Sunday, February 15, 2015

Programming Round Up: Analyzing Some Success and Some Failure

Well, I’m three months into my first professional librarian job, and I’ve had plenty of opportunity to practice my favorite part of the job: programming.  I promised way back at the start of this blog that I would occasionally share my thoughts on that topic, and I have now and then, but never before as a matter of practicality.  Now I’m starting to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t in the context of my particular library community.  Let’s take a quick peek at some successes and failures, shall we?

Old Timey Music--SUCCESS
One thing you need to realize is that success isn’t always a matter of numbers.  I know that’s hard to conceive in our stats-obsessed profession, but it’s true.  I think that a much better, if much more imprecise, measure of success is enjoyment.  It doesn’t say much about a program if you have thirty people stone-facedly enduring what you’re throwing at them.

It says a lot more to have ten or so people smiling, tapping their toes, and singing along, and that’s just what happened at the concert of Stephen Foster music I organized, aided by the extremely talented performer Dave Berger.  I wasn’t sure what kind of reception we’d get, but figured people are always willing to give free live music a chance.  I didn’t realize that Foster, a pioneer of American folk music, was a big part of the upbringing for folks of a certain generation.  It was wonderful to see the attendees kind of going back in time to their school days before my eyes, and during our intermission more than one remarked about the memories that Dave was bringing back.

One thing I’ll say I learned: do your homework on even the most benign-seeming personalities you choose to highlight at an event like this.  I didn’t really know who Foster was; I just saw that the date of his death was celebrated as “Stephen Foster Day,” and I thought it would be a good excuse for music.  Briefly reading his Wikipedia bio, I saw that he was an abolitionist, so all the better.  But I didn’t really take in the fact that even so, some of his music indulged in the “minstrelsy” sub-genre and contributed to the currency of some unfortunate stereotypes.  Fortunately for me, Dave was much smarter and had prepared a few remarks about Foster’s place in history, tweaked a few of the most troublesome lyrics, and had a few very insightful things to say about the importance of recognizing the uncomfortable bits embedded in art from ages past.  Way to go, Dave!

Old Timey Writing--FAILURE
Kind of.  I mean, it’s all well and good not to be too beholden of numbers, but when, after a bit of a blitz to board members and library Friends and setting up a bulletin board right in front of the main entrance, you still only get two participants--yeah, all the enjoyment the event generates can’t really overcome those optics.

I should back up.  I billed this event as a “letter writing salon” to celebrate Universal Letter Writing Week.  The whole thing was very conscious of the declining role of letter-writing in our society, but I hoped to tap into the nostalgia factor.  I read a great book on the subject--To the Letter by Simon Garfield--and was prepared to expound on the history of the letter through the ages, and I had all kinds of cute stationery and stickers and pens.  And tea.  Free tea!  It seemed like just the thing to appeal to the key demographic at my library, which tends to skew super-baby boomer.

Maybe it was the weather, or maybe it was confusion about the word “salon,” or maybe it was the time of day (late afternoon).  The interest just wasn’t there.  Still, this is an easy-enough event to repeat, so I could adjust some of those variables and see what effect it has.  If there’s still no big bite, I’ll know that my library is definitely not going to single-handedly restore the USPS to its former glory.  Still, I guess my poster caught the eye of a local reporter, so there was a nice writeup in the paper about it.  Maybe there’s hope after all.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Discussion--SUCCESS
This next pair is a little confusing, but I think I’ve figured out what the deal is.

Our observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was a resounding smash.  We had more than thirty people in our presentation room--my director couldn’t believe it.  We watched some commemorative YouTube collages, there was music, and everyone participated in a respectful conversation about Dr. King’s legacy (with only occasional odd digressions about, er, veganism, and a sort of tone-deaf way of linking animals’ plight to African-Americans’.  Whatever, moving on.)

Why did this work out so well?  I think that most Americans identify with and revere Dr. King, to an extent.  It’s a mainstream thing--he’s in our Pantheon with Washington, Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and so on.  So people will come out on his day and feel pretty good about being white, upper middle class retirees doing their part for racial tolerance.  I don’t mean to knock them; demonstrations of identification can be powerful and important forces, especially in a public forum like the library.  I guess it’s just sort of the “pop” version of activism and cross-cultural expression.

As opposed, perhaps, to--

Black History Month--FAILURE
So far, anyway.  We’ve still got a couple weeks left.  But I can tell which way the wind is blowing.  I’ve had two events scheduled so far, and I scrubbed both of them due to an overwhelming lack of interest.

Why did everyone turn out for Dr. King and nobody has so far for Black History Month?  I marketed them both similarly.  They cover a similar topic.  As near as I can figure, as opposed to Martin Luther King Day, there’s a sense that Black History Month is “for” a certain group of people and not others.  This is a totally non-scientific claim I’m making, but I’m guessing it’s the case here as it is in many other small towns without a lot of diversity.  Which is really unfortunate--I don’t see the various “History Months” scattered across the year as opportunities for insularity, but rather as the perfect chance for some education and dialogue to start.

