How to Design Library Programming That Reaches Millennials and Generation X
Adult library programming: three words that can strike terror into the hearts of many librarians. But check out the census statistics and you will likely discover that 30–40% of your community is between 20 and 40 years of age. If you examine your programs, chances are you’ll find you have plenty of programs for babies through teens and seniors — but what happens to the middle group? Believe it or not, you can get them in for programs by following these 3 basic rules:
- Make it cheap. Do as much in-house as possible, seek sponsors and capitalize on staff passions to bring interesting and unusual programming to the community.
- Make it fun. Make this your barometer: would you want to come to this program? Try planning after-hours programming that is similar to events people would pay for — like a Bollywood night with henna tattoos and Indian food.
- Make it pretty. Make flyers and promotional materials that would make someone want to pick them up; use bold images, sparse text, eye-catching graphics and other elements to intrigue people. Good design will be essential in attracting this age group.
Alt Library is Sacramento Public Library’s programming initiative to reach the 20s and 30s audience. We use the rules above and add a few more: be provocative (ahem, Broke A$$ Holidays), be diverse, and take it outside.
Some of Alt Library’s most successful events have been held out in the community. Try hosting your book club in a bar or coffee shop. Do a pub quiz takeover in partnership with a local pub—you write the questions, they provide the people. Go for a walk! One of our most successful programs is an annual walking tour/book club. Think of these programs as mobile advertising opportunities, and be ready to sell the library when people inevitably ask what you’re up to.
Also be ready for this question from your supervisors and community members: why are you doing this? Be able to speak to community needs you are filling and the importance of building community and rebranding the library. As much as possible, we tie programs back to books—speed dating for book lovers, pub quiz questions that follow Dewey classifications, or secret-compartment book crafts. Stay on-brand and on-trend to appeal to this audience.
3 Programs to Try Out Now
1. Book Club Urban Walk
Our monthly Alt Library book club has met off-site for the entire 6 years it has existed. For example, in May 2013, our book choice was travel-themed, there had been a recent article about the book Mapping Manhattan, and there was nice weather, so we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to partner with Downtown Grid Sacramento, which offers Eat the Grid and Shop the Grid maps that detail places of interest for downtown visitors. They generously shared a PDF of their map with us so that we could distribute copies to our members. Our book club then curated personal points of interest and created a guided tour of downtown to visit those places.
Setting up this program was relatively simple. Since we had just finished reading The Geography of Bliss, we posted the following question on our Alt Library blog: “What’s your happiest place in Midtown?” I also provided the parameters of Midtown and a starting point. Then I began compiling their answers. From the results, the book club created a route that ended up spanning almost 2 miles (don’t do that!). It took nearly 2 hours instead of the usual 1 hour, but people did stay engaged the whole time. As we got to each happy place, we paused, and the person who had submitted the site shared why he or she had chosen it. Smaller conversational groups formed naturally as we stopped and started.
We decided to make the walking tour an annual tradition for our May book clubs, and, as it has evolved, the radius has gotten smaller each year.
- 2014: For A Field Guide to Getting Lost, we asked, “Where’s your favorite place to get lost?” We discovered some incredible found-object sculptures in an alley that one of our members had stumbled across after an evening out.
- 2015: For Tracks, we asked “Where do you go to be alone?” There was much discussion on what it means to travel alone and dine out solo, as well as discussion about all sorts of other cultural norms. Fun stuff!
- 2016: For What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding, we asked “What’s your favorite spot for grown-ups only?”
2. Bad Art Night
Clean out your craft closet, librarians, and let people make questionable projects from the last half-inch of glitter glue and those what-color-are-they-even crayon stubs. We did this several years in a row, and it always got press and attendees. Some ringers come in to get praise, but most people enjoy the chance to create and let go of the pressure to make it look good.
Near the end of the program, we gave everyone colored dot stickers and let them judge the good (a.k.a., well-executed, but sometimes questionable, subject matter — I’m looking at you, sad clown), the bad (what are you even doing?) and the ugly (well, you tried). We offered prizes, including watercolor sets, velvet posters and paint-by-number kits. Some people wanted to take their work home, some wanted to take others’ work home, and some just pitched it on the way out. But, ultimately, it was great watching people come together and create community.
3. Punk Rock Aerobics
You don’t see programs like this happening in a lot of libraries, but we wanted to capitalize on what, for us, are personal strengths: a love of aerobic movement, yoga and punk rock.
The very first offering of Punk Rock Aerobics was inspired by the book of the same name. I used Spotify to create the playlist and put together the moves myself. Most importantly, we worked with the library’s legal counsel on a waiver that would protect everyone, should some type of injury occur. We encourage participants to wear loose, comfortable clothes and supportive shoes and to bring a water bottle.
We ran quite a few of these programs. Aside from the time commitment, they were free, they were fun and they subverted a stereotype.
We’ve focused on several different themes:
- Brutal Yoga: During this program, we shared music like black metal, while doing a calming yoga flow (I happen to find metal extremely soothing!).
- Zombie Survival: We’ve run this program every October for 3 years in a row, and it has always been one of the best attended. All of the songs are zombie themed; if you haven’t heard Jonathan Coulton’s “Re: your brains,” I suggest looking it up.
- Industrial Strength: This program included muscle-building moves to a goth/industrial soundtrack, including ::wumpscut:: and Skinny Puppy.
- Hench as ****: Hench is the British term for “ripped,” so this program featured a Brit pop soundtrack, including The Cure, The Clash and The Sex Pistols.
- Riot Grrl Plyo: We planned this program to coincide with Women’s History Month to celebrate women’s music. Of course, it was screamy and explosive and awesome.
So, go forth and offer programming to this age group with confidence! Try a few things out and accept success and failure as equally valid methods of evaluation. Listen to your users, solicit their feedback and have fun!