By Patrick Maloney
Before I transitioned into full time library mode, I played bass in a punk band that frequently toured the country, and often received a lot of really bad advice on how to “make it big” from hordes of people who thought they had it all figured out. Out of the never ending stream of industry insiders and fellow musicians spouting nonsense at me, it was an old biker guy at a dingy dive bar in Nebraska who finally told me what I needed to hear.
“Go where the people are.”
On the surface, it sounds nonsensically simple. If anything, he was pointing out that maybe the middle of a cornfield wasn’t the best place to be if we were actually trying to make any money. He was also very drunk. But in that moment, something inside me clicked. I knew he was onto something, and while my music career has long been over, I still go back to those words on a regular basis. If your end goal is to create unique and engaging programming at your library, the answer IS nonsensically simple. Go where the people are.
Before I get ahead of myself, let me ask you this. What exactly is the purpose of library programming? I find myself asking the same question nearly every programming cycle, and the two answers I tend to land on are generally what I will eventually sculpt my programs around. One of the answers coincides with what I believe to be a core tenet of librarianship, and that is service to one’s community. There are a myriad of ways in which your local library serves its community, and I could write a blog post on every one of them, but programming is unique in that the returns on investment are usually immediate. Whether its device help for the technologically impaired, storytimes that kick start a child’s love of reading, or the ever looming tax prep help some libraries are currently offering, you can literally watch a patron leave the library quantifiably better off than when they entered. Personally, that is one of my favorite parts of what I do.
The second conclusion that I always seem to come to…and the one we will be focusing on today…is that programming serves to generate interest in the library itself. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? People need to already have an interest in the library to have an interest in the programming it offers, but in order to garner interest in the library, we need a strong number of engaging programs that get people excited enough to take the plunge and sign up for a library card. Luckily, ALL of the aforementioned services the library offers are working towards this goal as well, so you can usually be sure you’ll have at least some sort of built in audience, but a great program can accomplish these goals like no other. The Joliet Public Library’s (where I am currently employed) annual blockbuster event Star Wars Day has consistently drawn nearly ten thousand people for the past several years. An event like this certainly serves the community with a free and family friendly source of entertainment on the first Saturday in June, but the exposure the library receives each year simply cannot be overstated. Every single year our circs spike up around this time, library card signups increase, and there’s just generally a whole lot of momentum heading into summer reading, our busiest time of the year. I have personally overheard children begging their parents to bring them back to the library after discovering it for the first time at Star Wars Day, and that is the type of reaction we should all be striving for with our programming.
Of course, bringing in ten thousand people, a good portion of which are not regular library goers, on any given weekend isn’t usually feasible by any stretch of the imagination. Luckily, there are still quite a few other ways to use your programming to get new people into your library, my favorite of them being off-site programming. Aside from being an easy way to circumvent the headache of getting whatever license you may need to serve food or alcohol, most of the time you are working with a business that likes making money, and therefore has a vested interest in making your event a success, so you’ve already got some built in promotion. This is an integral part of why off-site programming works so well, because with enough promotion from the venue, there’s no limit to how many fresh eyes will be on your program that wouldn’t otherwise be. Add in some current library patrons who would have come regardless of the location, as well as attendees who are interested in the subject matter but for whatever reason have no desire to actually step foot into a library, and you’ve got all the makings of a successful off-site program. Be sure to dole out as many program guides, fliers for specific and targeted upcoming programs, and general information and pamphlets about what services your library offers as you can physically carry to the location, along with a boatload of free swag. You only get one chance to make an impression on the newcomers, so you’re going to want to get it right. No pressure or anything.
That being said, not all off-site programs are created equal. You’re still going to need to put on a great program that people are going to be interested in. I’ve certainly found success by tapping into some more niche markets…both an open mic night and a poetry reading that took place at a local record store as well as a collaboration with a local comic shop on Free Comic Book Day were huge hits…but sometimes just a fun change of atmosphere will bring out the masses in droves. One of our biggest
events was a trivia night at a local brewery, so much so that we decided to do three more, all of them just as successful as the last. People are going to drink beer and play trivia on their own time anyway, why not introduce them to the wonders of the library while they’re at it?
At the end of the day, this isn’t rocket science. No one is asking you to reinvent the wheel or even do anything particularly groundbreaking. Your community is filled with people who could benefit from using your library and they don’t even know it yet. There’s only one thing you have to do to find them:
Go where the people are.