How We Saved American Girl: Rebooting a Program for Success

Does your library host an American Girl program?  For many years, our library has run American Girl during the summer.  It was as close to a core program as our library has ever had hosted and certainly the closest to a core program for school-age.  And yet.  I watched as year after year it spiraled out of control and gave us less than satisfying results.  I tried a few new things and there were slight improvements but, overall, I knew we weren’t maximizing this program.  Now let me say this was never the kind of thing that patrons were complaining about (at least not to us and not in such explicit of terms) and we were dropping numbers – it was a larger discontent on MY part.  Why?  Because I knew this program COULD be so much more.  I knew if we could get a handle on it, really have a vision and a goal for it, we could turn it into a shining star – an outstanding example of a school age program.  But HOW?

The answer came to me almost in a flash and it was startling in both its simplicity and its audacity: we had to throw out everything we’d ever done and start all over again.

Shocking, I know.

Say you want to do this for a program you’re struggling with but still see merit in?  I can’t recommend it enough, the results for us were dramatic and rewarding ON TOP OF being instructional.  How do you do that?  Here’s how we did it …

Step One: Identify What’s NOT Working

American Girl is a program structured around the series of books of the same name.  Each summer, our library chose a specific girl and era and made her the focus on the AG programming. Participants aged 8-12 were invited to spend several days in the program working on crafts related to the girl and era and then join us for a wrap-up tea.  But what was going wrong?

1. We didn’t have enough time. Our American Girl program ran for approximately four days.  We used to have two sessions, one at the branch and one at the main library but a few years back we streamlined the process and turned it into a six day program with two sessions being held at the branch.  The problem with the four days was that almost all of our craft projects were WAY too complicated both for the skill level of particpants we were working with and the time we had.  We ended up neglecting other areas of the program (reading from the books, discussing the characters – the fun stuff!) on a mad scramble to finish the crafts!!!!  Which we mostly never managed anyway, so the participants went home with half-finished projects that sort of made the sad trombone noise. It always felt both rushed and incomplete, which is no fun, AND as if you missed a single day you’d be way behind.  This is the opposite direction we’ve been moving Summer Reading, so why keep it up here? 

2. We didn’t have enough focus. We thought just saying “We’re doing the American Girl Molly!” was enough focus.  But running a program for this age range that’s engaging – much less over so much time – requires more than just that. This tied back to the lack of time, starting multiple projects, not really having every day planned out (i.e. “We’ll just finish the project today.”) the lack of focus just drug everything down.  We had spent too long relying on the theme to carry us through – “You know, Molly!” that we’d become complacent and it was showing.   We didn’t have a larger VISION for what this program was supposed to be.

And now that we know what’s NOT working, well, it created a clear path forward.  Maybe not the easiest path forward, but a clear one.  It was time to start all over. How?

Step Two: How to Start All Over

1. Become OVERLY familiar with the material

I thought I knew the American Girl narrative well-enough to play loose with the books.  WRONG!  Since we had chosen Rebecca as our featured girl, it was time to become a Rebecca expert.  This took tons of time.  No, just kidding.  It took one night to read all the books in her series and by the time I was done not only did I have a fuller picture of what could tie into the book but I was inspired in a totally fresh way by the material.  Don’t take for granted that you know everything.  Be ready to learn!

2. Make a concrete plan

Here was our biggest Achilles heel. We’d come up with a craft or activity but it would end up stretching over too many days or ending too early. To sustain this program and make it satisfying, we had to have this nailed down to an exact day by day agenda. I know, man!  That’s hard for me too! But this kind of time management ended up actually giving us more freedom.  We weren’t as rushed to finish projects or as confused about what we should be doing and when. The exact day agenda wasn’t a second-by-second agenda, so there was still flexibility for us.

3. Make the theme do the work for you

We’d spent too long letting the theme just float out there.  But think: what’s the point of doing a themed program if you’re not making the theme work for you? So no matter what kind of program we’re talking about here, whether it’s tied to a character property or just a wider theme, make the theme do your heavy lifting. Our biggest breakthrough here was realizing that REBECCA was our theme, not just American Girl. And now that I’m overly familiar with the material, I’m ready to make the material do the work of the program planning.

4. Sell it with enthusiasm

This is not just for the patrons who are familiar with this program but for your staff too.  When you’re approaching a long-term, well-known program (like this is for us) it’s imperative to get staff buy-in on these changes.  Luckily, I had some new staff on board at the time, which helped.  But the other way I approached these changes with staff was by pointing out how much time this kind of planning and structure was going to save us.  We often felt frustrated by the incompleteness and frenzy of the program – these changes were going to get rid of all of that.  Laying it out like that, believe me, helped with the pitch. And for patrons?  See, as ever, step one.  With my new found mastery and excitement about the material I was an excellent salesperson for the program.  I actually knew what I was talking about (in great detail!) about the theme and about the character: this made it easy to create talking points for my staff and for me, personally, to share my vision.

Because, yes, this was the ultimate key!  This program now had a backbone and a structure, which was going to save time and make it a genuinely more pleasurable experience.  But perhaps most importantly – the program now had a vision. 

So…what exactly did we do?  How did the program run? And…did it actually work?

Tune in tomorrow for the nitty-gritty of how the program happened (and how I think YOU can make it happen at your library), what we learned, and how we’re going to apply it to this summer’s programming!

3 Responses to “How We Saved American Girl: Rebooting a Program for Success”

  1. Abby Johnson

    Awesome!!! My post for the ALSC Blog this week is about knowing when it’s time to revamp a program and ideas for how to do it. Consider yourself linked, my friend.