Sunday Reflections: Bigger is Not Always Better
It’s the end of summer reading, and almost the end of our fiscal year, which means that I have been compiling statistics. Administrators, city council, board members, they love to look at numbers on a page to get a sense of what you’re doing, but the truth is numbers don’t tell the whole story. The other truth is, bigger is not always better.
I sat down for a moment and did some math, at this point in my 20 year career as a teen/young adult librarian I have done somewhere around 400 programs (probably more). Some of them have been huge events with upwards of 200 teens participating – I’m looking at you Harry Potter parties. A majority of them tend to be pretty average programs with pretty average attendance, but these programs are often better programs for a variety of reasons:
1. Hands on programs, like craft or instructional programs, tend to have smaller audiences. But they also tend to be programs that have more interaction between the participant and the manipulation of some task or the learning of some new information. They are often asking participants to be involved in different ways. In comparison, larger programs are often asking participants to sit and watch a performer, for example.
2. Smaller programs tend to better meet the needs of those participants who are looking for meaningful social interactions and connectivity. A Harry Potter party may be a fun event and there is something invigorating for many to be in the midst of a pulsing throng of fellow fans, but there is value to those small book discussion groups where teens sit around and talk about books and really explore the nature of the literature and the world that they live in.
Diversity in our programming means more than adding in multicultural elements, it means recognizing that there are a variety of different personality types who are looking for a variety of different types of library programming. Not everyone wants a big party; not everyone likes to go to an event with large numbers of people. People like The Mr., who almost broke the Myers Briggs test with how high he scored on the Introvert scale, actively avoid those events that look like they will be big and overwhelming. Like him, there are groups of people who are looking for smaller, safer, more intimate events, and if our programming is always focused on big numbers than we are communicating to a portion of our patrons that there is no place for them in our libraries. In essence, we must be careful not to alienate a portion of our audience by continually focusing on gaining large numbers. We must provide a balance in the types of programming we do to make sure that we meet a wide variety of interests, educational needs – and yes, personality types.
For those patrons looking for safe spaces to learn new things and meet new people, bigger is not better – it’s terrifying and a stumbling block. It’s alienating. So it’s okay, put together and host your small book discussion groups, because 12 is the perfect number to have meaningful conversations about books. Host your smaller, more intimate craft programs and workshops. Yes, you can even put a cap on registration if you would like, sometimes it is appropriate to the type of program you are hosting.
For every one mega summer reading kick-off with hundreds of people in attendance, it’s nice also to have those smaller, more intimate events. One of my favorite programs ever involved me and 12 teens sitting around making Rainbow Loom bracelets. This allowed me the opportunity to talk to and get feedback from this group of teens in a way that I wouldn’t have if 50 teens had shown up. Sometimes, making personal connections with our patrons, with our teens, is one of the best tools we have to create library supporters. One moment like this, one positive experience, can make the world of difference in the life of our patrons and that positive experience can translate into library use and support.
Big numbers are awesome, they do in fact look good on a statistical report. But those reports, they don’t tell the whole story. They don’t look at what types of programs we hosted and how each of those programs met differing goals by meeting different needs in our community. If we focus solely on big numbers, we are making the library the focus of our programming and not the community. If we truly want to fulfill our library mission statements and support communities in their informational, educational and recreational needs, then we must keep one important fact in mind: bigger is not always better. If meeting the needs of people are our goals, then we must create a diversity in our programming goals and objectives that allow us to meet the needs of a diverse community of people, including those for whom bigger is not only not better, but it is a barrier to participation.
Bigger is not always better. Don’t let big numbers always be your programming goal, balance big programs out with smaller programs because they provide different opportunities, meet different needs, and welcome different types of people into our libraries. At the end of the year, we can’t just look at numbers on a page and declare ourselves a success or a failure, because those numbers don’t tell the whole story. And it’s only when we begin to realize this simple truth and allow ourselves, to allow our libraries, to move past numbers that we can truly begin to fulfill our mission to our communities.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
SLJ Blog Network