The Outside Chance: Innovative Outdoor Programming

Whether gardening, sending up a rocket, or savoring an art exhibit, taking programs outdoors lets libraries offer in-person connection in line with COVID safety protocols.

Whether gardening, sending up a rocket, or savoring an art exhibit, taking programs outdoors lets libraries offer in-person connection in line with COVID safety protocols

Virtual book clubs are here to stay, but patrons want safe in-person programming as well and libraries are responding. Even before the pandemic, public libraries increasingly offered outdoor programming, but during the early days of COVID-19 many stopped in an abundance of caution. Now, however, as health authorities realize the low risks of outdoor, distanced, masked activities, and warmer weather makes them feasible across more of the United States, libraries are expanding and getting creative with outdoor programs once more. From a drive-in sound and light show to al fresco sewing classes, fresh-air initiatives spotlight the ability of librarians and library workers to support their communities with ingenuity, even in difficult times.

“Libraries are taking the opportunity to use any outdoor spaces they have, not only because, in general, outdoor spaces make it easier to social distance, but also because it’s a way to enjoy nature, sunshine, and fresh air,” says Elia Juarez, teen services librarian at the Yuma County Library District, AZ. The setting also allows for a wider variety of activities. Juarez, in the early stages of planning an outdoor pet first aid class in partnership with the local Humane Society, adds, “It’s easier to clean up outdoors a carpeted room.”

WAY TO GROW Patrons learn about gardening, canning, and healthy cooking at the Community Garden, St. Paul’s Library, Hollywood, SC. Photo courtesy of the St. Paul’s Library

Finally, it’s a great way for librarians to team up with organizations from the parks and recreation department to nearby farms and local conservation groups. Lenstra advises librarians to rely on such collaborations rather than setting up separate and perhaps competing offerings. “If you frame it as a community partnership, you’re good to go.”Noah Lenstra, assistant professor of Library and Information Science at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and Director of Let’s Move in Libraries, sees outdoor programming as part of librarians’ long-term commitment to outreach and visibility. “There’s no better way to stay visible than by being outside in parks, in library green spaces, at farmers markets.” In addition, Lenstra notes, “there are numerous studies showing the health and wellness benefits of being outside.”

Below, we’ve profiled some popular, creative outdoor programs to replicate and adapt.


What: Community Garden

Where St. Paul’s Library, Hollywood, SC

Why and How A pre-COVID-19 community survey revealed that patrons wanted to learn about gardening, canning, and healthy cooking. “A community garden fit perfectly with our strategic vision of providing equity, community engagement, and food literacy,” says branch manager Rebecca Wright. The new garden consists of a tool shed, compost, and six raised beds for growing squash, okra, melons, kale, cabbage, beets, habanero peppers, and pollinator-friendly flowers. A white gravel walkway cuts between the beds to provide easy access.

Challenge Conquered Local students were about to start construction of the garden when all the school’s farming equipment was stolen. “Thankfully, with the help of our executive team, we were able to partner with Leadership Charleston to solicit generous donations from local businesses and continue work on the garden,” shares Wright.

Shining Moment A refrigerator, purchased with grant money from a local health-care organization and funds from Charleston Friends of the Library, was installed at St. Paul’s. The “Free and Fresh Refrigerator” will be filled with the garden’s bounty to help mitigate food insecurity.


What: Whispering Libraries

Where The Bay Ridge, Brownsville, Bushwick, Clarendon, Flatbush, Kensington, Kings Highway, New Utrecht, Park Slope, and Sheepshead Bay branches of the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), New York City

Why and How Whispering Libraries has residents listening to playlists of music, poetry, oral histories, podcasts, and spoken literature streamed through hidden speakers starting at 7:30 a.m. and playing up to five times a day. Each branch has a custom playlist reflecting the neighborhood they serve. Selections include the opening lines of “Journal of a Plague Year”, excerpts of speeches by the late congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, and passages from the writings of award-winning author Edwidge Danticat.

Challenge Conquered If the audio content is whispered and hidden, how do you get the word out to the masses? Volunteer cyclists! They’ll bike throughout the borough broadcasting the playlists and periodically stopping at high foot-traffic locations, offering passersby instructions on how and where to access the full recordings.

Shining Moment “Imagine walking by one of our branches before the building opens for service, and you hear a poem or a segment of a historical speech. We hope that a whispering library will make you smile and inspire you,” says László Jakab Orsós, vice president of arts and culture for BPL.


A MOVING TARGET Where cars once sat, patrons stay active at a Zumba class in the parking lot of NC’s Catawba County Library. Spot demarcations serve as social distancing reminders. Photo courtesy of Catawba County Library

What: Zumba Classes

Where Catawba County Library, Newton, NC

Why and How “The inspiration for the Zumba program was really to provide opportunities for people to try out different fitness activities at the library,” says Siobhan Loendorf, library director.

