Behind the Scenes at Your Public Library: Programs

What you see when you come to the library:

Staff check out books, answer questions, help you find things, straighten up the books, put them away, perform story times and puppet shows, run book clubs, or teach computer classes.

What you know libraries do, but you may not see:

Staff buy and catalogue books, deal with City Council to get funding and stay open, visit schools and childcare centres, and figure out their users’ needs based on popularity of services.

What you may not see when you come to the library:

Staff plan programs, meet with community groups, apply for grant funding, design the next library branch, or train their new custodian.

The Inner Workings of the Library

Behind the scenes, libraries are nonprofits that need to be run like businesses to squeeze the best use out of their limited budgets. Libraries need to consider the “return on investment” of their activities.

Here’s an example.

Your Public Library has enough staffing to stay open, check books in and out, put them away, help customers find things, and reserve two time slots per week for public programs. Let’s say the community has lots of seniors and lots of families with very young children.

How to decide which programs to offer? The library could:

  • Run the same two programs it has offered every week for the past 15 years: preschool story time for 3-5 year-olds, and women’s book club
  • Speak with customers in the library who are vocal about what they want, cancel the above programs, and offer Baby/Tot Storytime and a Senior Men’s Social instead
  • Decide to attract new users by doing programs it has never offered before. Run a teen video game night, and an introduction to Capoeira, using a local instructor who has offered to volunteer his time. To your delight, this results in 14 young adults appearing at the library who had never visited before.
  • Start from scratch, do a user survey, consult with community groups, and implement the findings. Let’s say this results in a weekly visit to local childcare centres, and a series of one-to-one computer classes for seniors.
  • Respond to complaints from users who are disappointed that their favourite programs have been cancelled. Decide to offer both the women’s book club and the men’s social club on alternate weeks. Run preschool storytime for 6 weeks followed by Baby & Tot storytime for 6 weeks.
  • Consider the cost. Book club might require purchasing a set of 20 identical books. Another branch of the library system may use the same book for their book club, 3 months from now. Maybe the actual demand for the title afterwards requires the library to keep only 2 copies. The rest are sold at the annual book sale for 50 cents each.
  • Consider staff time. Running 6 weeks of Baby/Tot storytime might take 12 hours of staff time to prepare, but the parents and babies don’t mind if the program series is repeated verbatim every 6 weeks. So the “cycle” might see a lot of use before being retired.
  • Decide that teaching computer skills to seniors is more important than other programs for two reasons: staff find it rewarding and they feel appreciated, and the seniors are more likely to chat with their city council reps and support the library budget.

This is just an example of the thought process and cost/benefit analysis that goes into library programming.

What would you want your library to do?

Photo credit: Jonesboro, Arkansas US Public Library


  1. Pingback: Behind the Scenes at Your Public Library: Books « An Exacting Life

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  3. Pingback: Links: San Francisco’s last public typewriter; book covers in the digital age « Barbary Prose

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