Final Report

Susan Lee

OBPE: Sensory Storytime

Enabling libraries to measure outputs, or results instead of inputs, outcome-based planning and evaluation (OBPE) is detrimental to knowing whether or not library programs and services are both successful and satisfying. Rather than relying on potentially overworked and non-bias library staff to evaluate and report on important library services, it provides a fresh, new ‘outside’ look at library programming and services to maximize potential, serve the community, and prove value without a doubt.

Part of the Ferguson Public Library’s Strategic Plan is an expansion of programming, to meet the growing demand for a “broader range and greater quantity of library programming.”[1] In 2014, the library offered a total of 1,973 programs and events which were attended by roughly 56,000 adults and children. Their average yearly operating budget is between 9 and 10 million dollars, with the bulk from city funds. Cuts to the budget, operating hours, and staff remain an ongoing issue so the library needs to continually prove their importance and worth to their community. One of the library’s goals is to serve as “an active promoter of emergent literacy activities,” continually evaluating programming for young children under the age of four. In addition to traditional morning programming and additional weekend programming, one of their on-going goals was to hold at least four Sensory Storytimes a year for children with special needs.[2]

The Sensory Storytime program is one of Ferguson Library’s pride and joys. It was been made possible several years ago due to grant funding. The start-up program was initially paid for in 2009 by an Abilis Foundation grant and the next year with a $1,500 grant from Stamford Education 4 Autism. The program led to national attention for the library. The program spread to other public and school libraries across the country, with training assistance from Ferguson Public Library staff. [3]

As one of four urban libraries in the Stamford Connecticut area, two of the library’s core principles are access and equity. On a typical Saturday afternoon in the library, a group of children between the ages of three and five years old sit in a circle on colorful stools near their parents, doing therapeutic exercises such as pulling on exercise bands or blowing bubbles through straws as they sing along to popular children’s songs for an hour. Each parent and child has a name tag. The lights are dimmed in the quiet room on the third floor of the building.

The program is designed around Sensory Integration Occupational Therapy. The songs chosen are usually simple, and encourage color discrimination, self-identification, name learning and direction following. Tools and accessories such as therabands, puppets, stuffed animals, feathers, bean bags, bubbles, and toothbrushes are distributed to accompany book-related sensory activities. Tactile components are helpful to have. During actual storytime, board books are passed to each child so they can follow along with the librarian leading the program.

Some of the books used are “Jump!” by Scott Fisher, “Dear Zoo” by Rod Campbell, and “Itsy Bitsy Spider” by Richard Egielski. Some instructors use other visual supports to illustrate the movements and activities that children should make or follow. Instructors attempt to stimulate all five senses and promote learning at the same time. Unlike typical storytime programs, the emphasis is on activities and not books. At the end of the program, children are given free play time with library toys while parents socialize. This is a typical Sensory Storytime program, an event specifically created and aimed at children with autism or children with a different sensory processing issue although all children are welcome to participate.

Disability-friendly library programming was not common to the Ferguson Public Library until 2002, when it was introduced by then-librarian Barbara Klipper after a patron requested autism programming focusing on children. The public library built a special collection for and two computer workstations with touchscreens, special software, and oversized monitors. Having two young children on the autism spectrum, Klipper stepped forward to helm the programming after recognizing a need to make public libraries more inclusive for persons with disabilities outside of building planning. The public library typically discourages noises and movements but Sensory Storytime encourages both. A grant helped her dream program to come to fruition, and train librarians throughout the state in the Sensory Storytime model, so more children could become involved. Klipper has also taught webinars on Sensory Storytime programming for ALSC and ALA. She has also written books on the topic including the recent “Programming for Children and Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Sensory Storytime was born seven years later in 2009, marketed to the Stamford community as fun for all ages and recommended for children with sensory disorders. The program still runs, now titled as Sensory Storytots, under the direction of youth services librarian Caroline Ward.[4] The Ferguson Public Library describes the Sensory Storytots program as:

For ages 18 months through 3 years with autism, Asperger’s or sensory processing issues. Led by a special education teacher, small group size.  Introduce young children to the library with this welcoming “parent and me” program designed to accommodate their special needs.

Simply put, Sensory Storytime is a program that combines the books, songs, and movement activities of a typical preschool storytime with therapeutic activities from Sensory Integration. It can also include non-therapeutic activities such as “sensory diet” activities, singing and games like bean bag parade or balance beam to get children to expel energy and self-regulate behavior. Picture schedules made on poster board with visuals show children what the program is about and what activities to expect:

Participants are encouraged to act out in a positive way and in a comfortable, opening environment. Participation itself is a mark of success. Adults or parents are typically apologizing or attempting to curtail their children’s behavior, they are rewarded. It is a positive step yet it is hard to measure as an outcome. Repetition is a good thing in the program.

