Barbecue? Flamenco Dancing? Learning Gets Interactive in Louisville

Posted Tuesday, October 30, 2012 - 14:34
Grill masters show patrons how to cook up the perfect barbecue.
Professional dog trainers give tips on how to keep Fido well behaved.
Media kit for Louisville Free Public Library’s How-to Festival. Photo: LFPL

On a sunny spring Saturday at the Louisville (Ky.) Free Public Library (LFPL), hundreds of people with schedules in their hands rushed down hallways and up stairs, wondering, “What should I learn next?” Flamenco dancing or magic tricks? How to cook perfect omelets or how to start kayaking? How to win at Scrabble or how to raise chickens?

The day was part of the library’s first How-To Festival, an experiment in high-intensity community-based interactive learning, and it attracted 1,000 people.

The original plan was to teach people 50 things in five hours for free. But as new ideas rolled in, the schedule expanded to 80 continuous free classes, exercises, and demonstrations, which were held in 20 rooms and other spots throughout the Main Library, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

More than 100 individuals and community groups contributed their expertise and enthusiasm—from tai chi practitioners to local chefs to dance instructors and business leaders.

For LFPL, the festival also celebrated something larger: its evolving role as a community crossroads, where people come together to learn new things in a fast-paced world—and have a great time in the process.

It was a start-from-scratch undertaking that grew out of a “what if” conversation a year earlier: If people love to learn new things but never have enough time, what if the library made it easy, fun, free, and convenient to do so?

A small team of three staff members carried off this feat with a small budget of less than $1,200. When festival day rolled around, the circle of helpers had widened to about 35 and included supervisors, runners, IT experts, and facilities staff.

The biggest challenge was imagining something on such a large scale, in so many locations (within one building and its grounds), and with so many presenters.

Getting started

Here are some tips on how to put on your own How-To Festival, based on our experience:

  • Start planning six months out. First think about community interests, lively presenters, and themes you might want to develop (for example, cooking, bicycling, tech know-how, and gardening).
  • Quickly contact the folks you most want to recruit as presenters. Get on their schedules early.
  • Imagine the library that day—its main entrances and key spaces. Think about how you can make these areas festive and appealing while using them as productively as possible.
  • Get creative with space: LFPL created a “center stage” in the largest lobby. A staff lounge became “the kitchen.” A book-sorting area had the hard floor necessary for the “dance studio.”
  • Look for great sights and smells: At one entrance a team of competitive barbecue guys cooked, gave pointers, and provided samples all day. Weaving around indoors throughout the day were roller-derby members on skates, jugglers, and yo-yo trick performers. Presenters were encouraged to bring props and to create experiences that were hands-on. People left with samples, recipes, handouts, and projects—from knitting to calligraphy to frosted cupcakes.
  • Consider your budget. For us, costs included the food that needed to be cooked at the grills and in our “kitchen,” rental tents, chairs, and supplies such as sample cups and toothpicks.
  • Imagine the day from an attendee’s perspective. The library invited food trucks so people didn’t have to leave for lunch. Detailed signs throughout the library helped people navigate.
  • It was a guessing game to match room size to crowd size. The final steps included a detailed schedule with 30–50 minutes for each presentation. For the public, schedules were posted and published by time and by room. A logistics coordinator made careful lists of presenter needs, contact numbers, and email addresses, and then recruited staff to stage-manage the many locations. Every presenter received a telephone call in the three weeks before the big day to confirm details and was emailed maps, parking directions, and the complete schedule.
  • To get the word out to the public, the library not only put up posters and issued news releases but also emailed fliers to every participant so that they, too, could forward them to friends and groups. As he or she checked in, each presenter received a library tote bag and a thank-you note signed by LFPL Director Craig Buthod.

Following up

Attendees sent feedback via Facebook, Twitter, snail mail, email, and in person at library locations throughout Louisville. One visitor emailed our director this big-picture compliment: “I really believe a library’s role in the community is to expand the world of the people who live there, and this event embodied and fulfilled that purpose wonderfully.”

Planning is already underway to create How-To Festival 2.0 with a roster of mostly brand-new presentations. Visit lfpl.org/how-to for more information.

JUDY ROSENFIELD is education manager at Louisville (Ky.) Free Public Library.