Low Turnout? Bring the Program to Them

By Erin Shea, head of adult programming, Darien (Conn.) Library

Last year, we started to notice a change in the drop-in book discussions we host at our library. Staff would spend hours reading and re-reading a book, coming up with discussion questions, and outlining themes. Then we would have seven or eight people come. Two would have read the book, maybe four would have started the book. The rest just came because they come to every program. (Plus there were snacks.) We weren't sure why we were having this drop in attendance. Could it be a lack of publicity? Not the right books for our readers? We decided to completely scrap our drop-in book discussion series and try a few other types of discussions. One of these is Read, Ride, Imbibe.

Our town is located about an hour from New York City. Many people move here after living in the city for a number of years and investing in their careers. Then, when they want to buy a house and start a family, they move to Darien because it's a great place to live with an excellent school system. Thus, a lot of adults in town commute to the city for work.

If you've ever commuted, you probably know that when you get home after a long day of work the last thing on your mind is getting to the local library for a program. So, instead, we decided to have the library come to them.

One spring evening, I brought 20 14-day copies of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In to the train station and met commuters as they arrived in Darien from New York City. After experimenting with giving out books during the morning commute, I discovered (duh) that people are a lot more eager to talk to you when they're getting home from work rather than at 7 a.m. Inside each book was a little palm card inviting the reader to meet us at the local bar (right next to the train station) in about a month to discuss the book. Most people did not have their library cards, so I wrote down their names and the book's barcode and checked the book out to them when I got back to the library. Some people didn't have cards at all so it was an excellent outreach opportunity. See! Look how many cool things the library is doing!

About a month later we all met at the bar, and library staff members led everyone in a discussion of the book. We chose an "off night," like a Tuesday, so the bar was happy to have the extra clientele. See if your local bar will offer a drink special to those in your group. It's also important to choose a bar that has a back room or quiet area so you have a nice space to hold a discussion. Researching great bars for your discussion is part of the fun for the librarian.

At the discussion, we had everyone wear a nametag. Kick things off by asking everyone to go around the room and introduce themselves, answering one question related to something in the book. For example, for Lean In, we asked everyone to say what industry they work in. This encouraged networking after the discussion portion of the evening. Keep the program to an hour because this is about the time it takes someone to drink one beverage and then no one feels pressured when they have to leave to get home to family.

The results? For the discussion of Lean In, we had 24 people attend, and they had all read the book. During the month leading up to the discussion, the book circulated 75 times. (For comparison, the second most popular title in its Dewey classification only circulated five times that month.) Our first selectwoman even attended the discussion!

I have found that the single best way to get people to attend library programs who are not already doing so is to bring the program to them — even if it means setting up shop on a train platform.

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