In early June, I was walking a trail in Land’s End in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, when I came upon a children’s book called The Fox Wish, by Kimiko Aman. Each page was a mounted panel, installed just a few feet away from the next, like storytime breadcrumbs.
It was a delightful book about a fox who steals a little girl’s jump rope, but it got me wondering: What’s a children’s book doing in this National Park?
Well, did you ever hear that opposites attract?
To find out more, I talk to Michele Gee, Chief of Education and Interpretation at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a Bay Area National Park. She tells me that last year, when the National Parks Service celebrated it’s centennial, they decided to really focus on a problem they’d been working on for years.
The National Parks reach out
“We have a certain population that loves their National Parks, visits regularly, but that doesn't reflect the diversity of our nation or the diversity of the Bay Area,” says Gee. “Lower income or people of color aren’t being drawn to the National Parks and don't have the access. They both don’t know about it, don't know it exists, but also don't necessarily feel welcome to come.”
So the Parks looked for a partner to help, one which shared their mission for inclusivity, education, and adventure. If they had a dating profile, it might be: Outdoorsy conservationist seeks warm extrovert with shared values. Because successful partnerships are based on having something in common, right?
“Park rangers are very much into the history and story and they love sharing what they know about the world,” says Christy Estrovitz, Director of Youth Services at the San Francisco Public Library. “That’s something that librarians and the library staff love to do as well!”
Estrovitz runs the Library’s Summer Stride program, which brings free programs like tinkering workshops and Drag Queen Story Hour to your local branch. Last summer, she and Michele Gee worked together to bring library patrons to the National Parks, and a love of nature into the libraries. Some of the programs included: park trailheads about the different National Parks inside the library branches, wooden Reading Ranger badges awarded to participants who read for twenty hours, Park Ranger storytime, and free shuttles from library branches to National Parks, funded by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.
Gee says the programs were designed to “bring the libraries to the park as much as the park was going to the libraries.”
A good match?
I love libraries and I love National Parks, but I think of libraries as indoor places for reading books, and Parks as outdoor places for exploring nature. Intuitively, they don’t seem like they’d be synergistic. But last year, this partnership brought almost 600 new visitors to the National Parks. It broke library records for Summer Stride participation and for reading. It also won an outreach award from the American Library Association and the Outstanding Public Engagement of the Year Award from the Public Lands Alliance.
The partnership was such a success that the library and the parks decided to team up again this summer. So I hop on a free shuttle from the Visitation Valley branch to Land’s End, to see what makes this partnership work. This library is as far from Land’s End as you can get inside city limits. Getting there would take an hour and a half on MUNI, but this non-stop shuttle will get us there in thirty minutes.
Each saturday, park rangers take library patrons from different branches to local national parks. Last year, so many people showed up that they needed extra busses to meet demand.
As our bus is about to pass Fort Funston, the bus driver points out hang-gliders swooping above the treeline. It’s a beautiful sunny day with strong wind. People on the bus use their cellphones to take video of the hang-gliders from their windows.
We lose the sight of the hang-gliders as we turn onto the Great Highway. The driver says that we might be able to see some whales or dolphins. Suddenly, the huge bus windows fill with a view of the iconic California coastline. Powerful waves crash on wide-open beach. I’m prepared for this view as we make the turn, but it’s still impressive. Sixty-six-year old Hui Li sits next to me and starts to exclaim loudly in Chinese.
She’s here with her grandchildren and her daughter Grace, who tells me this is her mother’s first time seeing the California coast and she is so excited.
The family has already seen its first hangliders and its first ocean views, and they haven’t gotten off the bus yet.
When we arrive at Land’s End, we have three hours to go off on our own, but most of the fifty patrons join guided tours about the Sutro Baths or the native Ohlone people. Grace Li and her mom take photos with the kids in front of the ocean. I offer to take a picture of them all together.
Grace works as an office assistant during the week. Today, her husband is working at Safeway. She says she tries to take the kids out into nature every Saturday. “But,” she adds, “I don’t drive, and you know sometimes if you go far away I need to drive.” Without the shuttle, she says, they probably wouldn’t visit a place like Land’s End.
It's that book
Nearby another mom, Bi Zhu, is reading to her three young kids from the children’s book that caught my attention on my last visit. The book is part of a worldwide program called StoryWalk, which aims to inspire families to go on reading adventures, by putting books in the outdoors. At the bottom of the panels are prompts to encourage parents like Bi Zhu and her kids to connect with the outdoors, to look around and listen to the sounds of the park.
Three hours pass quickly and it’s time to return to the library. As we board the bus, the bus driver comments on how tired everyone looks. A patron says, yes she’s tired, but also she’s happy.
The library looks beyond the branch
A trip like this isn’t all about reading, so why does this work for the library?
Christy Estrovitz tells me that without meaningful learning opportunities, summer becomes a time of risk for students, especially those from low-income households. “If they’re not actively engaged in a high quality high engagement summer camp or summer learning program they actually can go back two months of academic progress,” she says. “If it happens again the next summer, that’s four months behind and so forth. So It really does make a difference on their academic achievement during their school years, but also in the success in life.”
Libraries address this so-called 'summer slide' by offering enrichment programs at branches, but with the National Parks partnership, the San Francisco Summer Stride program literally breaks boundaries.
“The National Park Service opened up a new twist on how we think about summer learning," Estrovitz says. "It’s not within the walls of the library. It happens all around our community. I think that’s something we hadn’t really considered.”
But it must start at the library, says the National Parks' Michele Gee, because libraries are special places in the community. “They feel safe there, they know what to expect. So you partner that with the National Park Service. If my librarian says it’s cool to go there, I’m gonna go there,” Gee says. “They feel more comfortable getting on that bus and going and trying something new.”
New records for participation
Last summer, 18,000 people participated in Summer Stride, the most ever in the library’s history. So far this summer, over 23,000 people are participating. That’s a forty percent increase over last year, and the program doesn’t end until August 20th.
This was supposed to be a one-time partnership between the Parks and the Library -- a summer fling to celebrate the Park’s centennial. I ask Gee, was this a fling that turned into something more?
“It’s kind of like that, we fell in love one summer and we we’re like, no we don’t want it to end, let’s keep it going!” she responds.
If the library and the Parks -- both century old institutions -- can evolve, maybe they can also keep the love going, and continue to provide new services to San Francisco residents.