Thursday, March 6, 2014

"Books and Butchers" at the Johnson County (KS) Library

The thing I love the most about libraries is how the materials can offer a start in trying something new, anything from cooking to sewing to gardening and beyond. The staff at the Johnson County Public Library (JCPL) took this idea way beyond with a program last November called “Books and Butchers.” 

John Helling is the Associate Director for System Services at JCPL (and an editor for this blog) and carried this program from its idea to a crowded room of 80 patrons and one half a pig. He sits down with Deprogramming Libraries to tell the story of when a butcher came to the library.  Find more of his writing in his book.

Tell us about the program.
"Books and Butchers" was a hog butchering demonstration that took place in our Central Resource Library where we had actual butchers take apart an actual half-hog.  They explained the process to the crowd, who were free to interject with questions whenever they wanted (there were a LOT of questions).  Over the course of the demo, which took about two hours, they talked about things like organic farming, the importance of eating locally raised meats, bioethics, how one goes about becoming a butcher, and also things like how to cook the different cuts of meat they were making.

The library staff had created several book displays that were set up near the event with a super wide variety of titles and topics, so no matter where the conversation went we were able to point patrons to a book that would let them further explore whichever facet of the program they found interesting.  There were cookbooks, farming books, history books, books about food scarcity, books that told you where to find good barbecue...everything.  We even put out Charlotte's Web.

Why did your patrons need this program?
We wanted to demonstrate to patrons that the library was a place where you could experience things, and also to make the subject matter of our books a little less abstract.  In other words, we wanted to decrease the distance that people experienced between the subject of a book and its real-life incarnation.  The hope was that hog butchering might attract people into the library who weren't already library users, and that we could show them that there was something relevant here for them.

When I was a librarian in rural Indiana, I remember there was a couple who used to drive 20 minutes or so to the library.  The woman would come up and browse for a bit, check out her books, and then go outside to her husband, who would wait in the truck for her.  Clearly, he had decided at some point that there was nothing for him in the library, and that sitting in his truck was a better use of his time than coming inside.  This has (obviously) remained with me, and I'm always thinking about ways to get the attention of people like that.  You have to be big, bold, and dramatic about it I think.

What was risky about your program and how did you address that risk?
Butchering a hog in a library is not something that many people saw a point in.  A lot of people thought (and, to be clear, this is a completely legitimate argument to make) that we would be better off spending our time and energy on, you know, NORMAL stuff.  Getting people to pick up books by showing them a hog being butchered is a bit like trying to shoot the moon - it's a high-risk, high-reward proposition.  If it goes poorly, good luck trying to get approval for your next idea, unless your next idea is something totally bland.

We tried to mitigate that risk by planning the thing to death.  We had our Marketing department come up with talking points for the program so that we could easily explain it to skeptical patrons (or staff, or board members).  We had our Reader's Advisory Coordinator put together a thorough and amazing list of titles that proved the program's relevance to our collection, and we used that list to create the displays for the program itself.  Essentially, we tried to anticipate every question or doubt that someone could have about the program and address it before it came up.

How did you get ready for the program?
We had a lot of conversations.  No one was really sure how to make a hog butchering work as a library program, because no one had ever done it before.  Even the butchers were a bit skeptical at first.  Basically, everybody involved was stepping out of their comfort zone and trying something new, so we had to be sure that everyone had a chance to ask all of their questions and wrap their minds around the idea.  For what was essentially a pretty simple program (an outside presenter coming in and doing their thing), we probably had a six- or eight-month planning period.

We're also very lucky to have a very good in-house Marketing department, so we were able to talk the program up in public before we had it.  We advertised for it all over the place, in print and on the web, and even went so far as to have special napkins printed that we used during the event.

What would you do differently if you had another shot?
About the program itself, not a whole lot!  We were very pleased with the results.  Approximately 80 people showed up and they were extremely engaged; from the very beginning the crowd was asking questions and didn't really stop for the entire two hours.

We could have improved several of the tangential aspects of the program though.  For example, we could have counted how many books were checked out from our displays, and noted which titles people took.  We didn't do that.  We could have put a librarian up on stage with the butchers, suggesting specific titles for further reading that went along with whatever question the patron was asking.  We could have had the butchers create a list of their favorite books in advance, and had them on hand for patrons to check out.  We could have live tweeted the event to draw more "day of" attendees.

We also talked about doing different versions of the event.  Maybe at Thanksgiving the butchers could come back and show patrons how to properly carve a turkey.  Or maybe we could turn it into a series, and follow up by inviting a chef who could talk about how to create recipes.

What's next?
Oh man, so many things.  Our library is full of so many smart, motivated people.  We're expanding our MakerSpace, we're doing a series with author Tanner Colby about the history of racial segregation in Kansas City, we're expanding our popular early literacy program called 6by6 into Spanish...and tons of other stuff.  Keep an eye on us.

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