Jane is an auxiliary children’s librarian in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She loves being a children’s librarian because she gets to work with some of the smartest, funniest, coolest and most important people in the world – kids! When she’s not singing with a puppet or dancing around with shakers, Jane enjoys reading, Netflix binging and sushi eating. You can find out more about Jane on her blog: https://
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June 21 is National Aboriginal Day in Canada, “a special day to celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding achievements of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada.”
The library was invited to participate in a local Aboriginal Day celebration, and when I was offered the opportunity to help staff the library’s event tent, I was beyond thrilled. The plan was to offer story times in an authentic teepee. How often do you get to deliver story times in a teepee?
My colleague and I are passionate story timers and believe strongly in community engagement. The challenge, we felt, was how to participate in this important event in an authentic and respectful way. Neither of us have Aboriginal heritage, and were very aware that despite our best intentions we might not be able to do this culturally sensitive material justice. North America has a long, sad history of cultural appropriation, in which Aboriginal culture has been misinterpreted, disrespected and abused by the dominant culture, and we were very conscious of this unfortunate precedent.
Community engagement often means thinking on your feet and adapting to meet the needs of your community. The morning of the event we decided that instead of running “storytelling tent”, we would instead offer a “story tent”. This simple change in wording reflected a change in emphasis from story telling to collaborative story sharing. Inside our teepee we set out a beautiful selection of Canadian and American Aboriginal picture books, together with stories featuring Pacific Northwest animals. We also had Pacific Northwest animal puppets and stuffed toys spread out for the children to play with, and had an impromptu felt board (an extra t-shirt stretched over a flattened cardboard box!), which the children could use to create their own stories.
My colleague and I welcomed passersby and encouraged them to explore our story tent. The inside of the teepee was breezy and shaded, and families eagerly spread out on the cool grass to share stories together. The event took place on Father’s Day, and it was lovely to see so many fathers and grandfathers reading with their families. My colleague and I took turns reading with children in small groups or one-on-one, which gave us opportunities to model storytelling techniques to families, but in a very low-key, personal way. It was a refreshing change from our usually massive in-branch storytime crowds! We were also able to talk to families about their literacy needs, get to know our community, answer questions and provide information about the services offered at the library.
The felt board was a resounding success – we had intended to use it to tell stories ourselves, but we found it worked best when used by the children to create their own stories together. Using the felt board encouraged children to work together and to share, and provided opportunities to practice skills that would serve them well in elementary school.
We estimated that at least 600 people visited our story tent over the course of the afternoon, and the event was a resounding success. We had a great mix of people visit our tent, including families of all ages and descriptions, and people from all sorts of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. The story tent provided a relaxed, laid back environment where families could spend time together and interact with the librarian, which I firmly believe helps counteract lingering stereotypes of libraries as stuffy, rigid, unwelcoming places. These days librarians are as likely to be found sitting on the grass in their shorts as they are to be found sitting behind a desk! We were able to celebrate Aboriginal heritage and culture through our curated collection of picture books, and by allowing families to explore the stories themselves we recognized that were not necessarily qualified to be authentic tellers of these culturally sensitive stories.
Working with diverse communities can be extremely exciting and rewarding, and provides incredible opportunities for connection and communication. To make the most of these opportunities, librarians need to be open and responsive to the unique needs of different communities, and be willing to adapt and rethink traditional library programming, sometimes at the spur of the moment!