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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Frost Davis

6 Mistakes Rookie Programmers Make (& What To Do Instead) + 2 Unexpected Recommended Reads

Updated: May 26, 2023

NILLPA recently identified 9 Core Library Programming Competencies. Their white paper describes the work we do and the many professional skills required to successfully implement, giving credence to the growing importance of programming.

So, what do these skills look like in the wild? It's a question always on my mind as we bring new staff members into the fold: how can I share the specifics of success to librarians for whom programming might be a very new or intimidating idea?

Too often, managers responsible for training new programming staff are reluctant to offer specifics, fearing they'll micromanage or not respect their employees' autonomy. I disagree: the road between offering clear guidance and micromanaging is a very, very long one. Specificity is kind and confidence-building when working with programmers, especially new ones.

To that end, I present to you a highly specific approach to rookie mistakes.

What mistakes do new programmers often make?

1. Not taking programming seriously

If you think programming is silly or superficial, then your community & coworkers will too. The fact is you must believe what you do is important- because it is. Adult programmers are often very slow to embrace this, while youth services staff (because of the very nature of their job) intuit it much more quickly. Though it may look like play, we know storytime and all its requisite silliness promotes early literacy (and math skills, and social skills, and… the list goes on.) Through adult programming--although it may look like crafts and trivia--we can…

·         cultivate community

·         build our customer’s skill set & expertise

·         advocate for our library

·         & not unimportantly, share joy!

These are not small things. Feel proud about the gift you are giving your community.

2. Not asking for help

Have you ever gone to a store and asked about a particular products to a member of the front desk staff, only to be greeted with a blank stare in return? How often do you patrons experience something similar?

Excited patron: “Where’s the knitting group?”
Staff member: “Umm, uh- there’s a knitting group? Let me go find out.”

Make a point to brief all staff stakeholders early and often. It's best practice to do so in a number of ways- perhaps email and in-person, although some libraries might also have success posting info in a staff lounge, etc. They’ll like it, promote your programs, and be far more personally invested in the success of your events.

3.    Not considering the physical comfort of attendees

Watching even the most compelling speaker in a room that’s hotter than Hades will leave a poor impression on your patrons. Take a fresh look at your space and your plans, bringing new eyes (and ears, and nose...) by reviewing these comfort considerations. (P.S. many of these considerations will help make your programs more accessible to those with special needs as well!)

  • Room Temperature & Humidity: a warm, stuffy, or humid room makes it difficult to concentrate, while a frigid room can be uncomfortable, especially for older patrons

  • Lighting: how can you tweak it to make it more appealing? Are any lights blinking or flashing? Is there a way to mitigate harsh overhead lighting and allow more natural light?

  • Visual Aids: If using powerpoint, slides, etc., can they be seen from every seat?

  • Sound: ambient or outside noise can be distracting or even highly problematic for those with hearing difficulties. Can you fix a humming light fixture? Do you need a microphone for your speaker? If you’re unsure, the answer is probably yes. (Read a compelling argument here: P.S. simple mics and amplifiers are now quite inexpensive and easily procured!

  • Odors & Air Flow: how can you freshen a room--without fragrances--before patrons arrive?

  • Furniture & Furniture Arrangement: does your arrangement work for all body types & sizes? Are there good sight lines from each seat to the presentation or activity?

  • Trash Cans - Are they visible? Empty and lined?

  • Program Length: Most of us find programs over one hour tedious, no matter the topic. If possible, keep the length shorter and allow opportunities for those who are especially interested to stay after the main presentation to engage with the presenter.

  • Personal Belongings: Is there space to comfortably stow coats, strollers, umbrellas, etc.?

  • Hide the Ugly: Stash trash and junk, cover up unattractive or well-used tables with dollar store tablecloths, push unneeded items out of sight.

4.   Missing the opportunity to connect attendees to other library resources & services.

Folks in retail & other sales professions know it is far easier to entice a return customer than earn a new one. In fact, I read recently that because Coca-Cola is so saturated across the globe, the corporation‘s marketing strategy is not centered on developing new customers. Instead, its focus is on increasing their existing customers’ use of their product, creating “heavier” users.

As librarians, we too often bid our customers farewell without ever hand-selling other compelling aspects of our library, despite having a captive audience.

Some easy ways to do this:

  • Make yourself available for conversation before and after a program for impromptu conversations. Personally invite customers back - “thank you so much for coming. Next week we’ll be hosting an ancestry DNA specialist if you’re interested in genealogy.”

Other conversations prompts:

How did you hear about our event?

Are you using our new text hold notifications yet?

What have you been reading?

  • Display materials, calendars, brochures, posters etc. They don't always have to be "related" to the current program, either. A grandma attending an evening genealogy class might love hearing about a daytime art class for a preschool grandchild!

  • Have a PowerPoint autoplaying before or after that advertises future events.

  • Mention a resource or library event when introducing a speaker or offering a brief welcome.

5. Not greeting guests or encouraging interaction between guests

Programs are a social experience for attendees with libraries serving as an important “third place.” How can you facilitate interactions between participants? How do you make all attendees feel comfortable and welcome?

Some suggestions:

  • Prop open doors and station staff members near the venue entrance. Use signage to direct customers to your space.

  • Consider offering blank name tags for participants to use and make sure you're wearing a name tag yourself!

  • Orient customers to the room and schedule of events: “There are still some great seats right here. Feel free to stash your stroller right near this close. We’ll get started with x in just about 10 minutes.” I think I speak for everyone, (especially fellow introverts!) when I say most people really appreciate knowing what to expect.

  • Kill “dead air” by playing music, introducing yourself, and introducing patrons to one another.

  • Provide an activity for early birds: a coloring sheet, conversation prompts, books to browse, etc.

6.  Forgetting to reflect

The pace of programming in many libraries often means at one event's close, staff are eager to implement the next. Yet, assessing the success of a program through reflection is essential for professional growth. Beyond attendance, what are some informal ways to gauge your success? Here are just a few:

  • Did the program attract new people? Demographics not normally seen?

  • Feedback and anecdotes from attendees

  • Did attendees take advantage of other library resources or services as a result of their attendance?

  • Did attendees linger to chat with the presenters or one another?

Recommended Reading

Lastly, a couple of great books that will help you shift your thinking from "I'm offering a craft class" to "I'm creating an experience."

"The most interesting, immediately actionable book I've read in quite a while. I walked away with new ideas for motivating employees, delighting customers, engaging students, and even planning family vacations. If life is a series of moments, the Heath brothers have transformed how I plan to spend mine." Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of GIVE AND TAKE, ORIGINALS, and OPTION B with Sheryl Sandberg

"Priya Parker's The Art of Gathering is brilliant. The book is a timely reminder: It's our human-to-human links that make the most meaningful moments of our lives. Page by page, Parker offers a decoder ring for the secret forces at work when we gather for business, crises or celebration. What to leave out, where to meet, how to charm-it's all here, explained with unforgettable stories and clever tips. You'll only put this book down because it will make you so hungry for a gathering of your own" -- Joshua Cooper Ramo * author of The Seventh Sense and The Age of the Unthinkable

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