Library Program Ideas: EIU Library Rocks Community Engagement

Dr. Allen Lanham,
Dean of Library Services,
Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, IL

I have known Dr. Allen Lanham, Dean of Library Services at Booth Library, Eastern Illinois University (EIU) for close to 10 years. When I first met him, he had recently undertaken a renovation in his library and was interested in making his library more inviting for university students. I was intrigued because at the time, most university libraries were very focused on creating a research and study environment and comfort was really not part of the equation.

Fast forward to the 2014 Illinois Library Association Annual Conference  where we met again. This time, Dr. Lanham was doing more new and interesting things for which he was receiving the Demco Library Innovative Award.

I found it particularly interesting that his project was not confined to creating programs solely for the good of the EIU campus, but rather, reached out to neighboring communities, collaborating to provide programming that brought together six different communities, EIU students and faculty, and local high school students.

The project started as a national film project titled “America’s Music: A Film History of Our Popular Music from Blues to Bluegrass to Broadway” and worked its way to libraries via the American Library Association (ALA) and the National Education Association (NEA). At Booth Library, it developed into a broader series of programs that involved performances from amateur and professional musicians, lectures and discussions facilitated by EIU faculty members and even included 9 vocalists from high schools that were invited to the EIU campus to learn, rehearse and perform 3 Broadway songs in the closing concert.

Dr. Lanham provided valuable library program ideas that we now share with all of you.

Dr. Lanham’s Story (in his own words)

Inspiration for the Program

Using programming, we are dedicated to keeping people interested in the library as a cultural and educational center. Sometimes our projects are so complex they last the entire semester. Our programs include: visual materials, exhibits, speakers and discussion groups. Sometimes, we also take events off campus. We see programming as an important outreach for our library and keeping libraries embedded into people’s routines. We don’t want libraries to be forgotten.

Recently, there is less money to go around and some people are convinced everything is on the Internet. When we get them to attend activities and get them talking and being part of a program, people see the value of the library and its collections and services become intertwined with what they just experienced.

Our programming ideas often start from our patrons. The patrons may then help us recruit speakers and it becomes a community effort. Together, their involvement in our programs helps attract people from far and wide.

Bluegrass band Flat Mountain performed at EIU’s “America’s Music” closing concert.

Getting Things Started — How Music Reaches All

It worked beautifully on a variety of fronts. Music touches all generations. It could reach people just beginning to explore different music genres, as well as people who are already fans of a particular genre. You can use it to thrill or put people in a different mood.

With “America’s Popular Music” being so broad, we could use each genre to recruit a different group of people. Every person who saw our listing or programs could find an aspect that they would enjoy.

We brought in people who have dual talents. There was the optometrist who also played bluegrass, and so his patients attended the program. In addition, we introduced people to other types of music. We live in a district where gospel music is not as strong as it is in other places, but our university is diverse and we have a gospel choir and we brought that to the people. So we thrilled a variety of people by pushing them past their comfort zones, not past their limits.

We had grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the ALA. Through our partnership with Tribeca Film Institute, we gained performance rights to show six documentary films. There was some double dutch with the films because many of them covered more than one genre of music. So, it turned out to be more than 6 genres that we helped the public become more engaged with.

We did seven film events: one at the university and six at other public libraries. Yes, you can watch this film at home and not say a word, but it’s different to see a film that stirs you and see it with people and then talk about it.

Some of the films had 10 sections and we could only use one or two of them, so we needed to adjust for time. We also had a scholar from the university come to lead the discussion with attendees before and after each film. We also arranged for performers to come to the film screenings, too, recruiting from the local talent. We could have just shown the film, but we did not. Many of the events had standing room only.

The timing of the programming series was important, too. We chose to open the first Friday after the December holidays. It appeared that people were ready to get out of the house at that point and willing to brave the snow to do it. After the first opening concert, people were hooked. Folks came back time and time again to various parts of the program that they wanted to participate in.

Taking Library Program Ideas to the Community

We decided not to hide all these programs on the university campus. We took them to public libraries within a two-hour radius from the campus. As a result, we reached a different audience than we ever had before and some of those attendees at the public libraries came to Charleston to be supportive of the whole program. It was a way we could touch towns more rural than Charleston.

We found places that had active public libraries and created a new following in those communities. Further, we augmented their programming capabilities and gave these public libraries a small grant so that they could buy music-related books and materials. I thought it was a good way to spread the resources around.

We worked with local art outreach organizations and art councils to secure more funding and recruited community sponsors to help pay performers. Overall, we didn’t spend a lot, but we made lots of friends and spread the word to ‘get involved with your library.’

We found that the programming was especially important for seniors. Often, they do not have someone to share their thoughts with. 

