by Marylaine Block
I recently delivered a presentation to the Nevada Library Association on librarians as the "party people" <http://marylaine.com/party.html>. It was easy for me to do, because I already knew our profession is full of imaginative, interesting people who stage creative, entertaining, community-building parties, festivals, programs, competitions, and stunts.
After all, I've been collecting stories about image-busting librarians for years while writing profiles of Movers and Shakers for Library Journal. And while researching my book, The Thriving Library <http://marylaine.com/thrive.html, I collected PR materials from many libraries, studied program descriptions on numerous library web sites, and gathered hundreds of news stories about library events. I've continued to keep up news alerts to notify me of any current stories about libraries or librarians.
So I told the Nevada librarians about some of my favorite attention-grabbing library parties and stunts: the Henderson District Libraries' "Smelly Six," who captured the Guinness World Record for continuous reading aloud <http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA633315.html>; the Pimp My BookCart contest <http://www.unshelved.com/blog.aspx?post=745; the Alliance Library System's painted P.I.G.S. [Partners in a Great System] <http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA510552.html>, Scottsdale Public Library's Googlewhack@Your Library contest <http://www.azcentral.com/community/scottsdale/articles/0928sr-arts28sideZ8.html; duct tape crafts, anime costume parties, Harry Potter parties galore, and more. Much, much more.
More importantly, though, I explained why I believe those attention-grabbing events matter so much. One reason is that libraries rely on newspapers, radio and TV to spread the word about our programs. And the fact is, the free media do a shabby job of it.
Why is that? When I wrote a column for Fox News online, and had the chance to see how reporters decide what to cover and how much time and space to allocate, I was surprised by the extent to which those decisions were based on reporters' boredom.
Library stories are ones they cover out of civic duty. Our events are right up there with stories about waste water treatment and zoning decisions, because reporters think librarians are boring. They totally buy into our middle-aged-ladies-with-buns-and-sensible-shoes image. They totally buy into the image of libraries as silent, dingy, musty, 19th century buildings patronized exclusively by little old ladies.
What it takes to turn that obligatory two-inch news item into a full page feature with photos is an image-busting librarian or library event. Fully half of the news stories I've collected start with the reporter's astonished announcement that
the librarians don't shush and the library events are fun.
When librarians know how to stretch out an event with multiple anticipatory events (pre-Harry Potter party prediction contests or lessons in makeup and costume design, for instance), they induce reporters to help them spread excitement and anticipation about the main event.
Another reason the parties and stunts matter is that they attract new users to the library. When librarians sponsor a "gross-out challenge," Ninja tag, giant chess with human pieces, lego contests, teen lock-ins, garage band nights, improv comedy, American Idol style talent shows, and teen competitions for best videos, photos, and art, they're bringing teens - especially boys - to the library, often for the first time.
But when libraries sponsor community events, like Princeton Public Library's and Evertt (WA) Public Library's LibraryPalooza fests, or storytelling festivals, or arts festivals, they do something far more important: they actually build community.
When Queens Borough Public Library works with the borough's many ethnic groups to stage dance and music events celebrating their heritage, they not only tell those groups that they're welcome at the library, they also introduce the rest of the community to their neighbors.
When libraries sponsor community festivals, they provide an enjoyable, safe environment that encourages people to chat with people they don't know. In so doing, they fulfill the basic human need to feel good about the people we share our community with.
One of my favorite library events ever was sponsored by the Wilton (CT) Library. It began with a competition for students: students in every grade in every Wilton school were asked to write poems about the local environment. From those poems, 12 were chosen and set to music by local composer Chris Brubeck. The song cycle was performed by a chorus and orchestra made up of elementary, high school and college students and community residents.
By the time of the performance, there was virtually nobody in the community that was not in some way involved in it, as participant, or as proud parent, friend or relative of the participants. And if anybody missed the event, or wanted to share it with far-flung relatives, or simply keep it forever, Wilton Library's Friends sold a CD of the performance and a printed book of the 12 poems.
That's not putting on a program. That's creating a community.
So, check out my Party page, not just to see what other people have done, that you could imitate, but to jog your own imaginations and creativity. I know librarians, and we are all image-busters. The first step is to catalog our own staff members, to discover their hobbies and interests and special areas of knowledge.
The second step is to unleash them, set them loose to turn those private obsessions into parties and programs and attention-getting stunts.
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You see, I don't believe that libraries should be drab places where people sit in silence, and that's been the main reason for our policy of employing wild animals as librarians.
"Gorilla Librarian." Monty Python's Flying Circus, http://orangecow.org/pythonet/sketches/gorilla.htm
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