Last night, I attended the annual Zena Sutherland Lecture at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago. It was, as always, a delightful occasion. This year, the author speaking was the brilliant and very funny Mo Willems. And that was kind of the problem…I’ve been going to the Sutherland Lecture for years, and some years there’s a pretty nice-sized audience and some years it’s a little sparse, particularly for the more “literary” writers. This year, because Mo Willems is so highly regarded and so entertaining, the event sold out, in a giving-free-tickets-away sort of sell-out.
And just like with our library programs, a whole bunch of people signed up and didn’t show up. It was a good audience, but there were lots of empty seats, and I know of several people who wanted to attend but couldn’t sign up. They could easily have had a full house.
It happens to us at the library all the time! We will book a performer or prepare a lovely program only to have half of the expected attendees not show up. I am convinced the problem gets worse and worse, and I thought it might be fun to speculate why. Is it because:
*People are just ruder than they used to be? Yes, I think so. Manners aren’t considered very important any more, except of course when someone else is being rude.
*People are busier than they used to be? Yes, definitely. They run from activity to activity and it is hard just making all of the pieces fit.
*People don’t value what they don’t pay for? I wonder if this might not be true. I am philosphically opposed to charging for library programs, and I am very grateful to have the Sutherland Lecture as a free thing to attend every year, but I wonder if people don’t have more respect for the things for which they had to whip out their credit card.
There are probably other reasons too. The other big question, then, is what to do about it. Many libraries turn to a policy of not registering any of their programs. If you show up, you get in. But I think, again, that people don’t value things for which they don’t have to exert any effort. I think it might be wiser in the long run to make people jump through a hoop or two to have the privilege of attending a great program. And I increasingly feel inclined to experiment with having a blacklist, where if you sign up your four children to a program that seats 20 and you decide instead to go to the beach that day, you don’t GET to sign up your children again.
Librarians, parents, others, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this pesky issue.