I’m going to keep working on changing the frame of mind on this and other cultural observances in my current community.

Book Matching--SUCCESS (with prodding)
For Valentine’s Day I did a Blind Date with a Book thing, but which I called Literary Speed Dating, since I had patrons choose between a few options.  This one was a little labor-intensive, but totally worth it.  First I searched around the library for a variety of fiction and nonfiction books, old and new, representing what I perceived to be a wide range of tastes.  (I made sure there was a good handful of graphic novels in there too.)  Then I wrote coy clues as to each book’s identity, in character as if that book were a person describing him- or herself to a prospective date.  I made sure to keep a list of all my books with the various clues attributed to them, then began the loooong process of wrapping them in brown paper bags, leaving their barcodes exposed.  (If you know anything about my history with crafts, you’ll know that  the fact I did a more than halfway decent job of this, all by myself, is a pretty big deal.)  Then I started transferring the clues to printable tags, choosing designs to sort of complement the character of each book and lending some visual appeal to what might otherwise be a big mess of brown with some well-meaning but bland magic marker scrawls on them.  Even the way I taped the clues to the anonymous books contributed to their prettiness and, more importantly, to conveying their personalities during dates: a hectic, jagged purple mass resembling a raging fire for an adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, a series of blocks arranged like steps in a pathway or a map for a work of nonfiction evoking wanderlust, and so on.  Each book was numbered, so I found a simple template of numbers for classroom use and cut them out so patrons could draw their fates at random.  

I had envisioned this as a pre-registered event, thinking patrons would be intrigued by my marketing and sign up for my time slots throughout the big day.  I was disappointed when not a single person actually registered.  I’m learning that my library population, at least, is pretty averse to signing up in advance for my fun stuff, which just goes to show that it’s good to know your public and avoid such disappointments.  I was able to remain flexible and shift to simply accosting people in the stacks, at the catalog computers, and at the circ desk--”Excuse me, sir/madam, but could I interest you in a blind date--with a book?”  Most people giggled at that point and asked for more info, then happily submitted to my will.  (Still, not every event will be so easy to shift over to this kind of recruitment.  Why won’t you just sign up for my fun stuff, library patron people?!)

Most folks went away happy; even if their choices ended up a little off kilter from their usual taste, I think they were tickled at the whole concept and were in a good frame of mind to try something new.  Only one book did I find sheepishly slipped into the return only a short time after its selection.  Several people ended up with graphic novels who said they would be happy to give this strange new medium a try.  Most participants kind of breezed through my clues, truly browsing--I had pictured a more intense scrutiny, some serious hefting of the tomes and careful selection, but this worked just as well; it was all the more gratifying, then, to watch the few people who really did sit down and take it all very seriously, poring over each clue and weighing their options as though a wrong choice really would land them on a dud date.  And I suppose it’s nice that some people think of their reading like a relationship that way!

When I do this in the future, I’ll know that streamlining is better.  I initially thought I’d give everyone a choice between five books, but three work much better.  I also went to the trouble of printing up sheets patrons could take notes on, but not even the super serious ones ended up using them.  I may also make two parallel sets of books next time, one regular and one large print; it’ll take a lot more work, but there was one person who was slightly deflated at the text size she received, and I’d rather avoid that happening again.

Speaking of “she,” every single person who participated was a woman.  The men I approached all demurred.  Perhaps there’s some inherent female gendering in the “speed dating” terminology I’m unaware of; maybe men are uncomfortable equating anything date-like with the library, even in jest; maybe straight guys know that all books are dudes and I somehow missed that memo.  I dunno.  That’s the one puzzle I’d really like to figure out for the next time.

The takeaway is this: speed dating a book leads to all kinds of laughter and chatting, and people go away happy with an extra book, and that’s a great mood to have in your library.
Book Discussion--FAILURE (so far)
On the other hand, nobody wants to come talk about the books they’ve read.  I’ve tried two book club sessions so far--both of the ‘thematic’ variety, allowing patrons great latitude in the books they choose--and both have been greeted with a big whomp-whomp.  Maybe it’s the themes I’ve selected.  Maybe it’s the weather.  Maybe it’s the time of day I’ve scheduled them.  Or maybe people are shy about expressing themselves.  If anyone has any hints for enticing patrons in this direction, I’m all ears.  I’m certainly going to keep trying.

So there’s a selection of my programming efforts so far and my thoughts on their impact.  I’d love to hear what else is going on in other libraries and your analyses of your own successes and failures.  What have you learned from the process?  Are there any sure-fire winners out there, or ideas that are to be avoided at all costs?  As libraries shift more and more from “research center” to “community center,” it’ll be vital that we share this information and support each other in providing the best programming possible.

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