Programming Ideas for Libraries

I love programming. It’s my favorite part of my job. It is enormously satisfying to see patrons enjoying themselves in the library. In the best situations, they learn something too. It’s not just that programming is fun to do though, it creates really positive ~vibes~, and you can’t put a price on the goodwill of your patrons. 

Please note that every library is different and your programming should be tailored to your audience, space, and budget. I work in a specialized academic library, so I deal mostly with students and I have a little money at my disposal. As you read this, keep in mind my ideas won’t fit everyone’s needs exactly. If you have questions about how to adapt these activities to best serve your library, I’d love to hear from you. 

Online trivia

This is something I started in May 2020 in the depths of the pandemic. I wanted the library to stay in touch with students and, let’s be honest, things were so bleak at the time that we all needed some fun injected into our lives. So I started a weekly trivia tournament on Instagram stories. I still do it today because it’s so popular. 

The basic structure is that every week I pick a theme. I post a multiple choice question Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and questions get tougher. Instagram keeps track of who answered the questions and I record them in a spreadsheet. At the end of the week, I tally up who got every question correct and then I tag them in a congratulatory post. 

Three instagram story posts side by side with a light brown background and dark brown border. The trivia question is, "What Massachusetts statue prevents you from gathering and possessing wild turkey eggs?"
I usually include three posts total, the first to explain the rules, the second to give the theme and question number, and the third for the actual question. In this example we did bird law as our weekly topic, by student request!

Although these tournaments are purely for fun, they have the added benefit of getting people to check our Instagram page for all our other content. Since I’m in a law library, we’ve covered topics from Supreme Court Justices to Lawyers in Movies. What kind of library do you have? What are topics that would intrigue your audience? You don’t have to do these every week, three times a week either. You could do it every month or even just one time. I do mine on Instagram, so it’s completely online, but you could easily adapt this to be  in-person or use another quiz platform, like Kahoot or Quizizz. 

Full disclosure: It’s a lot of work researching questions, making posts, and tracking participants. It’s a labor of love. 

Spinning Wheel of Fun

This one was a huge hit. Who doesn’t love spinning a wheel to get prizes? We made ours from scratch with cardboard and colored paper, but they’re easily available to purchase online. 

This is our glorious spinning wheel. Special thanks goes to Erin, our undergrad student worker, without whom this miraculous construction would only be a dream.

Here’s how it worked: Students were asked a question about the library (e.g. Where is the Technology Help Center?). It was the beginning of the year so we made questions relatively easy and encouraged them to ask a staff member or walk around the library to figure out the correct response. Once they answered, they got to spin the wheel. The number they landed on was how many tickets they could submit for a raffle. At the end of each day we would draw winners and contact them by email. 

There are lots of ways you can adapt to make this activity your own. Make the trivia questions about what you want people to know about your library. I wanted to teach students things that I know from experience they ask about later. Questions like: How do I check out a book? Where is the elevator located? How do I get research help? Your library has so many services to offer, but patrons won’t take advantage of them if they don’t know they exist! As for prizes, we know our students like office supplies and school swag, so that’s what we offer. Ask yourself, what would your patrons be most excited about receiving? Be creative too, there are ways to do this for free if you don’t have a budget. You can make the prize an experience rather than an item, like a private storytelling session, for example.

Hide-and-Seek in the Stacks

One of the things I’ve noticed about students is that they tend to go to the same places to study and they aren’t always aware of all the different places the library has to offer. So, I wanted to construct an activity that encouraged them to explore undiscovered parts of the library. Take that idea and a cute little stuffed animal mascot and you’ve got one of my favorite and simplest activities. 

screenshot of an instagram post with the image of a flyer like a missing pet sign, with the words “lost eagle” and “reward,” a picture of a stuffed eagle, and a poem titled “Ode to a Lost Avian,” on a background of books and in the text a rhyming clue about where to find the eagle
We worked around this theme that Baldwin kept getting lost and we needed someone to bring him home. I put up these missing-pet-esque signs all over the library. It was hilarious.

Every week I would hide our stuffed animal, Baldwin, somewhere I wanted students to explore in our library, like the Rare Book Room, microform room, etc. Then I hung posters at the circulation desk and posted a clue and a picture of Baldwin in the location on Instagram. 

a small stuffed eagle in a black BC t-shirt stands next to a microfilm reader with a blank screen, a loader, a lens, and machine controls
Here’s Baldwin hanging out in the microform room.

The first student to retrieve Baldwin earned a small prize, but I will say students were more excited about the hide-and-seek aspect of the game than the tangible reward. Again, you don’t have to give something physical away, people seem more interested in bragging rights. You could give the winner of your contest a shout-out on your social media or give them some kind of “certificate of achievement.” As a goof I gave one student a “gold star” sticker in recognition of her success and she was thrilled. 

Luck of the Library Scavenger Hunt

Another thing I’ve noticed about students is that they’re intimidated by the call number system and are hesitant to explore the stacks. I wanted to give students a low-pressure, hands-off way to learn how the stacks are laid out and how to use the library’s catalog independently. Cue the Luck of the Library Scavenger Hunt. 

We did this one specifically for St. Patrick’s Day, but its core conceit can be applied at any time of year. At the circulation desk I left a stack of clues to get them started. The first clue had a call number on it that led students to a book in the stacks. In that book, there was another clue. This time, we didn’t give them a call number, only a book title. On that clue we put a QR code for students to scan that would lead them to the catalog. Once they got to the catalog, the student could enter the title and find the call number to lead them to the second book. In the second book was the third and final clue, which brought them back to the circulation desk with a final password to say to the staff member in order to collect their prize.

poster with the text "Luck of the Library: a St. Patrick's Scavenger Hunt" with gold coins, a rainbow, and four-leaf clovers in the background
Shout-out to my fabulous colleague, Maja, for making this poster. I have not the Illustrator skills to approach this level of beauty.

Similar to the hide-and-seek activity, students loved having the chance to move around and test their knowledge of navigating the library. I think it also helped that they were able to do it on their own and at their own pace, without fear of a librarian judging them for not knowing how to find items in the stacks (not that we ever would!). 

These are all intricately constructed activities designed as learning experiences for patrons. There are also a ton of more straightforward activities that we could talk about too if you’re short on time or labor. Maybe I’ll write about those another day. If you have any questions or want to drop your own creative programming ideas in the comments, please feel free. I’m always looking for new ideas!

Melissa Grasso lives in Boston and began at Simmons University last fall. She works as a library assistant where she specializes in course reserves, copy cataloging, and social media management. You can find her on Twitter @grassbro or LinkedIn.

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