Although the program is catered to children with autism or sensory processing issues, Sensory Storytime is ideally suited for all children. The most important elements include parent participation, predictability and repetition, personalization, peer inclusion and a program plan/picture schedule (Klipper). Children with special needs and normally-developing children can learn from each other and gain awareness by exposing one to the other. In specific ways, the program is different than regular programming. It’s an attempt to attract members of the community to the library who might not otherwise be able to visit and gives them an opportunity to socialize. Inclusion in the program is especially important for all children because according to Klipper, we all learn best through our senses.

While regular children’s story-time programs can have one adult librarian leading, Sensory Storytimes require or recommend close one child-to-one parent ratio so parent or caregiver participation is encouraged and recommended. Parents can network among each other, guide the activity, and act as a leader with their child. Indeed the Sensory Storytime programs are in line with the Ferguson Public Library’s mission statement to “provide free and equal access of information, ideas, books, and technology to educate and enrich the Stamford community.”[5]

The dedication to those with special needs does not end at one program; the Ferguson Public Library has a Special Needs Center on the first floor of their youth services department, to serve the informational and access needs of families who have children with disabilities. Some of the highlights include a collection of Braille children’s books, specialized magazines and software, learning kits, and DVDs on disability-related topics.[6]

In the face of budget crisis and economic downturn, public libraries are typically under heavier scrutiny and the need to justify every dollar spent. In hard times, patrons tend to rely more heavily on free public programming and services offered by places like libraries. It is common for ‘extracurricular’ or non-basic programs like art and music to be eliminated first. Some taxpayers may be critical of programing and services that target a very specific or narrow audience. Although Sensory Storytime is renowned and popular despite limited admittance, the program was undergoing retooling and evaluation while on sabbatical from January of this year until its return in late April of last month.

Outcome-based planning and evaluation (OBPE) can be vital to a library’s programming efforts. Although it is acknowledged as overwhelming to start, it should be an important part of any library’s planning and evaluation effort. It can consist of several small measures, some of which can involve the community as well as staff and volunteers. The most recent Sensory Storytime was led by a special education teacher in a room on the first floor of the Ferguson Public Library. There was little mention of it through social media or on the library’s website. Perhaps the library staff was not interested or able to lead it themselves, or there wasn’t enough support for the program within the library.

The library’s vision and mission statement are both sound, encompassing library programming as a significant cornerstone. The Sensory Storytime program is solid. Yet there is opportunity for growth. The Sensory Storytime program used to be advertised on the Ferguson library website, the local newspaper, flyers, and word of mouth. It can be expanded to social media, schools, and local Autism groups. The library does not take attendance counts so statistics were not available. Although that can be something that can be easily changed and begin to be tracked, the programming attendance is capped at an average of ten children. A high number of children in attendance are not the goal. Outcomes should focus beyond simply numbers. The type of information gathered and the methods can be simple, easy, and effective.

Community support and feedback would be vital to evaluation and any positive changes. Collecting the information can be as easy as reaching out. Surveys can be crafted to gain feedback from parents or guardians before attendance about their expectations and immediately after attendance about their experience. They’re the stakeholders in this case. Questions should be carefully crafted for the desired outcome of the library; in this case it is producing the best Sensory Storytime program for its community.

Some of the participants may not have much more to say than ‘Thank you’ but even that can be valuable and rewarding. The library should craft its questions to produce responses without force or manipulation. Any feedback, even negative, is beneficial. This is an important information gathering step. It can be vital to find out whom Sensory Storytime is reaching and who it is missing – if it is fulfilling a goal of bringing new families into the library. There is a threat that it can be forgotten and obsolete during its hiatus. The program is currently on hiatus from its normal Saturday afternoon time slot and has been since the winter.

Families who didn’t come in regularly except for that program may have disappeared. Children with autism and developmental disabilities can be found in every community but often their parents or families won’t bring them to the library because their children who find it a challenge to sit still. Community resources beyond funding can be useful. These are potential threats or problems. Flyers or information may be placed with an autism society, community outreach or therapy organizations, and therapists who work with children with these types of issues. The library can ideally partner with local organizations, perhaps holding more Sensory Storytime sessions, outside the library walls. A time or date change may be something to consider with adequate feedback or information. The library can survey the community to measure interest. This can be an initial outcome.

Every five years, the Ferguson Public Library produces a strategic or long range, plan with approval from their Board of Trustees. Every year, they produce an organizational chart, operating budget for the upcoming year, and financial statements. Their current emphasis is on toddler storytime and bookmobile stops. The Ferguson Public Library has social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram. Programming impact can be advertised and measured on social media. The organization and leadership for the programming can be faulty. It’s too heavily reliant on outside, irregular funding for one, the scheduling is sporadic, and there is no discernible advertising for its return. The teacher isn’t a library staffer as it usually is.

