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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Frost Davis

What Every Library Board Member or Trustee Should Know About Programming

Updated: May 26, 2023

Public libraries are fortunate so many community members from a variety of backgrounds volunteer their time and talents as board members & trustees. If you're a library board member reading this, thank you for your generosity!

Only a small percentage have experience working in libraries, giving them fresh eyes regarding our challenges & successes. Conversely, library administration have a responsibility to familiarize their boards with the facets of libraries they may not understand. Programming rises to the top of this list for many public libraries.

Because the concept of programming has developed at a rapid pace (if you told librarians even twenty years ago that we'd be hosting trivia at bars or babywearing dance, they'd be shocked!), it remains a key area of development.

Additionally, the heaviest "consumers" of library programming are often young families. Young parents are underrepresented as board members across the non-profit (and for-profit!) sectors. Because of these and other factors. developing a board's understanding of why and how we program is paramount.

What follows is a programming primer, a useful tool for library administrators planning their board training or for board members and trustees to use as a check against their knowledge.

Please let me know in the comments if you find it useful--and what you'd add!

What is a program? Why is programming important? How do staff members "do" programming? What are their challenges? How do we know if we're successful? How can board members support their library's efforts?

What is a program?

The term "program" is extremely nebulous. My working definition is:

Library programs are events, classes, workshops, etc. that help achieve a library's strategic goals and/or promote library collections/services. Programs are led/developed by library staff, but may involve involve mutually-beneficial partnerships, with library partners developing an offering in concert with library staff.

This allows for incredible diversity & breadth- from dulcimer concerts to escape rooms to robotics to ballroom dance to gardening...whatever piques your community's interests or fulfills a local need.

A couple of clarifying notes:

Because your library's goals undoubtedly differ from other libraries, programming will also. If you don't have an intimate understanding of your community's needs as reflected in your strategic goals, it can make it very difficult to plan successful programming.

Intent is an important factor in defining library programming. To protect our customers from private interests (from MLMs to politicking and many points between) AND ensure library programming reflects observable community needs, library staff should originate an idea or plan a program in concert with library partners.

For example, library staff members might notice their community's growing interest in using essential oils for health and wish to offer a workshop. A library staff member might seek an unbiased expert first, but finding none turn to an expert affiliated with a particular company (with a "no sales" caveat, one would hope!) Intent is key here. Tricky, but important. This makes it a different program than if a salesperson calls and wants to present a workshop unprompted in order to bolster sales, even if the content is similar.

The more successful programming a library undertakes, the more you'll notice self-interested folks wanting to present, from self-published authors to direct salespeople. Develop a firm precedent now to save yourself angst. Decide now how you'll respond to requests! (Allowing community members to use your meeting spaces for offerings unaffiliated with the library can be a great compromise.) (Oh, and if you don't already have one, a program proposal form can be a great tool.)

Why is programming important?

Here's my bold claim: there is no single easier way to gain wildly positive or negative attention from one's community than through programming.

Library board members & staff tend to be well-versed in the concept of materials censorship and are prepared for challenges, aided by comprehensive collection development policies. Collection development policies outline what libraries collect, how they select materials and how the respond to challenges, while still leaving important room for nuance. I'd argue a program policy is just as important! See one example, here.

But what does programming DO, exactly, that is so important?

Programs speak a library's values. Of course, in the most obvious sense, programs should reflect a library's strategic goals. But they have the potential to say much more: "We're a friendly place." "This is a safe place to try new things." "We love our community traditions." "All are welcome here."

Programs animate our spaces. They are an important driver of customers to our buildings, as often evidenced by door counts and circulation statistics which ebb and flow with programming “traffic.”

Programs promote other library resources & services. Through programming, we can can "handsell" our eMagazines, our homeschool group, or our genealogy collection in the most compelling way- person to person. This can be via word-of-mouth, displays, posters, handouts all aided by the simple fact of proximity.

Programs help us engage with the community in ways that are nimble, meaningful, and timely. Notice a new trend taking hold in your city? Have a civic issue affecting your citizens? You could offer a program next week that addresses it! It might take years to upgrade an old building or months to order and catalog a new title. Programming can be a lot more nimble.

Programs create community. Despite digital culture, social media, eBooks, etc. people still crave in-person experiences. Indeed, the library serves as an important "third space" (not work, not home) where customers aren't expected to buy a single thing to enjoy its benefits.

What challenges do programming staff members face?

While each library can be somewhat unique in its program planning, there are several key trends:

First, most library staff have no formal training in programming. Indeed, the very skill set required for success often have little in common with other aspects of a librarian's duties. Successful programmers have generally cobbled together their own training through research, mentorship, and trial and error.

Providing opportunities for professional growth, from conferences to webinars is essential. Thinking outside the library "box" to develop staff skills in other areas like marketing and event planning may also be necessary.

Program planning can also be time-consuming! The process from idea to full-scale event can take hours of a staff members' time. Allowing for time away from the "floor" or away from the library to meet with partners is essential.

Second, you can't program well without a good understanding of your community. The best strategic plans are undergirded by an intimate understanding of your community, but change happens more rapidly than these plans allow. Some other strategies to develop this understanding:

  1. Explore the demographics of your area. Too often, what we think we know isn't reflected in the data. We all unintentionally operate in bubbles at times. Policy Map is an incredible tool for visualizing various elements. Your local school system should have a variety of facts on their students available to share, too. What languages do students speak? How many live primarily with grandparents?

  2. Get outside the library's walls: Opportunities for staff to engage with the community during work hours, attending Rotary Club meetings or speaking to a women's church group, can help strengthen community bonds and open a dialogue between staff and customers.

  3. Monitoring local social media (from Facebook to NextDoor) and other organizations that provide programming or local events (4H, youth groups, YMCA, etc.) can also develop a staff member's understanding of community needs.

  4. Surveys and talkback boards can provide interesting feedback, but won't appeal to all the customers you'd hope to reach through programming (and can be subject to our own unintentional biases when we construct them). Similarly, focus groups or committees with community members could also gather useful feedback.

How do we know if our programming is successful?

Programming is an art, not a science, but there are many “metrics” to gauge success. The first is attendance, which can indicate the community’s interest in the topic. Social media “buzz” similarly gauges how well the topic choice fits community needs.

Program quality cannot be measured by those metrics and requires attention to qualitative measures like customer feedback and engagement during the program. Other indicators of a program’s success: it engages new customers, encourages the use of additional library materials and services, or it connects customers with one another.

How can board members support their library's efforts?

Stay "tuned in" by...

  • Becoming familiar with their library's offerings through various channels- following the library on social media, subscribing to newsletters, picking up calendars, etc.

  • Chatting with a programming staff member (i.e. the "horse's mouth"- not necessarily library managers or administration) about her work

  • Attending a program or shadowing a staff member as a program volunteer. Snap a few pictures when you're there to share on social media, too!

  • Asking for programming updates at board meetings- what programs did we host last month? How do staff think they went?

  • Exploring what similar libraries are offering by following their social media pages or visiting their websites

  • Congratulating staff members for work well done. The value of an encouraging email from a board member cannot be underestimated!

Spread the word

Board members are often chosen in part for their standing within the community. In other words, they've been influencing since before it was a job.

They can easily become essential partners for spreading the word about programming through very simple means. Help shift the conversation in the community when you share your work as a community member by mentioning programming in the same breath as circulation statistics! Why not take a handful of library calendars to work or church? Share the library's Facebook posts? Bringing even the smallest degree of intentionality to spreading the word can yield big results!

Want to hear more?

Thanks for reading! I'd love to meet or consult with your board to equip them with the tools for success. Email me to learn more.

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