Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

The Measure of Program Success? Probably not book circulation

I sat in a meeting the other day where we went through a stack of program proposals. Lots of great ideas were shared, good conversation was had. And then this thing happened. How will we know if this program is successful, they asked. And someone replied that we would measure the program success by running a circulation report and seeing if the books on the related topic increased in circulation. That is an answer I would have given years ago, but today I have a different point of view regarding program success and book circulation.

For me, program evaluation is completely unrelated to book circulation. I won’t pretend that I’m not excited to hear that attending a program made someone check out some books on the topic discussed in a program, but I also no longer rely on that circulation information to let me know whether or not I think a program is successful. To be honest, I stopped putting book circulation in my program goals a long time ago as I began to realize that the goals of programming are entirely different from the goals of collection development and reader’s advisory. Yes, I believe strongly in reading and books and their role in the library, that’s actually my favorite part of my job. But I have also come to understand that programming, although a very important part of librarianship, is not the same as other aspects of my jobs. Some of the goals are the same, because both programming and book access are meant to meet the informational, educational and recreational needs of my community, but other goals are different.

Programming fulfills a different part of the library’s mission than collection development

When we build collections, we’re trying to make sure we have a little bit of anything and everything on our shelves to meet the recreational and informational reading needs of our community. It’s meant to be there ready, willing and able to meet the needs of our communities at their convenience. Programming, however, is more targeted and specific. We have to pick a theme, a topic, or an activity. Whenever we put a program together it will appeal to a portion of our population and not others. Programs are designed not only to support the informational part of our library’s mission, but the recreational and social parts of our mission. Programming can be based on a single book or a portion of a collection – say gardening or coding – so there is definitely collection promotion that can happen, but by definition it is a different type of animal designed to fulfill a different part of our library mission. A library program is not the same as a book and although the two can be tied to and influence one another, they are not dependent on one another in order to declare something a success.  A program based on a good book may have poor attendance for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean the book is bad and no longer worthy of being in your collection. In the same way a program may have great attendance and not necessarily result in higher book circulation, that also does not mean the program is a failure.

Programming goals are different from collection development goals

Because we are seeking to fulfill a different part of our mission, programming goals are different than collection development. Programming is about creating a specific type of library experience. Because we are cultivating two different types of learning experiences, we can’t compare the results of one by looking at its impact on another. Many of our main programming goals are not only informational, but they are designed to make the libraries a community space with shared people and shared experiences. This is an entirely different goal than reading, which is often a more solitary act.

Programming can help meet the educational and informational needs of non-enthusiastic readers

Not everyone is an enthusiastic recreational reader and I have come to understand that is okay. It’s important that everyone knows how to read because this can dramatically impact your quality of life. It is less important to me that everyone chooses recreational reading as their number one way to spend their free time. It’s obviously something I choose personally and encourage as a librarian, but I also understand that we are all different and that for some people reading a book is not their go to free time activity. Which is where programming becomes0 an important tool to help us bridge the gap.

Programming allows us to reach out to those non-readers in our communities and still meet their informational, educational and recreational needs. Yes, we have books on gardening, but having informational seminars on gardening can provide quality information to less enthusiastic readers. It also helps us reach out to those in our community who are not visual learners but need a more hands on approach. Programming allows us to recognize that people do not all learn in the same way and to provide an alternative format to meet the varying learning styles in our communities.

I’ll use me as an example. I  am not an auditory learner. A lecture is the least effective way for me to learn something. If we have a passing conversation in the hall where you inform me that we will now be doing A instead of B, I am very likely not going to remember that we had that conversation because I am not an auditory learner. I need something visual, either something in writing or a hands on demonstration. I learn by doing, not hearing. The Mr., on the other hand, has checked out many a book from the library and taught himself some new skill or another. This is how he learned to juggle (completely true story). I, in comparison, checked out a variety of books to try and teach myself how to knit. I still do not know how to knit.

Programming provides us with opportunities to fulfill our mission statements and meet the needs of the people in our community who thrive most when they are seeing, touching, doing. They help us fulfill the same goals but to a different population: less enthusiastic readers and non visual learners.

Sometimes your days of highest programming numbers result in your lowest number of circulations for a variety of reasons

The idea that programming success can be evaluated by circulation increases surrounding a program, whether on that date or surrounding that subject area, are based on a lot of faulty premises. We have discussed some of those premises above, but perhaps the biggest is the belief people are going to walk out of your program inspired to check out books and if they don’t you have somehow failed to put together a good program. Whether or not a program is good or successful has nothing to do with whether or not it got a patron to check out a book. Furthermore, there are lots of reasons why a patron may walk out of the building after a program that have nothing to do with your program and everything to do with the patron.

We used to have a yearly family program every January that resulted in our highest programming numbers of the year, often over 300 people. Interestingly, these were always one of our lowest days of circulation. Why? I imagine it’s because the people looked at the long lines and decided not to wait. Or they left a few minutes early to try and be the first one’s out of the parking lot. Or because we had already taken up enough of their day and they didn’t want to take time to browse the collection and check out materials. Or because they were tired, hungry, and just tapped out socially and needed to flee. There are lots of possible reasons why this correlation existed, but it would have been a mistake on our part to look at the low circulation numbers for this day and declared our program a failure because it was anything but.

Programming is one of the few things most libraries do that don’t require a library card

Another reason that patrons don’t check out books and other library materials is that they can’t. Some don’t have the means to get a library card, that can be particularly true of tweens and teens who come to the library without their parents to fill out the necessary library card applications. Others can no longer use their cards because of overdue fines and fees. These patrons couldn’t check an item out if they wanted to, but since most libraries don’t require valid library cards for program participation they still come.

In the year 2015, it’s time that we stopped thinking about libraries solely in terms of books. Don’t get me wrong, books are a core part of who we are and what we do. But I would argue that programming is another core part of that. And I would argue further that the two don’t always have to be tied together, especially in terms of evaluation tools. If you host a gardening program and no one checks out any books on gardening in the following month does that mean your program failed? No, it means that you delivered information to your community in an alternative format and still managed to educate, inform, etc. It means that you are a knowledgeable librarian and library system that recognizes the diverse needs of your community, including the need of information to be delivered in a variety of different ways to meet the various learning styles present in your community. It can, in fact, mean a wide variety of things. But it would be a mistake to infer that it means you put together a bad program.

Tune in tomorrow for The Measure of Program Success? Probably not attendance

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