Barbecue? Flamenco Dancing? Learning Gets Interactive

Article excerpt

On a sunny spring Saturday at the Louisville (Ky.) Free Public Library (LFPL), hundreds of people with schedules in their hands rushed down hallways and up stairs, wondering, "What should I learn next?" Flamenco dancing or magic tricks? How to cook perfect omelets or how to start kayaking? How to win at Scrabble or how to raise chickens?

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The day was part of the library's first How-To Festival, an experiment in high-intensity community-based interactive learning, and it attracted 1,000 people.

The original plan was to teach people 50 things in five hours for free. But as new ideas rolled in, the schedule expanded to 80 continuous free classes, exercises, and demonstrations, which were held in 20 rooms and other spots throughout the Main Library, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

More than 100 individuals and community groups contributed their expertise and enthusiasm--from tai chi practitioners to local chefs to dance instructors and business leaders.

For LFPL, the festival also celebrated something larger: its evolving role as a community crossroads, where people come together to learn new things in a fast-paced world--and have a great time in the process.

It was a start-from-scratch undertaking that grew out of a "what if" conversation a year earlier: If people love to learn new things but never have enough time, what if the library made it easy, fun, free, and convenient to do so?

A small team of three staff members carried off this feat with a budget of less than $1,200. When festival day rolled around, the circle of helpers had widened to about 35 and included supervisors, runners, IT experts, and facilities staff.

The biggest challenge was imagining something on such a large scale, in so many locations (within one building and its grounds), and with so many presenters.

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Getting started

Here are some tips on how to put on your own How-To Festival, based on our experience:

* Start planning six months out. First think about community interests, lively presenters, and themes you might want to develop (for example, cooking, bicycling, tech know-how, and gardening).

* Quickly contact the folks you most want to recruit as presenters. Get on their schedules early.

* Imagine the library that day--its main entrances and key spaces. Think about how you can make these areas festive and appealing while using them as productively as possible.

* Get creative with space: LFPL created a "center stage" in the largest lobby. …