April 19, 2018

A Non-Partisan Political Party | Programs that Pop

Debate Watch Party at Johnson County Public LibraryThe Johnson County Library, KS, hosted its first Debate Watch Party in 2012, but for the 2016 election the Library’s Civic Engagement Committee wanted to make sure the event was really memorable. On September 26, 2016, we watched the debate with 135 excited and engaged library patrons over pizza and popcorn.

In order to make the event as robust as possible we created a more social feel: we had tables with tablecloths set up café style to encourage interactions between patrons who might have differing views and interests. We provided live fact checking, debate bingo, and partnered with the League of Women Voters to help with on-site voter registration and information about the voting process.

They Prepared

Fact checking librarians prepared by watching a 2012 presidential debate and practiced fact checking President Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s statements. We also checked in with local university librarians who had fact checked for a local organization focused on civility. We determined that we could not fact check every statement without dozens of staff members on site to help, so all fact checking would be based off audience submissions. We also created the following ground rules, stating that we could only fact check questions that were:

  • Legible
  • Written in the form of a question
  • Verifiable facts, not opinions
  • Statements made by the candidates during the debate

Our initial plan was to address any questions during commercial breaks and lulls in the debate, but this debate ended up having no commercials, so we decided to address the questions during lulls, via Twitter, and directly with the questioner.

We created debate bingo cards using a free online bingo card generator (myfreebingocards.com). We brainstormed approximately 75 different words and phrases by browsing other, already-created cards and likely topics to arise. We decided to offer pocket U.S. Constitutions, We the Kids: The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, illustrated by David Catrow, and Vote for Me! by Ben Clanton as prizes.

The program was advertised through the Library’s program guidebook, online calendar, an online feature on our homepage, and through social media. Staff reached out to local teachers and  community groups. The League of Women Voters advertised among its members and reached out to other similar civics groups.

Because the debate would go past our regular closing time we also arranged for our regular security guard and an extra guard to stay late and help section off the closed areas of the library. We used stanchions and red-white-and-blue streamers to clearly mark areas of the library that were off limits to the after-hours public. The guards were also able to let late arrivals in the building to join the watch party.

I researched streaming options and determined that PBS would be our first choice as it was live streaming through YouTube and we could easily connect a laptop to our projection system.

Debate DAY

Preparations on the day of the event itself included room set up, audiovisual setup, food pickup and setup, and setting up the popcorn maker; all of which required approximately three hours with a total of eight staff members contributing. We ran into trouble with our new audiovisual system in the room, which caused a higher demand on staff time than anticipated.

Despite our initial audiovisual problems we were able to start the debate on time without the audience realizing we had any issues behind the scenes. As we were troubleshooting we noticed that far more people than the 75 we’d initially planned for were streaming in. Some staff continued troubleshooting and created a backup plan for technology, others began setting up more tables and chairs. We also ended up needing to send staff out for more pizza and soda pop due to such a high audience turnout.

Prior to the start of the debate we welcomed our guests, explained the activities we were offering for the night, and laid out the ground rules for fact checking. Finally, the debate started and our audience was immediately deeply engaged.

Lessons for the Rematch

The debate itself, bingo, and  popcorn and pizza ended up being the biggest hits of the night. We did not get as many fact checking questions as we had anticipated, but we believe that was due the fact that we had such a large crowd.

The number one change I would make in hindsight would be to make a statement of civility expectations up front. Overall, civility was not a major problem, but there were a few moments that likely would not have happened had we made such a statement.

Technology was our other biggest problem. If you are interested in hosting such an event at your library I would recommend reserving the room for the entire day and setting up all technology in the morning to allow for plenty of time to address any technological issues or set up a backup plan while IT support staff are still in the building.

Finally, because of the large crowd and lack of commercials or even lulls in action it was difficult to address the crowd for fact checking. If we knew we would be fact checking for such a large crowd, next time I would make all of the fact checking available via Twitter and Facebook and make it very clear to the audience that is the way to follow along—with the bonus of also providing the benefit to our patrons watching at home.

Ashley Fick is the Civic Engagement Librarian at the Johnson County Library.

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  1. I really enjoyed the event, I just wish there was one for the other debates coming up.

  2. This is very cool event :)

  3. Brava!