If You Feed Them, They Will Come

“Will there be food?” is the usual response to any invitation to attend a library event. Attendance always seems to be higher if it is promoted as having refreshments. My column this time is devoted to the various ways in which libraries gain attention by literally dangling cookies in front of their audiences.

I remember putting together a library open house some years ago. I deliberately chose Valentine’s Day as the day of the event, which I called the Library Love-In (yes, I know). The invitation went out via e-mail, with the subject line: “Chocolate”. Attendance was remarkably good, and a few people even paid attention to our presentation of the new library catalogue.

In mid-December, I put a call out to my library colleagues, asking how they use food to promote library services. The responses were varied and imaginative.

  • The Legislative Library recently purchased a chocolate fountain as the centerpiece of its annual Open House in early December. Donna Burton, Director of Information Services reports that it’s a huge hit and a great way to launch the festive season.
  • “When my library moved (for the third time in three years) into its current home, it looked like this was probably it for a while. As with the previous two moves, there had been a lot of upheaval.
    I thought a Grand Opening would be the way to signal the end to all that. So I had “champagne” in plastic wineglasses (gingerale) and cheese/crackers crudites, as though it was a cocktail party – and the people responded very well. It gave it a celebratory air, and they still remember my opening “ceremony” with pleasure.”
    Gabrielle Gaedecke, Public Health Laboratories Library
  • “We had rebranded the library using the ALA @your library logo. In conjunction with that we released a new library page. On the day of the launch of the library page we had a box of Smarties with a label around them that said Get smart @your library on the box distributed. Every Legal Professional in the firm got a box of Smarties and to this day we still provide Smarties to Students when they arrive. The sugar helps keep them alert during Library Orientation, because no matter how interesting we make it, some look like they need the help to stay awake.”
    Joan Rataic-Lang, Osler Hoskin and Harcourt LLP
  • The Fire Sciences Library hosts a library open house for staff and general public for one day during Fire Prevention Week in October. We have a display of new videos, books and purchase giveaways – stickers, pencils, pens, magnets, pamphlets on fire safety. We also have “refreshments” a big cake from Costco and serve juice/tea/coffee. The foodie items draw them in and then they get hooked into taking home fire safety materials.

    At training sessions we have prizes to give out to those brave souls who stick their hand up to offer answers to our quizzes. All are wrapped – Sparky Pencil Kit, Sparky Mug, OFM key chain, Sticky Pad with Safety Messages, also canvas co-workers for their unwanted conference toys to give out. We also offer, juice and cookies at the end of the presentation. I am always amazed at how excited folks get when they win a prize or just to socialized with their peers and enjoy some refreshments! –
    Martha Murphy

  • Delinquent borrowers are encouraged to return books with a number of food incentives. Many university libraries reduce student fines for every Food Bank donation submitted during an annual food drive. Others report amnesty programs on overdues, with participants receiving donuts or baked goods for returning long-lost items to the library.
  • A couple of libraries host “coffee break” training sessions – narrow topics delivered over a 15 minute pause in the day. Coffee and Timbits supplied by the library – just the quick hit you need. The Supreme Court library reports that these sessions have been very well attended, and allow the staff to get deliver very focused messages quickly. The staff at the BC Securities Commission held their meetings first thing in the morning, when coffee was most appreciated and the workday not disrupted by a learning break.
  • Many colleagues piggyback on events already being held, and let their employer supply the lunch. In some ways, the library hires itself out as a Speaker’s Bureau, and provides training during student development luncheons, practice group breakfast meetings, and so on. One respondent notes that having an event in the student lounge backfired because, although attendance was exceptionally high, it was difficult to deliver the message because of the volume of traffic in and out of the area.
  • Several colleagues maintain candy bowls. None of my correspondents are reimbursed for this, which seems to be true of a lot of the “feeding” activity of libraries. Snacks at training sessions or meetings are provided personally by the trainers, and seldom come out of the library budget. This explains why so many librarians are exceptional cooks/bakers, and why so many of them own Tim Hortons cards. (In fact, the two come together in the famous Tim Hortons Croquembouche – a pyramid of timbits glazed with sugar or chocolate. I’m serious – it exists).
  • The most innovative use of food incentives was reported by Kim Rempel:
      I work in a prison library. In the prison culture coffee is like cash, and good coffee is like gold. I hadn’t worked here too long before I realized that to keep my inmate employees at work, or at least keep them coming back to work when they wander off, I needed to have “good” coffee. Not the bargain basement bulk stuff that everyone drank but the high test premium stuff, something foreign, something flavoured something French. Part of the deal with the guys was, I would provide the coffee pot and good coffee and they would provide the filters. This worked pretty well until the one day I arrived at work and no coffee. I was told we were out of filters, and everyone looked at me, like I was somehow going to solve this. “I refuse” I told them, “I have kept up my end of the bargain” – and the standoff began. Days went by and everyone got grumpier but we held our ground. I flaunted my resolve and started drinking tea, herbal no less, at my desk. The guys were weakening, and then it happened. I arrived at my desk that morning and looked over and saw an almost full pot of dark rich coffee just coming to a dripping end. I grabbed my cup and joined a couple of guys waiting for the pot to finish. No one said to much at first we all just got our coffee and settled into a morning chat. I finally asked who of them broke down and finally picked up the filters. Mike a rather big scary looking “lifer” smiled and pulled up his dirty sweatshirt to reveal, his old undershirt with a perfect square cut out of the centre of it, his belly hanging out of the hole. “This filter” he bragged “can be reused”.

    Problem solved

In short, it seems that feeding the minds and bodies of our clients is inextricably linked. You’re your session short and focused if you’re trying to train. Celebrations are great ways to share success with clients and subtly market your services. Creative types will go beyond the trip to Timmies, but woe betide the poor librarian who ventures forth without some sort of sustenance for his audience.


  1. Dr.Hamid Ibrahim

    Dear Wendy

    thank you for this articles. I wish to bring to
    your notice that your web lettering is so small that
    I cannot read – is there are any possibility of increaing
    the point to 11. I am old at 75 years.

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  2. Dr. Ibrahim,
    Only the most recent post on Slaw has a slightly larger font, but even this could pose challenges for some to read.

    My suggestion would be to increase your font size in your browser. On Firefox you can Zoom, and on Internet Explorer you can adjust text size directly.

  3. Thanks for the ideas. We’d been thinking we need to have some sort of reception at our library, but perhaps smaller events with pre-advertised snacks would be even more effective, while educating people (those who can hear while they chew, at least).

    I loved the dirty undershirt filter story. Myself, I use paper towels in an emergency, but maybe prison quality paper towels dissolve?