If you have ever planned a program for kids or teens, then you have probably had at least one program that was a total bust. You spent weeks flipping through magazines, scouring the Internet looking for ideas, collaborating with colleagues, Pinning, planning, prepping, and organizing what you think is a fabulous program idea, only to have a couple of kids (or even no kids) show up. There are plenty of reasons for low program attendance, but many librarians immediately blame themselves when a program is not successful. If I only spent more time on it! Had it on a different day! Had snacks! Used more glitter! Often the reaction is to ramp things up even more, hoping that if you worker harder, the next program will bring in the patrons. But what if the opposite were true? What if you could do less and still have a successful program? Amy Koester, the “Show Me Librarian” and Youth & Family Program Coordinator at the Skokie (IL) Public Library, explains how that just might be possible with something she calls “unprogramming.”
So, what exactly is “unprogramming”? According to Koester, “The unprogramming philosophy is that it is possible to create and offer programs for youth audiences that are at once highly engaging and collection driven without requiring large amounts of planning, funds, and staff time. Unprogramming is high impact, lowstress programming.” Koester explains further, “Unprogramming” is a concept that now retired Wisconsin librarian Marge Loch Wouters and I gave name to in 2013. We’d been sharing some of our recent program successes online on our blogs, on Twitter, etc., and started to notice that our most successful programs had something in common; specifically, that they were less staff-intensive and more participant-directed than typical and traditional programs. In the same way that conferences with a participant-directed format took on the term “unconference,” we added that “un” to the front of “programming” to indicate the same general idea: more participant interaction and determination.”
While low attendance can be a frustrating problem, librarians also sometimes fail to capitalize on programs that are successful, thinking that they need to start from square one with each program. However, with unprogramming, recycling program elements is not only acceptable but encouraged. “When we unprogram, we take stock of what kids respond to, what’s worked in past programs, and then we repurpose that for future unprograms. We think about what materials we have on hand—did you buy those grabber hand contraptions at some point, or a Nerf crossbow, or some other cool prop—and figure out ways to use them again in new programs. Unprogramming lets us mine our past successes for smoother, less intensive new programs—no more starting from scratch on every program. And, what I’ve found, is that when we’re encouraged to look back at what has been successful in our past programs, we get a huge confidence and morale boost. We’re able to see the awesome ways we’re reaching youth,” Koester explains.
There are a few key elements that are typically included when planning and implementing an unprogram. Ideally, your program should always tie back to materials or services that your library offers, so use your own resources for inspiration when brainstorming. Books are a great place to start, but your program doesn’t necessarily have to be literature-based. The theme is introduced at the beginning of the program with a big group activity that is led by staff. This not only introduces kids to the topic but also serves as a sort of ice breaker. The next part of the program would be giving the kids time to explore three to four self-directed stations that also relate to the theme. The stations require little or no explanation and don’t require an adult to lead the activity. Kids can participate as much or as little as they want at each station. After the “stations of stuff” there is a brief wrap-up and kids can browse related materials that you have put on display.
Programs that are less staff-intensive allow those creating the programs to watch and get a clearer understanding of what elements work and what elements are not as successful. It also gives library staff an opportunity to interact with kids in a more meaningful way. These observations and interactions can help you plan for your next “unprogram.” Koester advises making reflection a regular part of your planning process: “The life of a youth library staffer is usually one of constantly moving from one thing to the next thing, with little time for interludes. But make reflection a priority—I encourage folks to actually put it in their calendars for at least every six months. When we think back on what’s worked, and what hasn’t, we have a great and reliable pool of knowledge to inform our new endeavors.”
 Amy Koester, e-mail message to author, October 21, 2015.