Programming for Seniors

Senior programming is a hugely important and hugely under valued part of modern library work. We have had children’s librarians for forever and over the last decade or so YA librarianship has taken a huge leap forward. We have adult librarians sure, but librarians who specialize in service to our elders are few and far between and tend to be system level specialists (overseeing services for multi-branch systems or library consortiums. There are not that many local libraries with frontline staff who specialize in programming for seniors and this is something that needs to change in the profession. I think that every library should have an elder library services specialist.

When this finally comes to pass here are a few of my suggestions of programming.

Physically active programming – this is hugely important and can be done well with the support of local services and trained outside programmers.

  • Tai Chi
  • Chair Yoga
  • Gentle steps (low stress flexibility & strength calisthenics)

Senior games days

  • Standard board games are good here. I would stay away from bookshelf games until you have a group of dedicated gamers who might be interested in new adventures. Stick to the “family game night” standards to start
  • There are a LOT of games that could have their own dedicated clubs
    • Checkers
    • Chess
    • Dominoes
    • Bridge
    • Mah Jong
    • Scrabble
  • Seniors/Juniors meet ups – this is an ideal setting to do cross generational programming. Pair up some motivated young folks with seniors then sit back and watch the magic happen

Health & Wellbeing – it’s critical to get public health agencies to help out with this.

  • Health checks including screenings for diabetes and high blood pressure.
  • Health seminars – including nutrition, mobility, drug conflicts, and how to find health advocates in your family and how they can help you at the doctor’s office
  • Health discussion groups – information and resource sharing for common health issues
  • Grief support – counsellors and discussion groups

Crafting Circles – these should be largely self-sufficient with more experienced/skilled crafters teaching and guiding others

  • Knitting
  • Quilting
  • Crocheting
  • Painting
  • Scrapbooking

Senior Cultural Activities

  • Bookclubs for Seniors – let them pick the titles
  • Movie Day – classic films
  • Music – get local musicians and high school bands to perform classics of yesteryear

Pet Therapy

  • Get some service animals in there for Reading with Animals programs
  • Set up senior pet adoption days with local shelters
  • Having an animal companion can significantly improve quality of life for seniors, you can be the vector for that happening.

Technology Training for Seniors – My friend and Colleague Lauren Comito is the one who got me thinking about this stuff a lot with her focus on applicable technology training that is tasks and results oriented. Anything clever or interesting in this section should probably be attributed to her putting it in my head over beers.

  • Tablet Based – the act of mousing is a learned skill and acts as a barrier to accessibility for people who are not comfortable doing it. If you have vision issues, limited manual dexterity, arthritis, or shaking in your hands then mousing can be very difficult indeed. Tablets avoid this by using  a direct touch and go interface which is actually much easier for first time computer users to adapt to.
  • Results Oriented – most seniors are not looking to learn Word for a job application or Excel to start their small business. They want to be able to use the computer to watch movies, read the news, play games, and be in better touch with their families. Don’t do programs like “Introduction to Facebook” instead do programs like “How to be in touch with your grandchildren” and make them very practical – this is how you set up an email, this is how you make a FB account, this is how you get your grandkids to friend you on FB and how you can save a photo from their page and put it on your computer desktop.
  • LOTS of consumer education – seniors want to be up to date with the times but often have very limited experience with computers. Purchasing a computer can be a very stressful experience and one where it is easy for them to be taken advantage of. Teaching a class which explains just what they need in a computer (and possibly even more importantly what they DON’T need) is invaluable in itself even if they never touch a keyboard or a tablet.
  • Directly address technophobia – we have all helped that person who tells you “I don’t know anything about computers” before they have even sat down. This can be a self fulfilling prophecy and often is as we serve that same patron with the same question repeatedly because they are simply afraid to mess around and learn how to use this strange foreign thing that they feel like an interloper at to begin with. Address this directly and use play and low pressure exercises to free them up from this.
  • Senior only intro classes – let them have a class with their peers and let them drive the pace. It might be slow or repetitive to you but they will have an easier time not feeling like they are behind and don’t know all of these very skills and abilities which we take for granted.
  • Peer instruction – if you have a senior who is really computer savvy and comfortable with new media see if they can be an instruction aide in your classes and provide peer instruction and support.
  • AWAY FROM – Word, Excel, Intro Coding
  • TOWARDS – Social Media, Entertainment, Ebooks, Youtube
    • How to connect with your grandkids
    • Genealogy answers
    • Finding movies online
    • Encouraging your friends to use the computer as a means to set up social networks even when you are not able to get out of the house

These are all part of the The One That Got Away

Book Displays as Interactive Discovery Tool

This post is all about Book Displays so fasten your seatbelt for some heady and controversial stuff! No joke though, this ENTIRE post is about book displays so get into a trad services mood. I do think that we can do more in creating book displays that have greater interactivity.

That interactivity can take a lot of forms, we can flashy them up with some tech, we can make the act of taking a book from the book display a poll or a game in and of itself. Book displays are a great way to keep the nonfic turning over and as a means of unearthing deep collections and surprise holdings hidden on your shelves.

I really like the idea of finding off center commonalities in books and using book displays as a means of connecting books across topic areas, fiction/non-fiction lines, or even narrative media ie. graphic novels.

Incorporating fine art books on the topic at hand is a great way to brighten a display and get a circ on those big lovely expensive books of plates that people can’t ever afford to have in their homes. If it is a display about botany get some Georgia O’Keefe on display, if it a Halloween horror lineup include some Dore or Giger. Getting circs on those books keeps them from being weeded next year.

Interactive Book Displays

Tech Augmented Book Displays

  • Interaction between public and technology
  • How do you introduce arduino and raspberry pi into the book display itself to provide literal bells and whistles?
  • LEDs are cheap and easy enough to rig up.
  • Use the tech to do point of contact surveys? Run infrared lights or lasers to keep track of when books are picked up or taken away. Incorporate a pressure pad to track when a book is picked up. Keep a running survey even just by click button w/ display. Make people feel like they are a part of it using the technology.

Staff Pick Display Challenge

  • Interaction between staff and public and staff and staff.
  • Each staff member gets a bookshelf or a section of a bookshelf on a “STAFF PICKS” rank of shelves.
  • Staff can place whatever books they want to on this shelf with the intention of those books being picked up by patrons and checked out.
  • At the end of each day a page (or manager depending on your staff) counts how many books are missing from each staff member’s bookshelf.
  • At the beginning of each day staff refill their bookshelf and make changes and substitutions for the coming day.
  • At the end of the month all of the days are added up and a Champion is declared. The Champion receives a chocolate bar and a plastic tiara/crown.
  • This program costs about $4 a month to maintain if you buy your crowns/tiaras in bulk beforehand and get decent chocolate
  • Real results are that staff all hand sell books. Circulation figures across the branch go up because you have all of your librarians, paraprofessionals, and shelving staff competing to get books taken out mostly for bragging rights and in the spirit of competition.

Book Progression Sets

  • Interaction between multiple titles
  • This book leads to this book leads to this book
  • Can be a progression of skill ie in woodworking or chess
  • A fiction series
  • Graphic novel crossover arc
  • Idea is to have books checked out as a set
  • Have to manipulate circ to make the later ones due back after a longer period of time or renew automatically

Book Pairings

  • Interaction between staff and collection, Interaction and commonalities between texts
  • Goal is to do this with books just as you might with a meal and beverages
  • Some would be directly connected, others more tangentially but with a core connection
  • From Bauhaus To Our House by Tom Wolfe with High-Rise by JG Ballard
  • Salinger’s Franny & Zooey with a good translation of The Way of a Pilgrim
  • 1984 & Brave New World
  • Biographies of Nixon and Mao, Hitler and Churchill,Tupac and Biggie, any conflict between two people where both sides have been written about independently

Book Display Ideas

  • Stop Reading and Get Moving – Fitness
  • You Have Too Much Time On Your Hands – Hobbies
  • Bored? – Hobbies (Again, but public libraries usually have TONS of hobby books collecting dust and it is not like they go out of date very quickly)
  • Put Some Poetry In Your Life – Get those anthologies moving
  • The Play Is The Thing – All kinds of plays but absolutely some Wild Bill Shakespeare.
  • Starry Nights – Astronomy working books, hobbyist materials, telescopes, etc
  • Things To Do On A Hill At Night – Astronomy books, sex books, and books about murder (OK this one is clearly too much, I’m kidding, don’t do this book display, not even at Halloween or on April Fools Day (I am not encouraging you to do these book displays on those days!))
  • Bold Botany – Weed culture books, anything about growing in hydroponics or as part of doomsday prepping, cheap DIY greenhouses, old hippie 40 Acres and a Mule Stuff including that great public service stuff from the Dept of Agriculture from the 70s if you have any of it in Gov. Docs
  • Comics & Culture – Go for the highbrow stuff here. Art Comics, French Comics (Including Asterix that your Children’s Dept probably already owns), Books Without Words, the snooty stuff in the 741.5 section
  • Historical Mistakes – Benedict Arnold’s Sympathetic Biography, the Book That Talks About Napoleon’s Hemorrhoids, Chronicles of the Blunders of History, Biographies of Traitors and Misunderstood Geniuses
  • Literature of Different Regions – National and Regional book displays that correspond to major holidays for the nation or region being featured. Cooking, Art, Culture, Suspense Novels, Histories, Fashion, Children’s Books, Folk Tales, Travel Guides. Ideally tied to heritage programming.
  • Faith and Religion – Why the hell not? We avoid this stuff and as a result American’s can’t talk about religion at anything either above a whisper or below a scream. If we were all a little more aware of how the other person’s faith worked maybe it wouldn’t freak us out so much. Honestly, if I could get the community to go with it, I would include religious displays for everyone in one corner of the library. It would go through a rotation and change out and work by appointment ideally to match with the high holidays of the faith. Yes the Satanists could have it for a period of time, of course.

I realize I don’t have any pictures of any of these displays but if YOU decide to do one or work with these ideas I would love to hear about it.

These are part of The One That Got Away.

The Four Es of Reference


The reference interview is the greatest skill that a public service librarian can develop. It is our diagnostic, our consultation. Each reference interaction is a mystery and it is the key mystery that will determine our work. What is the true question that the patron needs us to set our shoulder to the wheel on?

Like all complex skills it is easy to do poorly and incredibly hard and complicated to do well. I love this aspect of our work and try and approach every enquiry with the same balance of skills and abilities. These are the four key factors in the reference interview.

Enquiry – the librarian is curious and interested in seeking solutions. They should be able to look at a puzzle from different angles and be asking questions about it from those different directions. What is really being said here? How does that connect to this other thing we have on the shelf? Who would be an expert on this and where do we access them?

Empathy – the librarian needs to care that the patron gets the information that they are looking for. It’s time consuming and can be exhausting to run down the right answer and if it was something the librarian cared about they would probably already know it. Empathy is the quality that motivates the librarian to keep digging into a topic area they really care nothing about. They may not care about the topic but they can understand that the person in front of them does and that is enough to make them pore over a database searching for that one elusive reference.

Engagement – this is similar to both Enquiry and Empathy but is more active than either. Engagement is being in the moment of that query. Is the librarian looking at other windows on their computer while they are speaking to the patron? Are they thinking about lunch or the meeting they just had or are going to? These distractions will impair the librarian’s ability to catch and process nuance and subtle clues that could make all the difference. Engagement also tends to lead to shorter, more effective, more pleasant reference interviews as the patron really feels like the librarian is present in the discussion along with them.

Experience – can a librarian who is early in their career do a good reference interview? Of course they can, but that same librarian will do an even better one in a year’s time and even better five years after that. Experience gives the librarian perspective. While no two questions are ever exactly alike some of them are fairly similar and a good librarian will be able to make those associations and reach for them in the midst of the enquiry.

Can you do a reference interview with only one or two of these traits, sure you can. Can you do it with none? No, you can’t, and you shouldn’t even try.


Ideas for the One That Got Away

A while back I almost started a dreamjob. Throughout the interview process I kept a small notebook in my pocket and filled the thing with ideas. These were all the things I was gonna come tearing out of the gate and get done in the first six months.

Well I didn’t end up getting the job but I had about fifty pages of brainstorming. I thought about mailing them to my interviewer as a kind of “hey no hard feelings, oh and by the way this is what you missed out on” but a number of friends suggested that was not the best way of going about it (“you want to do WHAT? no way man, fuck them”).

It does seem a waste to just let these things sit in a little notebook and die though so I am going to share them here with you.

The Heavy Reading Book Challenge – Instead of tracking number of books read or even number of pages read you do a reading challenge where you measure the height (thickness) and weight of each book read. The librarian keeps the official scale and ruler and manages the spreadsheet with each participant’s stats in it. If you add up individuals and groups you can come up with really fun numbers. Is your bookstack as tall as an NBA player, is it as heavy as an anvil? How about everyone at the branch, did they read the height of the library or the weight of a delivery truck? I did this reading challenge at a small community library with the kids and we got to a height of two Mr Ben’s”, a unit of measurement based on the height of our children’s librarian. It would be great to do it as a combined child/adult challenge and see what kind of dimensions the community can read.

Book Buddies for Grownups – OK we have all done the program of book buddies where older kids read to toddlers and elementary school students. What if you did random pairings of books for adults? You chose a range of books that work for book clubs and discussion then offer them up in pairs. Random people take the two copies of the same book then you have an event where ALL of the book pairings come together to talk about the book they read. It is kind of like speed dating meets book club (actually this would work well in any kind of a “library dating” programming).  It would be easy to do a quick survey to match people but honestly I think it would be more fun to just go off the book and see what commonalities come from people choosing the same title.

Read With A Senior – Similar to the Book Buddies program but with the intention of pairing seniors with younger folks. This would be great for a high school service requirement or a social club that does community outreach like the Lions or Rotary. Any university that has a greek life component could be reached for this as well. Ideally you would hope for a 1 to 1 ratio but you could get away with a couple of seniors per companion reader if you don’t get enough interest. Human contact significantly improves senior quality of life, health, and longevity so this program actually has long term health benefits if you can keep it populated with participants.

Night Bookclubs – If you have any evening hours then capture that allure of the night and get some of your patrons in for programming AFTER work.

Vampire Reading Society – OK maybe you will get mostly teens but God knows there are plenty of materials/series to chose from here.

Night Histories – Fringe history, social history of strange topics, history from the perspective of the “loser”, underexamined historical events and persons

Romance After Dark – Ideally this should be all kinds of romance but I would be tempted to work unconventional love stories and smut

Street Lit By Street Lamp – Street Lit going with a theme of after hours where possible

Up Late Reading Comics – Graphic novel discussion group, again would be tempted to go with more adult titles. Even if the titles are capes and tights go with more challenging themes.

Mysteries by Night – work all the themes of mysteries from cozies to thrillers.

Poputics – Pop political texts, variety of issues. Moderating these discussions would be a nightmare but the conversation would be lively for sure.

More to come folks, this is about three pages of notes…