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The National Book Festival: Takeaways for Programming Librarians

by on November 12, 2019

Since 2001, the Library of Congress has hosted an annual author event of epic proportions. The 2019 National Book Festival, held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., drew hundreds of thousands of attendees and featured over 100 authors. Librarians who plan programs of all sizes – from a scantly-attended book club to a multi-day local author festival – know the time and preparation that goes into even the simplest of public programs. There is much we can learn about program planning from this expertly-executed event produced by the largest library in the world. I interviewed Festival Director Jarrod MacNeil via email, his insights are below.

Think Outside of the Library

The Library of Congress’ premier event has not been held at the Library of Congress since its first year. After 12 years on the National Mall, the event moved to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in 2014. Hosting events off-site can be tricky. Who wants to dedicate tons of staff energy, funding, and resources to an event, only to have attendees not realize that the library was even involved? The reality is that no library (not even the Library of Congress!) has all of the facilities necessary to make an imaginative librarian’s programming dreams a reality. If you’re hosting a wildly popular author, you may need to rent an auditorium with more capacity than your meeting rooms. If you’re hosting a cooking class, it makes much more sense to do it at the community center across the way, which has an industrial kitchen, than in your carpeted meeting room with some hot plates. Weigh your need for brand awareness against the need to make your program the best it can be, and you’ll find that sometimes you need to leave the four walls of your library space behind.

When asked whether hosting the event off-site has impacted brand awareness, MacNeil said, “It is important for attendees to know that the programs are presented by the Library of Congress, not for the sake of receiving credit, but rather so that the public understands that the Library of Congress is here for them. We want the festival to be a connection point and an invitation to begin a relationship with the Library of Congress more than one day a year.”

Keeping that goal in mind makes it easier to envision your off-site event as an opportunity to market your library. Place your logo wherever you can – on staff t-shirts, on informational tables, on signs, and on branded giveaways. Include your library’s mission and vision statements on promotional materials and paper programs distributed at your event. Make sure to clearly instruct all event staff and volunteers about the message you’re trying to get across to current and prospective patrons. Above all, remember that program success is about a positive experience for the patron, in or out of the library.

You Don’t Have to Go It Alone

At this year’s National Book Festival, D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose sold almost 17,000 books, proving that a good partnership is worth its weight in gold (or books). Partnerships can help you improve your event by pulling in outside organizations with specialized expertise and providing built-in promotional opportunities. An event hosted by two organizations has twice the reach of a library-only event. If you’re hosting an author, partner with a local independent bookstore for book sales. If you’re planning programs around the upcoming election, consider reaching out to your local board of elections or League of Women Voters to collaborate. Establish a relationship with your local business improvement district or chamber of commerce, who are experts at connecting and promoting local organizations and can help you create innovative community partnerships.

A word of caution: partnerships can get messy if each partner’s roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined. Consider writing a memorandum of understanding to make sure all parties are on the same page.

Communicate, Collaborate, Delegate

When asked what organizing such a large festival has taught him about event planning, MacNeil said, “Planning, communication, and collaboration are key. There are so many moving parts…and so many people working to ensure its success; effective communication and collaboration are extremely important.”

When planning a program that relies on the work of multiple staff members, partner organizations, or volunteers, you should take care to communicate regularly in the stages leading up to the program. The method of communication will vary depending on the scale of your program, but it is the programmer’s responsibility to ensure that your team members know what is expected of them.

MacNeil continued, “When first building a plan for The Library of Congress National Book Festival, the scope of such a large undertaking can seem daunting, but when you break it down to smaller more manageable projects (a single presentation), then you can begin to build on that.” Delegating certain elements of program planning to various working groups can help reduce stress. Perhaps more importantly, having multiple eyes on your program plan can help you spot and solve possible problems before they’re beyond control. Keep in mind, when delegating, that you’ll need to regroup from time to time to ensure that all of the moving parts are aware of one another’s movements.B

Build On Your Success

It can be challenging to translate the success of a one-off program into the kinds of results we want to see in libraries, such as new patrons, more community engagement, and increased awareness of library resources and services. Acting quickly to build on the momentum of your successful program can help you achieve these goals.

When asked about the possibility of extending the National Book Festival to more than one day a year, MacNeil said, “To extend the success of the festival, the Library of Congress is introducing a new year-long program called ‘National Book Festival Presents,’ in the hope that we can continue engaging authors and the public throughout the year, and we already have announced a very exciting lineup.”

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