A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Simple and Flexible Programming

by on April 13, 2023

Between education-driven initiatives to offer the latest and greatest in STE(A)M, and so many other sources of pressure, planning and executing programs that are both of actual interest to patrons and meet the expectations and intentions of stakeholders can be tough! Lofty ideas of incorporating the maximum amount of educational value into programs can easily get in the way of creating alluring programs and the promotion of those programs.

Returning from a COVID-19 service model and a building demolition and reconstruction, I ran into this with my teen population. They were no longer interested in our Wii gaming system (“too babyish” but with plenty to discuss around gaming physics and more) and it wasn’t cool to play UNO with the librarian in the room (despite strategic elements I could sell as educational). After nearly two years of struggling to find programs that struck that delicate balance of interesting and STE(A)M-driven, I finally found a practical solution: simplicity, flexibility, and a little creative interpretation.

These solutions are by no means anything new. These concepts were things that came up time and time again both in my formal library education as well as continuing education I engaged with over the years. Yet somehow I found them difficult to actually implement. Often I’d approach a program thinking the concept was simple. I tried Crafternoons with basic craft projects; book clubs for content of all shapes, sizes, and formats (including a podcast discussion club); movie nights where I solicited title requests from my teens; and so many other attempts at engaging them. I was tired of putting in effort to plan and set up these events only to get zero attendees.

So I started thinking about what my teens were already asking for. A few times a year, kids would ask whether we could get a vending machine in the library, for example. This was beyond my control, but what could I do that sort of mimicked that?

I also thought about what I loved as a teen. Like many of us who turned out to be librarians, I was a bookish teen, so a lot of what I loved doesn’t match with the kids who come into my library to hang out with each other, play games on the computers, and, yes, wreak a little havoc. But I noted they tended to get vocally competitive while playing computer games. I was competitive as a teen, too. It just showed up differently through academics.

By the time the kids walk through my library door, they are cognitively exhausted from school. So things like an escape room weren’t going to work for me.

I needed something that had a sort of vending machine element (that is, something with food and other small items teens would have an opportunity to select for themselves) and a competitive element that didn’t require too much thinking. And it had to be something I could reasonably explain as having more than “just” entertainment value.

BINGO was it’s name-o.

I started planning it, beginning with finding sites where I could print cards and select numbers. We had an analog BINGO set but this method enabled me to print as many cards as I needed and to project called numbers onto a screen for teens to reference easily. I casually asked teens about their favorite candy and local places to get food, which led me to grab a selection of food and non-food prizes (about $70 worth, funded by our Friends group) as well as $5 gift cards from places my teens noted enjoying and could get to easily.

The day of the event, I was admittedly pessimistic. I hoped having talked it up one-on-one with the teens as well as promoting with flyers and so on would garner interest, but I knew I was already asking a lot of teens to have them leave the teen space and their computers to visit one of our in-house meeting rooms. Fortunately, the meeting room is directly across from the elevator many of the teens use to get to the teen space, so when some started to pass by the room, I was able to grab their attention with the table of prizes, some lo-fi beats music, and a curious set-up of tables in rows.

I was thrilled to find them pouring in.

Most programs, I’m lucky if I can get one kid to participate in a given program. This time, I had eighteen. And despite some teen peacocking around how the prizes I had laid out weren’t cool, there was some hot competition and trash talking amongst the teens as they vied for particular items. They seemed to enjoy the novelty of using BINGO dotters and liked the addition of background music. As more kids paused at the door to see what was going on, I made sure to welcome them and explain they could join at any point. By the end of the program, they were asking if we could do it again the following day.

We plan our programs at least a month in advance and with limited budget and staff, I wasn’t able to say yes. Plus, I wanted to build some anticipation lest the excitement wear off via familiarity and overexposure. I promised the teens the following month would bring the same fun.

I’ve since run the program three times and while participation and interest has dropped, I’ve incorporated their feedback. Originally, teens were annoyed to only be allowed one prize per session (though they could play as many times as they wished). When I increased it to two, those same teens complained that now others were being allowed to collect all the prizes. I continued using leftover prizes but when I eventually replenish, I’ll be using the feedback they gave both directly and indirectly about that as well.

Furthermore, as interest started to diminish and getting teens to leave the teen space for the meeting room one floor below became a barrier, I asked if they would be interested in playing BINGO in the teen space while they sat at computers. All but one agreed for a total of ten. While we lost the benefit of called numbers projected for reference and accessibility on a screen, I had ten teens participate who wouldn’t have otherwise and caught the impressed eye of several adults who came through the space on their way to the adult section. As in many public libraries, the teens and adults often have a less-than-positive view of each other in our space and this seemed to encourage a more positive view of the teens.

I’ve taken the simplicity approach with my Crafternoon events, too. Rather than naming a particular craft ahead of time, I instead made the program seem spontaneous both in craft type and scheduling as far as the teens already hanging out onsite are concerned. While the event is still included in our calendars, I turn on the flexibility with the teens who are already in the branch, presenting the craft as more of, “Hey, I see you’re hanging out and maybe want something to do. Let me go grab some supplies and you can make whatever you want with them.” In one case, I suggested vision boards with old magazines and some decorative paper. Some did go for vision boards, but others took the paper and crafted items from their own imagination. I vocally praised all of the resulting creations.

Despite professional wisdom, I’ve found asking teens directly what they want to do in the branch to be a nonstarter, so I instead pick up breadcrumbs of those ideas just by being in the space and listening while they’re there. This empowers me to create programs that require less planning and preparation on my end so it’s less of a loss if no one ends up participating. On top of that, it allows me to respond to actual patron interests and abilities.

And as for selling the value of these programs to stakeholders with more STE(A)M-y language? I’m a bit creative with it. As it turns out, BINGO is great for building letter and number recognition (imagine if we replaced the letters/numbers with something else like chemistry symbols for the elements!) as well as practicing attentiveness and concentration. The impromptu papercrafts, meanwhile, are great for problem solving, spatial reasoning, design, and more. My advice? Figure out the interesting program first. Worry about the STE(A)M labels later — they’re there once you start looking from the right angle regardless of the program and then it’s just a matter of articulation.