February 17, 2018

Why Should Kids Have All the Fun? | Programs That Pop


Once a month, giddy adults come to the Carnegie-Stout Public Library in Dubuque, IA, just before closing time, armed with Nerf blasters. Other patrons stare with curiosity and a little alarm. Once the building is closed, the quiet reference area explodes with noise, excitement, and foam darts. This is our favorite program: Nerf Capture the Flag, open to anyone 18 and older.


Games are B.Y.O.B. (bring your own blaster). For most, the chance to use blasters they already own is a draw. We do not allow blasters that have been modified to fire with greater force, though cosmetic upgrades are encouraged. Staff have donated a few blasters that get used occasionally. Every other month we buy a pack of 75 darts ($20) for the communal pot.

Otherwise, initial supplies were few and cheap. Our main needs are flags, bases to hold the flags, and a way to tell teams apart. We made our flags out of leftover duct tape on wooden dowels ($2 each). We had two traffic cones in a closet that we repurposed to serve as flag stands. We bought 30 bandanas to mark teams ($4 each, but they get washed and reused). Someone rooted through his or her basement for a stopwatch and whistle.

The monthly two-hour program is run by one employee, who serves as a referee: with setup, program time, and cleanup, it’s about three hours of staff time. Though if more than one staff member wants to play that month, the designated ref might get some turns on the field. We provide bottled water and mini–candy bars, which runs about $25 a month.

Feb15programsPop2Let’s play!

The space we use a our playing field was once the main stacks of our Carnegie building, an area roughly 70′ x 40′, with a symmetrical arrangement of shelves of varying heights and orientation. The variety makes it fun and the symmetricalness makes it fair. A mezzanine above the shelves allows room for each team to have one player watching and firing from above. We clear the area of trip hazards and things likely to be knocked over.

Teams are assigned randomly and occasionally shuffled mid-program if one team is too strong. Before play, we deliver the basic rules. In short, you get a point if you steal the other team’s flag while maintaining possession of your own flag, and you’re out if you get shot. Of course, many details and clarifications have come up. We’ve encouraged player input as we revise rules on the fly, and this has kept the participants happy and allowed for variations on the basic game. See our complete rules online.

Lessons learned

As we’ve continued to polish the rules, we’ve focused on trying to reduce arguments and keep things fair. We’ve had to define what counts as a fair shot, how to enter and exit the playing field, and what would be camping out too near the other team’s entry point in order to pick off its players. We’ve also tried to level the playing field between larger and smaller blasters, preventing domination by those with more disposable income.

Despite our best efforts, we have had issues with poor sportsmanship. We knew that allowing people to shoot each other with foam darts would create a rowdier atmosphere than is usually seen in a library, but we haven’t always been as clear as we could be in defining the boundaries of acceptable behavior. We’ve been figuring out the limits as we go along, deciding how much trash talk is too much, or what to do about someone who routinely breaks game rules. We’ve not had serious trouble, but we could have done a better job of preparing for the possibility.

Altogether, we’ve been very happy with the program. It draws a good crowd from a demographic we don’t see a lot of (most of our players are in their late twenties/early thirties, roughly three-quarters men). Everyone has fun, staff included, and the sheer novelty of it has drawn attention from around the community and started a lot of good conversations about the library’s role as a community center rather than simply a book warehouse. It’s well worth the slight nuisance of a reference section full of foam darts.

Andrew Fuerste-Henry is Interim Adult Service Manager, Carnegie-Stout Public Library (CSPL), Dubuque, IA, and the American Library Association Chapter Councilor for Iowa. Sarah F. Smith is a Library Aide at CSPL



  1. Brilliant! Such a fun idea.