April 20, 2018

A Library Masterpiece | Programs That Pop

Granger House Photo credit: Ian Poellet [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Granger House Museum and Cultural Center
Photo credit: Ian Poellet via Wikimedia Commons

Research implies that lifelong learning and social engagement foster healthy aging. With the over-50 set now the fastest growing age group, baby boomers are living longer, and their demand for engaging social interaction, enrichment, and learning continues apace. Iowa’s Marion Public Library recently focused on a popular Sunday night TV program, borrowed ideas from an existing club, and was soon up and running with a fun, socially engaging program targeted to this growing ­population.

The library launched a successful, seasonal Masterpiece Book & Film Club event using the ideas and resources offered on the PBS website. Once each viewing season, the Granger House Museum and Cultural Center hosts a free activity. Attendees preregister and pay (usually about $12) for an optional dinner served an hour before. All attendees receive two drink tokens for beer or wine (often thematically selected) to enjoy as they mingle with fellow guests and ­presenters.

Don’t let space stand in the way

We shelved a similar programming idea a few years ago, thinking we would need theater-quality space to draw an audience. But with a new library or major renovation years away, we revisited the idea and considered whether a “theater experience” was crucial. Maybe the “shared experience” we wanted to capture was about intellectually stimulating conversation around series we all watched at home, including those of us who also read the books on which the series were based: a film club run like a book club.

However, our space problem remained an obstacle. Library meeting space is scarce, so we collaborated with a nearby historical attraction run by an innovative director looking for ways to expand its programming. The Granger House Museum and Cultural Center could provide the ambiance of another time, in this case a Victorian Italianate home, while the library could organize the program and provide ­refreshments.

Food and food for thought

We made headway last spring when PBS Masterpiece announced the premiere of Wolf Hall. An entertaining yet challenging story, the series is based on two award-winning, best-selling historical novels by Hilary Mantel, involving Henry VIII. Our patrons would see the fun and find value in a refresher on ­Tudor times and Plantagenet misconduct. How to do this? Invite a scholar and serve good food and drink. We found the University of Iowa Speakers Bureau a rich resource at a modest cost for terrific presenters on everything from ­Tudor royalty to British ­colonialism.

The museum and library staff settled on hosting a traditional British-themed tea. We served finger sandwiches, scones, and tea cakes, but with a twist—English cider, ale, and wine, which were readily available in Tudor times. The Granger House director drew on her network of scholars to find a PhD candidate in medieval history willing to share her expertise, and the program filled quickly.

A model to build on

Launching a successful program with tips from the Masterpiece website gave us a niche, while leaving enough latitude to explore a broad range of themes. Our book and film club’s summer theme was Sherlock Holmes: Super Sleuth, culminating in a traditional pub dinner of bangers and mash before a presentation by a Holmes authority. We carried the Conan Doyle connection into fall to coincide with the PBS Masterpiece mini-series Arthur and George. A program on British imperialism at the turn of the 20th century was accompanied by a traditional dinner of British-Indian cuisine.

Lessons learned

While Wolf Hall, with its British-themed tea, was an instant hit, we needed to find a way to cover costs and remain free and open to the public. Charging for an optional dinner helped us accomplish that goal. We discovered the choice of location is important to participants—they love the unique setting of the historic house despite the challenges it may present, such as inadequate lighting, straight-backed chairs, limited parking, and limited accessibility for the physically challenged.

Finally, we learned that discussions can get complicated. Sometimes we have to juggle multiple and even conflicting story lines. The miniseries sometimes take liberties with the books on which they are based, while the books Masterpiece recommends as companion reading, or with which our patrons are already familiar, may have already taken liberties with the historical accounts. We’ve had to pause on occasion and ask, “What story are we discussing?”

Our many older patrons have come to expect and appreciate thought-provoking and absorbing programs. They are well read, well educated, and well traveled and demand a higher level of involvement from programs than those in the past. We find they are some of the library’s staunchest supporters. Promoting brain health has never been so much fun.

Librarian Denise Roberts advocates for library services geared to older adults. She was most recently at the Marion Public Library, IA. She is passionate about making the public library more relevant to older adults by addressing their diverse needs and interests through engaging programming

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.