As an adult programming librarian, I get to brainstorm with a variety of professionals about what kinds of programs work best and how we can get people into the library to attend. One aspect of planning that I encounter frequently is the programming “just for fun” debate. Why do we have to have a learning objective? Why are you overthinking it? Why can’t we just have fun? Do library programs need to have an educational/informational component, or is it okay to have just a fun program at the library?
Ultimately, every organization should look toward its mission statement when determining the rationale of its actions. Not one library mission statement I have read includes “provides fun.”Here are some examples from larger public library systems across the country. The Los Angeles Public Library System exists to, “provides free and easy access to information, ideas, books and technology that enrich, educate and empower every individual in our city’s diverse communities.” In Chicago, the public library system is there to, “welcome and support all people in their enjoyment of reading and pursuit of lifelong learning. Working together, we strive to provide equal access to information, ideas and knowledge through books, programs, and other resources. We believe in the freedom to read, to learn, to discover.” The New York Public Library’s mission is to, “advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities.” Fun does not appear in any of them.
In every example, the ideas of lifelong education, free access to information/resources, and enriching either individuals or communities are present. Revisiting the library’s mission statement is a good way to ensure that your activities are supporting your institution. Public libraries are lofty institutions that represent the best of a democratic society. Public libraries are the peoples’ university. Public libraries are at a community’s center of education, business, and community. Choosing to view library programs as just fun detracts from the value that libraries bring to their communities. Public libraries contribute to the economic success and cultural value of their locations.
It is imperative to remind people that the programs offered at the library are important to the community. Focusing on fluff and fun can diminish the substance behind what the library is trying to accomplish. How we think about and what we associate with public institutions, informs our responses to their challenges and needs. When a library says that they need money for programming, do we want the community to think that they are propping up a crafts class or movie night? No, we want to emphasize the practical real world benefits of library program, which might happen to include crafting or films, but that also support literacy, personal development, and social opportunities.
Fred Rogers is known for his work with educational programming and is known to say that, “play is the work of children.” I think that is a valuable way to think about learning. Play is definitely the work of children, but it is also the work of adults. Play is how we acquire new skills. Play is how we socially interact with each other. Play is how we apply abstract concepts to concrete actions. Should library programs be fun? Absolutely! Fun is a great way to attract patrons and to have them learn new things. I believe that programs should be fun, but that we should orient our programs to reflect our mission and that we should be intentional about what we are trying to do for our patrons.
I understand the appeal of just relaxing and having fun, but librarians need to come at programming with the same rigor as collection development. Yes, Patterson, Baldacci, and Evanovich are super popular and circulate, but if circulation were the only criteria, then we would all have the same collection. When we think about programming we need to think beyond what is popular and what will circulate. We need to focus on what we want our patrons to learn and then we must find ways to turn that lesson plan into play time. Should public libraries offer programming that is just for fun? No, but the programming that we do offer ought to be fun anyway!