Blogger School-Age Programs and Service Committee

When a Program Fails

Reflection is an important piece of programming.  All programs, whether a massive hit or somewhat less so, can hold opportunities to learn. If any library worker tries to tell you that they’ve had a 100% success rate with their programs, they are either delusional or lying. No one pulls off perfect programs every time! Sometimes, programs don’t go as planned because of… 

Where is everyone?
Where is everyone?

Timing
The first full summer at my current library, I scheduled a two-day “mini-camp” in early August. I thought the timing was perfect – after my evening storytime went on break, but before Summer Reading ended. But as soon as the calendar flipped to August, everyone started getting ready for school and program attendance dropped off a cliff.

Emergencies
On a cold January Saturday, we lost power and had to close the branch hours before a Slime Science program – interest was predictably high and registration was full (pretty unusual for my branch!). I reached out to registrants to offer a slime recipe, but it wasn’t the program I had envisioned.

Interpersonal Dynamics
An argument between two older siblings over who was supposed to stay with their younger brother completely derailed a storytime, despite my best efforts to redirect. Finally, I gave up trying to get the group back on track, stopped the storytime portion, and directed everyone to the tables to start the activity. Sometimes you cut your losses.

Miscellaneous Mishaps
I’ve had programs that have gotten off track due to miscues (i.e. the directions I gave made sense to me and… no one else), I have overstuffed my programs with too many activities (before I realized I could edit in real-time – no one else knows what I plan), or I’ve rushed through the material (a sense of timing is hard to learn without experience). Sometimes experiments that worked perfectly when I practiced beforehand inexplicably didn’t work as soon as I had an audience. Or there’s always that kid who manages to drop paint precisely where the drop cloth ends. It happens. And if it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will!

I strongly believe that library programs are not performances. They’re experiences that you and your patrons share. And honestly, unexpected problems provide a wonderful opportunity to model flexibility, adaptability, and resilience for kids. Building those skills is essential for kids to thrive and grow.

You can learn valuable lessons about expectations, timing, crowd control, etc. from some “failures” that will make your programs better in the future. Sometimes, it’s just one of those things to laugh about. Your value as a library employee is not diminished by a program that doesn’t work.

Keeping a kind and positive attitude, no matter what happens, is what people will remember. Kids want an adult who’s genuinely interested and trying their best. Parents and caregivers understand that sometimes things fall apart or go in unexpected directions. You are likely your own worst critic.

Do you have an example of a program that didn’t quite work out the way you intended? What did you learn from the experience?


This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competency: III. Programming Skills.


Kyra Nay is the Children’s Librarian Supervisor at the Maple Heights Branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library. When her nose isn’t in a book (usually nonfiction), she enjoys tabletop board games, hiking, and exploring the Cleveland arts scene. She is a member of the School Age Programs and Service Committee.

8 comments

  1. Abby

    Several years ago I tried to get a once-monthly Scrabble Club up and running. It seemed like a great idea for our community, and several families expressed strong interest in the club. But unfortunately each month only one of the interested families showed up, and would end up playing Scrabble with their own family…and me. Ultimately, every single family that was interested ended up discouraged and never came again to Scrabble Club.
    The lesson here for me was that sometimes you just can’t force a program to work, even if it seems like there’s community support. In this case, I gave the Scrabble Club several months of meetings before I gave up, just in case it took hold, but in the end I was ok with punting and using those Scrabble sets for other things (like our weekly Game Hour and our circulating board game collection).

    1. Kyra

      Abby,

      That’s a valuable lesson to learn (but hard!). I’m so glad you were able to repurpose those Scrabble sets. Learning how to adjust midcourse is such a crucial skill for longevity and I wish we were as open about sharing those as we are about sharing wildly successful programs. Thanks for sharing here.

  2. Erica

    I planned a big movie tie-in party back in the Twilight movie days. We had to reschedule because I had gotten sick. No one showed up to the rescheduled date. It felt so defeating but I was also relieved because I hadn’t put as much planning into it as I should have and I was worried the activities wouldn’t be fun and party-like. Some programs I’ve felt so confident about didn’t go great and others that I had thrown together and seemed so simple were great successes.

    1. Kyra

      Erica,

      I’ve experienced that as well, where a program done by the seat of my pants ended up being one of my best and a meticulously planned program fell flat. I think programs are a lot like parties – the chemistry of the attendees can make or break it, regardless of your planning ahead of time. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Gia

    About two and a half years ago, I did a program that I thought would be easy – filling small jars with colorful origami stars. The stars are a fairly simple fold when it comes to origami and the jars were only a couple inches wide and high. Of the ten or so teens I had signed up, ZERO of them could get the hang of making the stars. It was an absolute disaster. As the program went on though, everyone started joking about the fact that they couldn’t make the stars, so in the end it ended up being funny that it went SO badly as our pile of crumpled paper strips grew. They did a good job of making the most of it while I admittedly floundered. The program has now become a legend with the teens who frequent my library, and any time something minor goes wrong during a program, without fail someone says “At least it’s not as bad as the origami stars!” Even though it was frustrating and disappointing in the moment as I was frantically trying to explain how to fold the stars over and over again, it’s turned into a fun running joke among me and my regular patrons. Sometimes experiencing something bad together almost makes it good.

    1. Kyra

      Gia,

      I’m going to remember that story! I love that it was a bonding moment for you and your teens – kinda like how the best family stories are usually the ones where all went wrong. On a family road trip, we missed a crucial turn and nearly ran out of gas before we found the last hotel room on a desolate stretch of route 66. It’s been years and we still love teasing my mom (usually an excellent navigator) and recalling how beautiful the Vermilion Cliffs were the next morning (which we wouldn’t have seen if we hadn’t taken the “right” road).

  4. rockinlibrarian

    I just want to share what happened last week, because it’s kind of hilarious. My weekly evening storytime had been themed “Smelly Storytime,” with books about smelly things, and a game of “Smell Bingo,” where instead of calling out the items on the Bingo cards, everyone smelled a cannister with a strong and familiar scent inside and marked the corresponding picture on their card.

    Ironically, a coworker had done a candlemaking program in the storytime room the night before– a scented candlemaking program. The scent lingered– it’s still perceptible in there, actually– but that day, the day of my so-called “Smelly Storytime,” the scent was so strong you couldn’t even stand to be in the room longer than a minute! There was certainly no way we could play “Smell Bingo” there!

    It wasn’t terribly busy that night, so I decided to have the Storytime right out in the play area outside the Storytime room instead– it could get a little more chaotic that way, and attentions would wander to the toys, but on the whole everyone was having enough fun with the program itself not to fall apart. The irony of having to move Smelly Storytime because the Storytime room was too Smelly amused young and old, especially when I suggested my visitors stick their heads in the Storytime room to experience the Smelly for themselves.

  5. Karen Garcia

    Since we have a large Hispanic community, I thought that doing “La Hora Fantástica” would work as a Spanish storytime. I did my best to change the days, the hours, even season, and never picked up. However, it did work when I did outreach for a Summer Reading Program in a different place. It happens to all of us 🙂

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