Welcome to another programming ideas article! In these articles/interviews, we talk to librarians to get the story behind their most successful program.
In a recent Reddit thread, we talked to MechAngel, who was nice enough to give us the details behind one of her most successful programs, ‘Superheroes to the Rescue.’ At the end of this post, we have a downloadable ebook that includes this interview and the program proposal template MechAngel used to get approval on her idea!
Take it away MechAngel!
This is what MechAngel posted in the Reddit thread about her inspiration behind creating this program.
A couple of years ago, someone posted this album on Reddit. A boy with Leukemia had asked to be Batman for a day, so different people in his town got together to make it happen. I thought it was such a wonderful idea that I decided to try it on a more localized scale at my branch.
We held the program after the library was closed on a Friday evening in March (when it’s still cold and there isn’t much to do) and invited kids to show up dressed as their favorite hero. Library staff and volunteers dressed as various villains, and every 10 minutes or so, I would get on our PA and announce that The Joker had been seen kidnapping puppets from our theater or that a robber was making off with money from our cash register. The kids would get to catch the villain in the act and take them to “jail.” (Jail was one of our quiet study rooms.) We also had an obstacle course, photo booth, crafts, and other fun stations for kids and parents to visit when they weren’t out fighting crime.
It ended up being incredibly successful with over 330 people in attendance. I think this was in part due to the fact that it was cold and parents were dying to get their five-year-olds out of the house, but also because it was a great opportunity for kids (and grown-ups!) to engage in dramatic/pretend play in the larger community, and that doesn’t happen very often.
1. Take me through the entire process from idea to the last patron leaving the event the first time you held it?
Normally, if I have a programming idea, I fill out a program development worksheet and proposal (we have forms for both of these), submit it to my department leads, and wait to hear back about whether or not it was approved. (They’re almost always approved.)
With this particular idea, I actually emailed a brain dump to my supervisor first, because I felt like I needed to talk it out with someone before actually submitting anything. I told her what I wanted to do, explained that the program would need to take place at a time when the library was closed to the general public, and described that the ultimate goal would be to get kids and parents to engage in dramatic/make-believe play. She was totally on-board, and helped me think through what it might cost, how much labor would be involved, and possible partnerships. I put together the proposal, submitted it, and it was approved.
I should mention that my library has a precedent of holding after-hours programs, so that wasn’t something we really had to fight for or think through. As long as someone ranking as a librarian or higher will be present to close and lock up the building after the program ends, we’re usually good to go.
I ended up having to build quite a bit of “stuff” for the different stations kids could visit during the event. Between catching villains, there were different stations set up around the library. There was a frisbee toss, crafts, a photo booth, an obstacle course, and a couple of others. We are very fortunate to have lots of teens in the area who want to volunteer at the library, either to get hours for school or for their college applications. I used their help to make a giant cityscape backdrop for the photo booth and to build different parts of the obstacle course. (There was a brick wall made out of cardboard boxes that kids had to punch through, and the volunteers taped all the boxes shut and colored bricks on them. They also made fake lava out of red butcher paper, fake rocks, cut out masks for crafts etc…) This stuff was pretty time-consuming and I had them start working on it a full two and a half months before the program.
For the event itself, I had 10 or 11 different staff and volunteers helping me. We had around 8 people in costume who agreed to play make-believe villains, and a few other people who just helped out with crowd control and the various stations. I started setting up the stations about half an hour before the library was due to close, with the help of these volunteers, so that everything would be ready to go by 6:00 p.m. Each person was assigned a station to monitor (some stations had 2 volunteers) where they’d work until it was their time to go do bad guy stuff and get sent to jail. I didn’t have a set schedule for when each person was going to play their part–I just went up to someone who hadn’t had their turn yet every 10 to 15 minutes or so, waited until they weren’t busy and sent them off.
I’d get on our PA, announce what the villain was doing wrong and where they were last seen, and basically just let the kids run around and scream like banshees until they found the person. Then, they’d walk the person to our quiet study room that was functioning as “jail” for the evening, shut the door, and leave them locked up for about 10 minutes. (There was usually lots of good-natured superhero yelling at the villain, and my volunteers were awesome, staying in character the whole time, begging for their freedom, and saying stuff like, “I’ll get the better of you next time, Batman.”)
