8 Ways to Save Money on Programming in a Tiny Library (Part 1)

Meservey, Iowa, is a tiny, rural town of just 240 people. We have a church, a bar, a post office … and my little library. There isn’t much to do in town as far as entertainment goes, so the library tends to serve as a community hub — we are one of the only local sources of free events and programming.

As you might imagine, our programming budget is quite small. I'm very limited on what I’m financially able to do, as there’s not much wiggle room for pricey performers or large events. But during my four years as the Meservey Public Library's director, I’ve found ways to get a lot of bang for my programming buck. Here are a few things I've learned.

Jar with coins spilling out of it
Look to your loved ones when brainstorming program ideas, and you can pull off great events for cheap.

1. Turn to friends and family for free programming

Is your mother-in-law a yoga instructor? Perhaps your spouse knows everything there is to know about computers? Or maybe your high school buddy has a passion for playing guitar?

Look to your loved ones when brainstorming inexpensive program ideas, and you can pull off a great event with very little money. I have a Facebook friend with a love for baking, so we'll be doing a cookie-decorating program next spring. A family friend/florist has partnered with the library several times; we did a floral pumpkin class last fall that had a wonderful turnout. Another talented friend hosted a few children’s canvas-painting parties that were a huge hit.

All of these programs cost the library little or no money, and I have found that friends and family are, more often than not, very happy to help. 

2. Mine your community for programming gold

Similar to the above suggestion, this tip involves thinking about members of your community and the interests and talents they have.

Your town could be a treasure trove of programming ideas: someone with a therapy dog might be interested in doing a Reading with Rover storytime. Maybe the local beautician or salon owner would like to do a nail art program for teens. Kids always love seeing and learning from the local firefighters and police officers — especially if they bring their vehicles along. The possibilities are endless! 

3. Partner with other libraries, organizations, businesses and schools

If you’re a tiny library like Meservey, you know it can be difficult to pull off large-scale programs. Budgeting for a big event is not the only issue — you may not have enough staff/volunteers, or even enough space in your building, to accommodate large programs. But that doesn't mean it can't be done. 

A band performing for a group of children
Partner with other libraries or businesses to pull off large events, such as this children's concert Meservey Public Library hosted with a nearby library.

I partnered with another local library to do a kids’ concert over the summer, and it worked out very well. If either library had tried to do the concert alone, we wouldn’t have had the funding or the staff, and the Meservey Library building was definitely not big enough. But together we pulled it off, and the concert was a hit!

You can partner with local organizations or businesses as well. Look for businesses that may have something to gain by coming to your library, as they are most likely to participate for little to no cost: a new small business looking for more potential customers, for example, or an organization that wants to spread the word about what they do. We have a local organization coming in January to teach a women’s self-defense class, and we frequently partner with local humane societies who want to reach more potential adopters.

And of course, don’t forget about your school district. It’s a great idea to keep in touch with school staff, as they can be very helpful when planning programs. Perhaps the high school band could put on a little concert, or the star basketball player could read to younger kids. I have found that school secretaries, in particular, are indispensable when it comes to partnership opportunities — have a positive relationship with the administration, and many doors will open.

4. Turn your own passion into a program

What is something that you love to do? What hobby or interest are you passionate about? Maybe you spend all your spare time scrapbooking, volunteering at animal shelters or writing poetry? Chances are, if you love it, other people in your community will love it too.

The best programs usually happen when you’re excited about what you’re doing — the patrons will pick up on your enthusiasm and have a great time. Personally, I'm passionate about animal rescue; this is one of the reasons we have partnered with the local humane society for free programming. I'm also a huge Harry Potter fan, so we did a Harry Potter party for tweens last year. It was one of my most successful programs for that age group, and it was very inexpensive.

When you’re trying to come up with program ideas, it’s always a good idea to think about what you would most like to attend and participate in if you were a library patron rather than a staff member.

Check back next month for Part 2 for four more tips!