"Spontaneous" Library Programs: a fantasy

The best part, for me, of watching any video footage of a flash mob is seeing how the folks in the "audience" respond. They're at the mall, or walking down the street, and something completely unexpected happens. Some laugh, some join in, some drop their jaws, some take their own footage. If they'd known a few weeks in advance--if they'd received a message that a performance would be going on at such and such a time (not an invitation to participate in a flash mob, but notice that the performance would be happening), chances are they wouldn't be moved to show up. But having something extraordinary and outside-the-usual happen while you're just going about your daily business...that can make your day; you'll remember it. You feel lucky to have been there when it occurred.

In many public library systems, including the one I used to work for and the one I currently work for, programming needs to be planned, dates pinpointed, ad copy written and turned in 6-9 months before the event takes place. The idea is that official library publicity will attract more people to the event. If a disappointingly small number of people show up, we blame it on a publicity failure. We also take publicity surveys to try to ascertain where patrons are finding out about our programs--from the paper calendar hand-out? from the website? from one of our social media presences? word of mouth?

The biggest turn-out I ever had for a teen gaming night came "spontaneously." Three kids who had heard about it from an official library publicity channel showed up. If I had kept the curtains to the meeting room closed, chances are that only those three would have attended. I pulled back the curtains so everyone passing by the meeting room could see DDR on the big screen, announced the program over the loudspeaker (common practice, nothing too exciting), and urged kids who found their way in to tell their friends out doing homework in the library. We ended up with about 40 kids that night, 37 of whom didn't know about the game night in advance at all: they were at the library doing their thing, and suddenly this fun surprise popped up. Joining into a round of DDR spontaneously was cool; coming to the library expressly to play some previously-announced DDR was not.

Of course we need (I guess) planned-and-announced-in-advance programs (and any that require extensive equipment/outside performers/registration etc. must be officially publicized). But I find myself fantasizing about more flexibility, or some flexible programs in addition to the planned ones. It's a Sunday afternoon, the library's packed, there are no planned programs happening--if we have a body to spare (and yes, often we don't. But maybe a volunteer?), why not bring out the Wii (or whatever you've got) and announce a spontaneous gaming session (I understand that some libraries offer gaming access & equipment all the time--I've only ever worked for systems where gaming dates are planned)? Or the laptop and projector and play YouTube videos on the big screen? (A coworker and I are currently planning a "Best of YouTube" viewing night--an officially publicized one. Couldn't our playlist of videos be used on any really busy afternoon, if there was a staff member or volunteer who could set up the equipment and monitor it)? Or a spontaneously-announced contest for the "Best __________ in _________"? , with a volunteer or two to judge, and maybe just the "prize" of a certificate (blanks of which could be kept on hand) or one's name and title on the lobby bulletin board all week/month? My particular nerdy fantasy is for a whistling contest. It's busy; one of us announces over the loudspeaker, "Okay, it's obvious there are a lot of bodies in the library right now. But how many of you can WHISTLE? We're having a spontaneous whistling smackdown in the meeting room in five minutes. Who will be [Name of Town's] Next Top Whistler?" (In my fantasy, we also film willing contestants with a Flip and upload the videos to the library's YouTube channel).

I dunno, maybe no one would get up and move into the meeting room to participate and/or watch. But I wish we could try something silly like this [or a clean freestyle rap contest, or a push-up contest, or a celebrity impersonation contest, etc...people seem to like watching regular folks competing at stuff, if reality shows are any indication]--we'd have the idea in place, the rules in place, ahead of time, but we'd never know if or when we were going to have the smackdown...we'd just have the option to pull it out at any time. Preferably when there are tons of folks in the library, not because they came for a program, but just because they came to the library. It would be nice to be able to think "Whoa, lots of people here. Let's have a program!" instead of "Whoa, lots of people here. Wish we'd known six months ago that it was going to be raining heavily and everyone would be at the library trying to find ways to entertain themselves." Teachers often have a slate of such "just in case" activities to pull from on days when something unexpected comes up or something extra is needed. Why not libraries?

I'm all for "Information Desk Musical" if staff is up for it. Like Jan, I'm pro-flash mobs in the library. But those require lots of work (musicals and dance routine-type stuff starring staff, anyway) and time, and at this point in libraryland, few of us seem to have it (plus, things that require lots of work and time often end up simply not happening, dying in committee, etc). The looks on the faces of flash-mob spectators, the ones that say, "I had no idea this was going to happen. How cool!" or "Hey, I suddenly really feel a part of this community, connected with all these people who happened to be in the right place at the right time"...I'd like to see those looks on library patrons' faces. On good days at the ref desk, there's always at least one patron who says, "I had no idea the library could do all this for me, that you had so many resources, that I could get all this for free right here."

"I had no idea the library/my community was this fun" (which I heard on that spontaneously-well-attended gaming night) or "I had no idea there were so many awesome whistlers in this town"--those would be good to hear, too.

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