During the last half hour of the program, as things were winding down, I had our building manager hand out medals to kids to thank them for saving the library. The medals were made out of glittery cardstock with ribbon. (I should mention that our building manager dressed as up as the Mayor of the Library and gave a short speech, which was awesome.) The program ran from 6-8 p.m., and most people started leaving within that last half hour. The kids were super tired after all that running, so it wasn’t hard to make sure that the last few were out by 8:00 p.m. A handful of staff, volunteers and myself stayed for another hour or so, getting things cleaned up and putting the library back together. (We’d moved a lot of furniture out of the way so that kids wouldn’t be running into it and so that we’d have space for the obstacle course.)
2. When you came up with the initial idea, how did you know it would work?
I didn’t 100% know it would work, actually.
I’m very fortunate to work for a library that allows for and encourages program experimentation. There are never negative repercussions for trying a program that ends up being unsuccessful, which means that people don’t hold back with their ideas. I don’t think we’d be able to do the amazing things we do without this supportive organizational culture. I had a hunch that the idea would work, knowing what I do about how much kids enjoy this sort of play, and also knowing that we serve an enormous number of young families. We hold 9 storytimes each week, and each of those events generally get between 40 and 80 people in attendance. Our programs for kids under 5 are usually well-attended.
3. How did get the word out about the event?
We use multiple channels when advertising an event this big. The event was featured in our quarterly newsletter, which is delivered to most local residents, it was on flyers and posters around the library, we posted about it on Facebook, and most importantly, the woman who does our storytimes announced the upcoming event before each storytime for the 3 weeks leading up to it. Having her plug the event is actually what probably led to 330 people coming.
There really is no digital or paper substitution for word-of-mouth advertising. I also had several people tell me that they’d heard about the program on Macaroni Kid, which advertises local programs. Our Public Relations department didn’t contact them, which means they saw the program through our flyers/website/Facebook and decided to promote it, which is pretty cool!
4. If you could change anything about how you held the first two programs like this, what would they be?
I’m kind of a perfectionist when it comes to physical details.
I wish we’d had a bigger budget and more time to decorate the space. There’s only so much you can do to change a quiet study room into a jail in the half hour before the library closes, you know? The thing is, we’re a very busy branch, and moving furniture around or shutting down parts of the building in order to prepare for a program that’s happening several hours or days down the road isn’t really an option. Our tables are usually always full in the afternoons and evenings, and our four quiet study rooms are always full of people until the library closes.
5. What lessons/golden nuggets of wisdom would you pass along to another librarian who wants to try an event similar to this one?
If you want to run a big program like this, think hard about what the library and community will get out of it, and then use those outcomes to make your board a really knock-out proposal.
Read some studies on creativity and the power of play and then use that information to back up your idea. Also, look at your library’s mission, vision and core values, and then think about how this program fits within that framework. One thing that’s awesome about my library is that one of our core values is “Fun–We engage people in experiences that surprise and delight.” The idea that we do these sorts of events is actually written into our statement about who we are. Even if “Fun” isn’t listed among yours, there’s a good chance your idea will fit in there somewhere!
Also, do as much planning as you possibly can before actually submitting the proposal. The administration and board are going to want a good idea of what you’re going to be spending your budget on, especially if you ask for a lot of money. If you’re considering renting equipment, hiring costumed characters or trying to put together a partnership with another local group, make some phone calls before writing anything down on paper, just so you know what to expect.
Also, this is not something I ever would have been able to do by myself. Between the planning and execution of the program, I had the help of around 20 other people, many of whom volunteered their time outside of work to come in just for the program. If you want to take on something big like this, remember to ask for help! Chances are, if you’re excited about your idea, others will be too.
About The Librarian
MechAngel wanted to remain anonymous to avoid going through the paperwork to publicly tie this to her library, BUT she was able to tell us a little about herself. She is a Youth Services librarian at a mid-sized public library in the mid-west. She graduated with her MLIS from Kent State University, and she’s worked with libraries for 9 years.
If you have any questions for MechAngel or if you want to just thank her for all the amazing information about her program, send her a message on Reddit, or leave a comment below.
Also, if you have a program you’d like to share or know of another library that has a great programming story, we’d love if you sent them our way 😉