A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

The Grass Is Always Greener

by Melanie A. Lyttle and Shawn D. Walsh on January 21, 2016

Here is an opportunity to use all sorts of clichés in one place. Whether you like the one about “greener grass” or “keeping up with the Joneses,” the idea is still the same. It’s hard to not be jealous of another library’s success and want to be better than them. However, the question you should ask yourself is “Are you comparing apples to apples?” (For the cliché count, we’re at least at three.)

Networking with other programming librarians, particularly from other library systems or from other parts of your state, can provide you with lots of great ideas of programs to try at your library. There can be something so energizing about it; however, it can sometimes be disheartening as well. When there is a presenter at the front of the room expounding his library’s high attendance of the same types of programs that you have done but gotten nobody, it can hurt. However, how does the speaker define “well-attended” and how do you define “nobody?”

Let’s talk about some buzzwords and what they can mean:


Every library has a different definition of what a successful program is, let alone a well-attended program. This is often defined as the number of attendees; however, one library may define having five people at a program as well-attended, and another library may define it as twenty-five. Did you ask the speaker at the program or the person you were talking to at lunch what qualified the program as a success? Does the definition change based on the age of the attendees? For a program for young adults, it may be a well-attended program to have six high schoolers there, but for a well-attended adult program there may need to be twelve attendees.


Every library has a different definition of what an unsuccessful program is. That can sometimes be more complicated than defining a successful program. Sometimes it is based strictly on attendance. Sometimes it is a ratio. If more people attend a program, the cost per attendee of the event goes down. If it cost $50 for supplies for the program and five people attended, then $10 per person might be too much money to spend. If ten people attended, a $5 per person cost could be more acceptable.


Every library has a different programming budget. Everybody has different staffing costs. In a library with very few staff and a very small budget, spending $25 on craft supplies for a children’s program that twenty-five children come to means it is $1 per child. That could be viewed by that library as a cost-effective program. But, if it took the staff person three hours to prepare the program and that person was paid $15 per hour, then that program becomes vastly more expensive. Is this a cost-effective program if the preparation time is so great?

We hope this gives you some perspective on listening to people talk about their fabulous programs. If you can ask someone what their criteria are, you can get a much better understanding of how to compare their programs to what the standards are for your library. Don’t let the green-eyed monster get you (four clichés).

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