February 16, 2018

Sip & Spell: An Adult Spelling Bee | Programs That Pop

The Corvallis–Benton County Public Library, OR, has partnered with its Friends of the Library for the last two years to offer a spelling bee for adults 18 years and older. The event, called Sip & Spell, helps us reach a wide audience, particularly younger adults age 21–35. Sip & Spell also projects a fun, playful side of the library.

Adult spelling bees in other cities prompted the idea. Corvallis is a college town with a well-educated populace; however, a recent survey found that public library services are predominantly used by senior citizens and families with young children. A bee for adults seemed like a natural way to attract that missing audience.


Partners were essential to making an event of this scale happen. In addition to staffers, members of our Friends and library advisory board, a librarian from Oregon State University (OSU), and the emcee/local newspaper editor joined the planning committee.

To help limit the number of participants, a registration fee for contestants was established. These and fees for cheats (discussed below) benefited the Friends of the Library.

Funds raised at Sip & Spell are put directly back into the adult programs budget. As costs were higher with the need for a larger venue our second year, this arrangement made it possible for us to continue producing the event. After fundraising, we broke even the first year, and it cost us roughly $1,000 the second year.

We examined rules at other bees, including the Scripps National Spelling Bee, to develop a game plan. They allow for contestants to purchase cheats and include optional championship rounds that can be used if the competition runs long. The cheats add an element of whimsy and allowed us to raise more money. Ranging from $3 to $15, cheats include ask a friend; rewind—having made an error midway through, they get one chance to start over; and a mulligan, whereby a contestant may remain in the contest after misspelling the word.

One of the largest tasks was compiling word lists. We accumulated about 400 words for the first competition and 600 for the second through the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. The words were classed by volunteers and staff into categories including “easy,” “hard,” and “very hard,” as well as separate lists of final round and potential championship round words. Strategies for developing the lists included searching the Internet; a committee gathered words over several months. Volunteers then put together a pronunciation key, usage sentence, and definition for each word.

A festive atmosphere

Allowing for the purchase of food and drinks at Sip & Spell was important in creating a relaxed atmosphere, so we held it off-site. The first year the event was at Old World Deli/Oregon Trail Brewery. An overflow crowd prompted us to move to the Whiteside Theatre the second year, which seats 800 people. Vendors of food and alcohol were invited in to sell.

A favorite childhood toy, the Speak & Spell, inspired the title. OSU Libraries recruited Ryan Mason, a student graphic designer, to design the logo. The image of a bee festively raising a glass of beer, along with the title of the event, helped communicate that it is for adults and meant to be light and fun. A press release was sent to local media, an ad was purchased in the local newspaper, Facebook posts were boosted, and flyers were posted on campus and all over town. The newspaper helped create a lot of fanfare our second year by interviewing and photographing the first year’s winner, as well as Brzozowski holding the bobblehead bee trophy.


An emcee, pronouncers, and judges were essential. We invited Mike McInally, editor of the local paper, to emcee the event each year as well as to serve on our planning committee. Only one pronouncer joined us the first year and the task proved herculean, so for the sophomore event we invited faculty from OSU’s MFA in Creative Writing program, who took turns. Each year, the library director, city attorney, and Friends copresident were judges.

The first year brought a crowd of 300 (75 of whom were contestants). The second year, we had an audience of 560, with an additional 90 contestants. This was a huge success in terms of attendance but also with regard to the spirit of community the event evoked and mixed-age crowd it drew. The audience of families, college students, seniors, and more were incredibly engaged. We never want to break that spell.

Bonnie Brzozowski and Lindy Brown are Reference Librarians, Corvallis–Benton County Public Library, Corvallis, OR

This article was published in Library Journal's May 15, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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