At Slater (Iowa) Public Library , we find that it's usually tough to get adults to attend programs. But we have also seen a few notable exceptions, one of which is our Soup and Sound program. As the name suggests, this consists of serving a meal and providing entertainment to attendees. Soup and Sound is not only popular — it's fun, community-building, and we've been able to cover our program costs with donations.
Now, before you go thinking that this would never work in your library because you don’t have the space, or the budget, or anyone to perform, let’s go over a few basics about our library. First, it is small. It’s essentially one large room, with the exception of a small meeting room. We move furniture for every program we have, attempting to squeeze use out of every square inch. So even if you work in a really small library, this can be done.
Next, the food. It’s tempting to dismiss the food aspect of this program, saying, “Well, we’ll just serve cookies.” I'm sorry to say that cookies don't cut it. We serve cookies and coffee at other times, and attendance isn’t as high as when there’s a meal on offer.
We do keep the fare simple: last month we served beef stew, and next month it’s chili. There’s a main course, some sort of bread and a dessert. One library employee takes charge of the entree because that is something she enjoys, and the other three of us divide the labor over the rest of the food being served.
We all help dish up the food, and we all help clear tables and wash dishes afterwards.
This program was originally called Soup and Song, with the idea being that, with the donation of an electronic piano from the Friends of the Library with this program in mind, we would host musicians. As it turns out, though, the talents that pepper our community are varied, so while we do have a patron playing the cello next month, we’ve also had the high school speech kids, Taiko drumming, authors, etc.
How do we find these folks? We’ve found that musicians have a network all their own; after booking the first couple, you’ll find more with increasing ease. And don’t forget to ask those in your community! There are all of 1,500 people in the town of Slater, but from them we’ve had beautiful piano players, gifted singers, and soon, our resident bagpiper.
Let’s talk about the budget. We ask for a free-will donation from those who choose to partake in the meal. Three dollars is suggested, but we don't go around and check person by person.
For the meal, we steer clear of dishes with expensive ingredients, and we pay just a handful of the performers we invite every year, usually those traveling over a certain distance.
When we started the series, we invested in inexpensive black fabric tablecloths on Amazon, and we picked up varied glasses, silverware and white dishes at Goodwill. This has saved us more money in the long run and gives each program a nicer presentation.
While we certainly aren’t making any sort of profit with this program, the donations thus far have been enough to cover all expenses.
We promote Soup and Sound in various ways. Much of our library promotion is done on our website and via our Facebook page , but most of those attending this type of program are retirees, and we have found they are better reached via word of mouth. When they’re in the library for other reasons, we remind them that Bill will be leading us in a sing-along, and we tell them there will be cinnamon rolls and that we hope to see them there.
All our events also appear in our monthly newsletter that goes out to area schools and is attached to the city newsletter. This being a small town, we also never neglect to post the newsletter at the local post office.
Education, entertainment and community
Like every other aspect of the library, this program hasn’t followed a solid upward trajectory or remained in stasis. The winter months used to have the lightest attendance, but as our snowbirds have begun to stay north for winter, those are now our more popular months, and we have adjusted accordingly. Sometimes we have no problem booking several months’ worth of performers; sometimes every last one of them has other plans.
We remain flexible, and keep the goal of the program in mind: sometimes education, sometimes entertainment, always community.
Kristy Crisler is the library associate at Slater Public Library in Slater, Iowa. This blog post is part of a series, organized by the Iowa State Library, exploring programming in small libraries throughout the state.