Get Creative and Go Big: Successful Large-Scale Events are Possible at the Library

A public library in New York offers free family entertainment on a large scale after finding a way to optimize underused outdoor space and tap the talents of staff and patrons.

The Garden of Lights saw more than 9,000 visitors last year.
Photos courtesy of the Sachem Public Library

How do you accumulate more than 16,000 visits to your public library over five nights? With planning, creativity, and unbridled enthusiasm.

Sachem Public Library’s history of success with large-scale outdoor events began in 2006 with a one-day Fall Festival. The event at the library in Holbrook, NY, features home crafters, performers, artists, small businesses, and food trucks. Drawing 750 visitors that first year, it was immediately evident our community loves a free, outdoor, family-friendly event.

With that in mind, when we challenged ourselves to boost enrollment in the Summer Reading Club (SRC) in 2017, the answer was obvious—throw a big party with a mission to attract more readers of all ages. The one-day outdoor event featured live music, activities, and crafts tied to the club theme. SRC enrollment increased from the previous year, making the kickoff event a permanent fixture on our June calendar.

In 2019, when the annual theme “A Universe of Stories” added STEAM to the fun, about 3,000 visitors enjoyed a star lab hired from a local planetarium and virtual reality demos from the library’s technology staff. Children drove Mbots in the library parking lot and launched film canister rockets fueled by sodium bicarbonate.

From left: Indoor concert during Garden of Lights; visitors walk through the Haunted Garden.

In 2022 for summer reading, about 2,500 visitors explored “Oceans of Possibilities” as they rode a mechanical shark and created ocean-themed crafts from recycled materials. On event day, they lined up to join the SRC and 850 adults, teens, and children enrolled. We also issued 330 new library cards.

But some ideas are too big for just one day. In 2016, the library took event planning to a higher level with the Haunted Garden, a family-friendly Halloween walk held in our quarter-acre garden extension, adjacent to the library. Dana Mottola, social media and adult reference librarian, knew that Sachem’s garden was a valuable but underutilized space and saw the potential.

“I love Halloween and recognize how expensive it can be for families to attend local spooky walks,” Mottola says. “Our staff is so talented, I was sure we could create our own Halloween experience.”

Powered by four 20-amp GFIs and a ton of extension cords, Haunted Garden came to life. A $1,000 budget bought a few inflatables, animatronics, and a fog machine, as well as raw materials for staff to imagine and build the rest, from plywood headstones to chicken wire ghosts. Staff dressed in costume and strolled about silently, a creepy but noninteractive presence.

Patrons made Haunted Garden an instant hit, as we tracked 1,768 visits over four nights. It was only natural, then, that the idea for Sachem’s next large-scale event came from a patron.

Jonathan Greene, mechanical ­engineer and library user, just finished teaching a library class on basic programming—turning a light on and off using an Arduino microcontroller—when inspiration struck: If programming can turn on one light, we can turn on thousands and create a spectacular display.

Greene brought his idea to Chris DeCristofaro, head of Sachem’s digital services/studio, and Anthony Bliss, studio and reference librarian. The trio created a team of library staff and community volunteers who designed, programmed, and built Garden of Lights, a winter-themed musical light show.

The walk-through display used the same outdoor space as Haunted Garden, but took place in December over 10 nights. Working with the four existing 20-amp GFIs and a $5,000 budget, Garden of Light’s 2018 debut drew 4,000 visits over six nights.

In response to overwhelming patron interest, the library increased our commitment to—and budget for—large-scale events. The budget for Haunted Garden increased to $4,000, and Garden of Lights to $10,000. The garden’s power requirement grew to twelve 20-amp GFIs and an electrical subpanel.

The Haunted Garden takes a different literary-related theme each year, including “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Grimm’s Fairy Tales, “Goosebumps,” and Scooby-Doo. This year’s five-night event drew 16,768 visits.

Last year, Garden of Lights embedded QR codes in displays to promote library services. The 2021 Garden of Lights had 9,122 visits over 12 nights.

Food trucks are on-site throughout both events. The Saturday night of each event offers activities inside the library building, including children’s crafts, games, performances by student musicians, and a local crafters’ fair.

Large-scale events offer an authentic team building experience and provide an opportunity for staff to shine beyond the parameters of their traditional ­duties, revealing previously untapped individual strengths. Your community’s gratitude and loyalty create an indelible bond, making the library’s investment worthwhile, and greeting the happy, appreciative visitors at these events is what fuels staff enthusiasm year after year (That’s not to say we aren’t a tiny bit relieved when an event is over.)

Marybeth Kozikowski works as a librarian II, children’s services, at Sachem Public Library in Holbrook, NY.

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