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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Frost Davis

How to Ditch Program Registration

Updated: May 26, 2023

Ahhhhh... registration. Before we get started on the how, let’s talk about why. WHY do so many library staff love program registration?

Yes, it helps you have a (slightly more) accurate headcount for supplies. Yes, it can allow pre or post program communication like emails (do you do this effectively, if at all?) Yes, it can give you an idea of the skill set and interests of attendees... sometimes (if you know the customers by name or ask for details beyond name, phone number, etc.) Yes, it sometimes feels more serious to customers if they’re required to register, meaning they’ll “convert” i.e. actually attend or formally cancel with greater frequency.

I used to to be a believer, requiring registration on almost any program I could. Of course, I’d make exceptions at the door, etc. etc. It was only later that I realized what was truly “driving the bus.”

The fear of the unknown. The need to control. Anxiety.

How much of our desire for registration is powered by anxiety? I say this with great affection for my fellow librarians: too often, we prefer to make a rule than have a difficult conversation. (How many of our libraries prefer to say “no food” when we really mostly mean “I don’t want to have to ask you to clean up after yourself because what if you refuse?” I’m not saying that’s an inherently wrong approach, just pushing on it a bit.)

It’s incredibly awkward and uncomfortable to imagine what you might say the the 26th person who walks through the door when you have supplies for 25. More on that later.

Registration can protect our staff from some of these anxiety-producing interactions while creating a not-always apparent barrier for our customers.


Can discourage busy people & families from participating because they can’t anticipate their schedule 2 or 4 or however many weeks ahead

Can alienate customers who aren’t ”in the know” or who have other challenges:

  • New library users

  • People who do shift work (Will I be scheduled that day?)

  • Childcare uncertainty (If Granny watches the girls, will she bring them?)

  • Lack of reliable transportation (We’d better not sign up because what if the bus is late?)

  • Differently-abled family members (We’d better not sign up because what if Kira is having a rough day?)

  • Speak another language as their first or hail from a culture where pre-registration for a library event would seem a strange concept

  • Lack consistent access to the means required to sign up (internet, phone, ability to register in person)

What if I told you there was another way? Here are some suggested (friendly!) ways to welcome folks to programs with limited supplies:

  • “While supplies last.”

  • “First come, first served.”

  • ”Supplies provided for the first x attendees.”

  • And, a compromise: “Registration recommended.” (building in additional spots for extra attendees, of course)

I told you we‘d return to the awkward scenario of the 26th customer. How can you help mitigate it?

  • First, trust yourself- library staff have a pretty good idea about how popular a program will be. Go with your gut (and chalk it up to experience if you’re wrong)!

  • Challenge yourself to choose programs with fewer consumables. Choose what I call “loaves and the fishes“ programs where supplies are easily scaled, like a watercolor resist program vs. a paint your own wooden birdhouse.

  • Use stations or “choice boards” so more people can participate. Never heard of a choice boards? My educator friends introduced me to this really cool concept: Bonus: choice boards also help account for different abilities and learning styles!

  • Provide alternate activities for that 26th person and have extra handouts, book displays, etc.

  • Buy more & offer the program multiple times. Even better? Have any subsequent programs scheduled by the time you offer the first.

  • Practice your response, keeping a few phrases at the ready. Here's a handy recipe: (Some version of "We're so glad you could come!") + ("The turnout has really surprised us."), followed by ("Unfortunately, we have run out of x, but you are still welcome to y. May I show you around?) If all else fails, here's a follow-up to an upset customer: "I'm really sorry you are disappointed. We are too- we really wish we'd been able to accommodate more attendees this time. Would you like to X? (alternate activities, see a calendar of upcoming events)"

  • Don't forget to communicate with your supervisors/managers, as well as coworkers to ensure your messaging is similar.

One last tip for libraries who have often required registration in the past: include the language “no registration required” when applicable. In its absence, customers are often confused, so it’s a nice clarifying addition to program descriptions. Additionally, if you still have a ”hybrid“ model, with some programs still requiring registration, this hints that they should pay attention.

Any tips or best practices you'd add?

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