything and let them have their “me” time. You have a master’s degree in an educational field, and therefore you are a professional at books and literacy.

    When I only did preschool times, I would request that one parent volunteer to stay in the room, while the rest could wait in the hall outside. They had to be ready to come into the room as soon as we were ready to do the craft, or to be there in case the child had to use the restrooms. As I took on toddler and baby groups, I knew that the parents would not have that luxury, and required them to be in the room at all times AND participate.

    In recent times, I’ve modified my model, and found that I’m dealing with some of the same issues you are. Moms want to talk to each other, and I have to periodically stop reading and wait for their conversations to finish. They don’t like it when I point out publicly that they’re interrupting. They’re obviously embarrassed, and not too thrilled with me, but I don’t let it get to me. Blame needs to be placed, and if they want to blame me, then fine. My concern is for the children, not them.

    Your policies and expectations will be there to back you up when you need them. Whatever your goal for storytime, what you would like the children to get out of it, your rules will reflect that. Make sure management and other librarians know of the expectations, so that if a comment is expressed, they know how to handle it.

    And remember: for those two negative comments there are hundreds of positive ones you don’t hear. Keep up the good work!

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