The Impact of the Program

I call the program a success because we had so many people involved across the community. It fit into the curriculum at the university in ways that we still may not know. We provided bookmarks and resource guides to help people continue their reading. We got people who would never listen to rap on their own to come and learn more about it.

People cross-pollinated and may have realized they liked bluegrass. Someone might say, ‘Oh my goodness, the man down the street plays the banjo and I love it.’

Some people may only see musicians playing in a bar, but now they could see them in a different venue – a library or a concert venue.

Elvis tribute artist, Scott Wattles, entertains a standing-room-only crowd
as part of EIU’s community program.

The Elvis impersonator was a hit. People wanted to know when he was coming again and where they could see him. In some regards, these efforts helped local performers and musicians build a large audience for future support.

Getting the Campus and Community Involved

When we set out, we chose public libraries within drivable distances. Plus, we looked at a variety of libraries and worked with those librarians to identify performing groups in their community so that we could promote the local element.

Two dance groups were involved and they danced to the music of the various genres. Performance art critics were in the audience, too, helping to create great press.

In total, 10 groups worked together as co-sponsors, which you don’t see often. To make it all work, we asked, ‘How can we play to their strengths? How can we make them feel a part of it?’ We tried to use every avenue that was available to us.

We applied for a Regional Access to the Arts grant and in turn, our program helped their organization become better known. We often do reach out, but not to this many groups at the same time.

Our motto with sponsors and partners: Get involved and stay involved. Support other people’s ideas. To make these partnerships work, we will help them down the road, support local artists and essentially invest in our own region.

Our library efforts and programming also support the university, professors, student groups, etc. We want as many people working on library projects as possible so that it is part of their lives and they, too, can think of it as a treasure. Two historical administration interns did our library displays and two history students with close ties to music also got involved.

Program Events

Opening concert: January 11, 2013             Closing concert: April 6, 2013

Both concerts featured performers from all genres and included a post-concert reception. We had fun naming the reception menu: ‘jazzy punch,’ ‘soulful shrimp,’ etc. People stuck around after the concerts and talked about the performance and what was to come next

At Danville Public Library, one of 6 EIU partner libraries, community members, musicians and EIU music students interacted with each other and performed together.

Paul Johnston, EIU Associate Professor of Jazz Studies and Jazz Piano, led much of the performance element because he had direct access to performers in the music department and beyond.

He arranged songs appropriate for the concerts and conducted the opening and closing concerts. He also recruited university students for the orchestra.

He understands the importance of the library and expanding people’s exposure to music at the university and felt it was another element that added to his students’ education.

These students also talked with attendees after their programs, giving them a chance to interact with the community.

Other Music Performances

At Danville Public Library, 2 community members played with the student combo. At Marshall Public Library, what caught my attention were the families. Parents and kids were enthralled with what was happening. The kids didn’t want to leave. This was a major event out for them, like going to a Broadway show. They didn’t miss a note and were perhaps turned on to sights and sounds they wanted more of in their lives.

The closing concert included a performance by a select group
of area high school students.

Mini Music Camp

Our music department professors rehearsed with a group of high school students to teach them songs and dances based on “The Wizard of Oz.”

They performed as part of the closing concert and their involvement brought parents, grandparents and others — again, people who would not have otherwise been exposed to our library and its programs.

Film Presentations

The films were presented on campus and at area libraries. On campus, other related topics and events were presented. For example, a film studies expert explained what documentaries are, professors spoke on their areas of research, student panels were conducted in some cases. We also had exhibits going on at our library.

We needed to usher people out at the end of the some of the community film screening events because the library was closing. There was a really good vibe there. It was very heartwarming.

Advice to Others

The best advice I can give is that any time you spend enhancing life in your community is time well spent. Being part of a community means staying part of the community. It’s work, but it is our job as librarians.

We have to be out there telling them what they can find. We still provide all of the traditional library services, but in addition, we want to be better library partners.

American movies are still showing librarians in stereotypical ways, but we are more vibrant and we want people to see that. So, don’t be afraid to get out there and try to promote what today’s libraries are accomplishing. It will change conversations and help people learn different things.

It’s unfortunate we still have to fight for a place at the table, but we are glad to do it. If librarians are saying they don’t want their library taken over by public programs, they probably aren’t doing enough of them. It behooves all of us in the information field to not wait for people to find us, but to go to them.

If we keep patrons interested, learning and growing, then we have done our jobs.

What’s Next

Our efforts will continue in 2015 with programs about Native Americans and ‘captivity narratives.’ Throughout the world this is still a problem, so this would be a nice program to take off campus, too.

Just the fact that we will host 250 fifth-graders to learn about Native Americans also demonstrates that our programming has expanded beyond traditional roles of academic libraries.


Janet Nelson

Janet Nelson

Janet is the former Director of Library Engagement and Solutions at Demco. She managed and developed relationships with key industry leaders to understand changing library trends and services.