Previously, Sensory Storytime required registration via a phone number. An RSVP was required for Ferguson’s program in order to talk to parents or guardians beforehand about their child’s specific sensory processing disorders so the librarian will know to avoid such things as bright lights, loud noises, or other sensations. An online registration page would be easy and cheap to set up. It would not only help track attendance better, but also help the library maintain a contact database online. Participants would be culled from those registered since they are attending the program as library visitors.

Programming registration could require email when signing up. Surveys or questionnaires could be sent out, with permission. Registered attendees can opt-out of being contacted if they wish. The Sensory Storytime instructor could set up a web-page or email information to registered attendees before or after the program. Opening lines of communication or maintaining contact would be beneficial for the library and patrons. Focus groups and time consuming interviews wouldn’t be conducive for the patrons or library staff in this case. An impartial party could observe the program for additional analysis.

There are free survey forms online or the library can utilize easy to design webpage with fields for names, the child’s age, contact info, etc. Having them be anonymous is an option, for privacy’s sake. Having attendee’s information on file ahead of time would allow library staff to prepare for any additional accommodations that need to be made to the program. Parents can be the library’s biggest supporters. The notes at the bottom of one of their programming flyers state that “this program is inclusion-friendly. If your child needs any special accommodations, please let us know.” The librarian can plan accordingly.

Information can be saved for future reference such as what other services or resources would the parents or community member like to see from the library, what challenges they face when they visit the library, or if they are new, what factors into preventing them from regularly visiting. The library could receive tips on interacting with your child or obtain recommendations for their collections. asking caregivers to rate the program on that issue on a scale from one to five and having them write down their score or comments on paper provided at the end of the time would give incremental feedback. The form must be short since the children present may be kept waiting while the parents fill it out. A longer form or more thorough questions can be sent via email though. If sending them home with a form or link may be too much of a time commitment, the library could follow up afterward with an email containing a survey link post-program if further feedback is needed. Obtaining this insight will help the library recognize, understand and meet their community’s needs.

Another longer term goal would be to recruit more help through teen volunteers by encouraging Sensory Storytime attendee’s siblings or other relatives to come in as well. It gets them into the library and provides support, perhaps utilizing their experience with special needs children to expand their program and services.

OBPE can help the Ferguson Library more accurately gauge community interest, measure community support, and meet community needs in order to run a more successful program. When Sensory Storytime first started, it was entirely run on stipends and grant money. The second year, the program continued with additional grant money. The library would have an orientation session each month followed by four sensory storytimes held on four Saturdays in a row, which would continue until their budget ran out. It is set-up as a potential stop-and-go arrangement. It could be cancelled or put on hold for a month or longer until more funds arrive. It can both disappoint children and induce a lack of confidence from adults or others in the community due to inconsistency. The patrons cannot depend on the service and may forget about it, requiring the library to start all over in terms of advertising, attendance, and good will.

Grant money should be viewed as additional funds, or a subsidy. The outside funding via grant money is not included in the library’s regular budget. The Ferguson Library specifically relies on outside grants to support special library activities. The funds can be conditional It could affect their programming model and operation of an entirely grant funded Sensory Storytime program. The library staff could find funding outside of grants, within the community, by locating a sponsor or hold a fundraiser. Regular funds would allow a more consistent Sensory Storytime programming. The wording of the program description may play a role. Promotion and market research are two key factors in OBPE.

Sensory Storytime is described as a sensory-rich mix of songs, movement and a story…fun for all children… appropriate for preschoolers with autism, Asperger’s or sensory processing issues. The library can set themes for each session for example, like animals or Valentine’s Day. A name change can change the perception of the program and promote it as more inclusive to everyone with any and all abilities. The library could focus on the programming experience, and study how the children can develop their social skills, and participate.

Several aspects of Sensory Storytime became popular and adopted by other Ferguson youth services librarians for their regular storytimes such as the picture boards and bean bag games. While this can be seen as positive, it detracts from the uniqueness and specialness of Sensory Storytime which is already set up as inclusive for all children. I was provided with some teaching materials and old PowerPoints. There was no data available on programming attendees or RSVP numbers. The library didn’t have staff meeting notes or budget information beyond the grants received.


Dresang, E. T., Gross, M., & Holt, L. E. (2006). Dynamic Youth Services Through Outcome-based Planning and Evaluation. Chicago: American Library Association.

Klipper, Barbara. Formerly Ferguson Library

Ward, Caroline. Youth Services Lead

[1] Strategic Plan, Ferguson Public Library:

[2][2] 2009 Budget Presentation:

[3] 2012 Annual Report:

[4] Okyle, Carly. School Library Journal:

[5] Strategic Plan:

[6] About the Center: