At our high school library, in central Texas, usage stats were way down, both for services and reading of books. To change that quickly, in my first year at the school (2008) I began “Open Mic Night.” Basically, on a Friday night from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., students, teachers, parents, and friends could enjoy coffee and snacks at the library while watching five-minute performances on stage. I added the caveat “school-appropriate.”
The goal was to open the doors, show a way to enjoy the library while being yourself, and, most important, provide an opportunity for students to take ownership of the space.
I posted flyers and made announcements in the school bulletin for a month before the event.
I spent about $50 out of pocket for the refreshments. I already had a (wimpy) speaker system and microphone, so all that was needed was a rearrangement of the furniture to produce a more friendly and group-centered atmosphere—and attendees, of course.
What does it take to host an open mic night? As much or as little as you have. A cute poster, some money for food (or kids who sign up to bring some), a local coffee shop willing to donate two or three boxes of coffee, and a microphone. Movable furniture helps, stage sets from the theater department (or local community theater or college) are also useful, and, of particular value, students (or patrons) willing to get in the spotlight to try out their stuff.
Spoken (or sung) word-of-mouth
The first was a success! About 60 people attended, and the event ended a little early because all of the performances were finished by 8:30 p.m. The second one, about a month later, showed how well the first evening had gone over: we had over 100 attendees and went until 10 p.m. Because positive word had gone out about the activity, more students were signing up in the performance book (available at the front library desk the week before the event). Students could read poetry, perform stand-up comedy, sing, or play an instrument, whatever they’d like. We even had heavy-metal bands.
Program implementation got even easier as we implemented the open mic events over the next few years, three to six times annually depending on scheduling. They continued to stay steady at about 100 attendees each (families, friends from other schools, and even pets joined in). The band member students, who were in theater arts classes, were in charge of setting up the stage and sound systems. A few of our teachers were also members of bands and brought their huge amps, then took their five minutes in the spotlight as well. Students, teachers, everyone enjoyed the performances. And because almost every table included someone on the schedule, the audience was wonderful and supportive.
By year three, I did little in the setup or marketing of the event—the students ran with it and organized everything. The open mic events even garnered district approval and the creation of a media class to put the students’ strengths with AV equipment to use and to further their learning in the field. Over the years, we’ve had comedians, belly dancers, metal bands, country singers, Latino harmonica players, and some awesome student poetry readings.
Beyond the event
How do you know if you’re successful? Attendance, the “word-on-the-street”after an event, and, of course, the media. As a result of the efforts on the part of the students setting up the show, they were approached by a local radio station to participate in an hourlong interview on the Social Justice Radio network. They rocked—and made comments during the interview about how awesome their library was. It was a win-win.
Another way I knew the events were successful was the ownership by students of their library space. Our usage figures quadrupled in the 18 months, as well as our usage by teachers (many of whom had visited or heard about the open mic events).
Open Mic Night not only provided much needed positive marketing for the library, it also helped to create a “come as you are” (Nirvana reference intended) atmosphere in the library during the school day. Students felt more comfortable visiting the library before school and during lunch. When they came in with their classes, they were more likely to assist in getting on task because they knew me a bit better—knew me as someone who respected them and their right to be here and supported them as long as they were working toward a goal.
I highly recommend implementing some form of Open Mic @ Your Library. Whether yours is a public or a school library, it can help engage and empower your patrons and let the whole community join in the celebration of talent!