Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Things I Never Learned in Library School: Self Directed Porgramming (formerly Contests! Everyone is winning)

Although I now live in Texas, I spent the first 18 years of my teen librarian career in a cold state where everyone hibernates during the months of January and February.  Programming is hard as it is – but add in winter storms and it becomes downright unpredictable. Doing a variety of contests can be a fun way to keep teens involved while catering to the elements, and to the busy schedules of teens.

In the past, I always referred to contests as “passive programming”, which gave it a negative connotation that I despised.  But at a webinar last year (and I’m sorry, I can’t remember what it was), one of the speakers referred to contests as “self-directed programming“.  Genius!  This title, I think, captures the true spirit of why contests work and are valued by teens.  And if you read my previous post about the value of hanging out, you know that teens need and thrive with self-directed opportunities.

When doing a traditional library program, teens have to commit to a certain time and place.  So you have the best Hunger Games program (ever!) planned for Monday night at 7 pm.  But that day the history teacher assigns an entire chapter to read with the promise of a quiz, teens have to do 5 pages of calculus homework and then, to top it all off, 300 inches of snow is predicted.  Suddenly, the 40 teens that signed up to come has translated into 5 teens at your door that evening.  Life happens and there is a lot of competition for teens time and attention.  Contests, however, allow teens the opportunity to participate in the library on a broader timetable.  They also help keep the library out there, actively in the forefront of the teen brain, by having a more continual presence.  And, if done correctly, they allow you to be a strong Web presence, which is so important to the teen audience.

And it shouldn’t be overlooked: Contests have value because they help promote the library and they demonstrate the wide variety of ways that the library can be involved in the lives of teens.  Contests don’t have to be limited to books, they can tap into any part of teen culture and demonstrate what a well rounded information resource the library is.  If you plan them correctly, they also help teens learn how to use the library catalog and various library resources within the library.

Contests are a good supplement to traditional library programming: they keep the library presence out there, they meet the needs of a wider variety of your audience, and they allow teens to explore the library and its resources or express themselves creatively – but on a broader timetable.

In the past, I have done variations of 1 or 2 contests a month.  Like display windows, it is good to have turnover.  By creating a regular, predictable pattern teens know to keep coming and you build a steady audience.  You can do a static contest where teens pick up or print of a contest sheet and fill it out to enter or you can do an ongoing contest where you reveal one part of the contest per day via your library web or social media page. (Check out the previous post Making the Most of Your Teen Services FB Page for more.)  If you follow the TLT on Facebook you know that this week we are doing this type of contest using pictographs of popular classic children’s stories.  This type of contest ensures that you have steady content to share with your teens via their social media page and you meet them where they are most often.


Make a pictogram a day and ask teens to decipher your message via Twitter or FB



Can you name these classic children’s stories?

If you are having a contest, it is good to have prizes (although sometimes the fun can be a prize in and of itself – especially online).  Prizes don’t have to be extravagant: you can put together a movie themed contest and your prize can be a popular dvd, box of popcorn and a 2 liter of soda, for example.  Or you could see if you could get a local business to sponsor you monthly contest (community partnership for the win!) and it could be the Monthly Fluffy Bunny Pizza Contest at Fluffy Bunny Community Library.  (As far as I know I totally just made that up).  Good ole gift certificates and gas cards also work, teens love $5.00 to the Taco Factory and gas is not cheap these days so every little bit helps.  You can also use this as an opportunity to hand out the arcs you receive.

Contests allow you, as a programmer, to be creative.  Think outside the box.  You can create a wide variety of contests including word scrambles, book title scrambles, quotes, and more.  They can be word puzzles or visual puzzles.

Some of my past contests have included:

Visual is good.  And this taps into popular culture and promotes your library magazine collection.

This month long contest promoted a wide variety of library assets.







Using popular games as a model is a good way to generate contest ideas.



You can use Discovery Puzzlemaker to make quick and easy contests.








You can get contest ideas by looking around online.  Also, the American Girl publishers have a variety of puzzle books that provide good inspiration for contest ideas.


Next blog post: A teen drawing contest that allows teens to be creative and provides an opportunity for teen input in your Summer Reading Challenge.