On my first day at the library where I now work, I was handed a calendar of library events. “Here is everything that happens during the library year. You’ll learn what to expect pretty quickly and how to plan to market each of these events as they rotate in the library calendar.” The first thought I had was, “Holy cow, that’s a lot of stuff. There’s an event happening nearly every day of the year.” The second thought was, “I have never attended a library program in my life. How do I convince someone else to go?”
I am NOT saying that library programs are not important. Far from it. In fact, I don’t think we spend enough time or money on library programs and that’s why we are seeing our attendance numbers decline. So I’m proposing a library program revolution. It basically comes down to this idea: More smart research, fewer programs overall. Get rid of the program quota!
My library is battling declining attendance for programs and I bet yours is too, whether you work at a public, private, school, or university library. It’s a universal truth rarely acknowledged. I am asked to market a lot of crafting programs–knitting, soap-making, cupcake decorating, and a lot of lecture series. I can understand the allure for library staff. These programs are fun, easy to plan, inexpensive, and they fill the dreaded program quota. But my library has tried literally every marketing trick possible to attract attention to these programs for more than four years and our attendance numbers are down. I think the cardholders have spoken–they are just not interested in those programs, even if we (library staff) are.
Here’s the good and bad news. The Pew Research Institute found in its latest study on library use that 27 percent of library users have attended classes, programs, or lectures at libraries in the last year. The good news is that’s a 10-point increase from 2015. The bad news is that the majority of library cardholders are not attending programs.
Honestly, part of the problem is feedback from cardholders. Our loyal patrons love us so much that, when asked, they give positive answers, saying the library is a vital part of the community, they plan to use the library more in the future, and that their library is doing a great job. And that’s wonderful… but it doesn’t bear out in actual attendance numbers. I appreciate their vocal support, but I also want to get bodies through the door.
Money for library program attendance is tight for every library system I can think of. So, I propose we STOP doing a ton of programs. More is not the answer. Instead, I propose that libraries back way down on the number of programs that they do and instead, spend more money and more time planning quality programs which are unique to their community and that their users really want. Here are some specifics of my proposed library program revolution!
Use informal social media surveys to ask cardholders what kinds of programs they’d like to see. Conduct a Twitter or Facebook poll and ask your cardholders what they want to do or learn at the library. It’s not scientific but it will give you a sense of what interests the community. You could also post a graphic and ask people to use the comment section to share ideas for programs they’d like to see at their library branch.
Check related organizations in your community to see what events they’re holding to make sure your library isn’t duplicating their efforts. For instance, if your branch is near a community center that’s already hosting a bunch of knitting and crafting, then your knitting and crafting programs will be in direct competition.
Partner with local organizations and talk to leaders of community groups and schools to see where they need help in teaching people to manage certain skills and then offer those skills at your library. For the past year, my library has partnered with a local organization to teach workforce development skills to single parents in areas of the city in economic distress. It’s not a sexy or fun program to market but we get good attendance because it’s there is a need in the community and we’re filling it. We’ve also created a set of programs with an organization that teaches young girls how to do computer coding. I actually only have to do a bit of marketing for that program. As soon as I let people know it’s happening, registration fills up! And one of our branches partnered recently with a local brewery to do a program on home brewing techniques. The place was packed!
Talk to librarians at other systems with similar demographics and find out what successful programs they do and then do the same. There’s nothing wrong with stealing ideas! I give you permission to use the three examples listed above.
Shift your focus to teaching technology skills. The same study from Pew mentioned earlier in this article says 80 percent of Americans want libraries to offer programs that teach digital skills and help cardholders use new creative technologies like 3-D printers. That means library administrators have to be willing to provide the in-depth training librarians need to teach those skills. They have to invest in the equipment. And library staff have to be willing to embrace this new role as technology teachers.
Do deep research before booking an author series. Check circulation of the author’s book in your catalog–are people checking it out or placing holds? Watch YouTube videos of the author’s earlier appearances to see if they’re an engaging speaker and to check the reaction of audiences. Gauge cardholders’ interest in the author using informal surveys on social media.
More ideas for increasing library program attendance:
This One Trick Will Increase Library Program Attendance by the Swiss Army Librarian.
What I Wish I’d Known About Building Teen Library Services From Scratch by In the Library With a Lead Pipe.
How a Dutch Library Smashed Attendance Records by Cat Johnson.
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