The fitness programs, which also included yoga and tai chi, were implemented with the support of the county public health department.

Challenge Conquered “The library is a polling location, so throughout early voting last fall we had to hold classes somewhere else,” says Loendorf. The library wound up hosting classes on the town square at the Newton courthouse. “We used one of the local businesses as a base of operations so that participants would have a place to use the restroom or get something to drink,” reports Loendorf. “We’ve resumed outdoor Zumba classes in the parking lot, with 25 or more [patrons] out there every Monday evening.”

Shining Moment Participants are enjoying fellowship and friendship in a safe and healthy way. “It’s provided them an opportunity to focus on their wellness and have fun,” observes Loendorf.


What: BIPOC Artists Exhibition Series

Where Richland Library, Columbia, SC

Why and How Local visual artist Jeff Rivers approached Arts Coordinator Ashley Warthen with an idea for a partnership that would highlight the work of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) artists and their ties to the area. The result of Rivers’s initiative is an outdoor exhibition series in May and June of this year, and hopefully beyond.

Challenge Conquered The application criteria asked that submitted artwork speak to one of the neighborhoods that any of the seven Richland Library branches serve. “We’re seeing more applications, though, in some of the larger communities and not as many in smaller communities,” Warthen notes. “Therefore, we’re expanding our definition of neighborhood so interested artists can participate and connect with community members on a broader scale.”

Shining Moment “After a challenging year of...seeing art solely through a screen, it will be incredible to experience it in person, to see brushstrokes,” says Warthen. “It’s important for the community to feel engaged with the library in a way that only a visual medium can provide. I look forward to seeing a glimmer of hope in the eyes of those who stop by.”


What: Anythink Drive-In

Where Brighton, CO

Why and How With a traditional night at the movies a misty memory, community members were eager for entertainment. Enter Anythink, which serves the residents of Adams County, CO. Created in partnership with experiential design studio Alt Ethos, the Drive-In is an immersive experience interpreting a variety of folktales told using light and sound. Viewers tune in to the audio via their cars’ FM radio.

Challenge Conquered The show is free, but registration is required. Slots filled quickly. With more than 120 people showing up to the library parking lot at the same time, it could have been chaotic. But staff helped navigate cars to specific spots in the parking lot using multicolored lights—and the occasional dance move—and made sure attendees were welcomed with information about the evening and a goodie bag stuffed with noisemakers and props.

Shining Moment “At Anythink, creativity knows no bounds, and this is especially true when our staff and partners combine forces,” says Anythink Director of Strategic Partnerships Stacie Ledden. By all accounts, participants concurred. “It was amazing. I can’t wait for the next one,” enthuses patron Daniela Fellman. “It was a really fun night out,” adds fellow attendee Elena Gonzalez-Woods.


MOVIE NIGHT Anythink’s Drive-In event in the library’s parking lot created an immersive fantasy. Photo By Arnado Photography

What: Poetry StoryWalks for Grown-Ups

Where Montpelier, VT

Why and How “Because of the benefits of time spent outdoors mixed with the need to physically distance, StoryWalk [which places pages of a story on signs along a walking route] proved an ideal activity [during the pandemic] not just for families with young children but for people of all ages,” StoryWalk creator Anne Ferguson tells LJ. Ferguson recently created a citywide Haiku Storywalk aimed at adults and older teens. Next up? “I’m planning to match a poem I wrote about gnomes with gnome figurines I’ve collected. I’ll hide them in the woods along the path where I’ll post the poem.”

Challenge Conquered “I have always encouraged the importance of working in partnership with other community resources,” Ferguson says. She and her library partner wrote to poets Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry for permission to use their work. “We then requested local artists to submit artwork to accompany each phrase of the poems. A town photographer volunteered to take pictures of the art; a calligrapher offered to write out the phrases,” says Ferguson.

Shining Moment Interest in reconceiving StoryWalks for an older audience has taken off. Ferguson is thrilled by the interest, noting, “In the last few months, I’ve heard from people in India, Ireland, Spain, and Estonia.”


What: Rocketry Program

Where Tom Green County Library, San Angelo, TX

Why and How “I’ve always had an interest in space science,” explains Wanda Green, assistant director. Tom Green had two grants to support such a program, one from NASA and the other for starting a makerspace with a focus on hands-on STEM outreach. Plus, both the director of the region’s workforce development board and the chair of the engineering department at a local university had an interest in model rockets. “Rocketry sounded like a fantastic program, and we had the funds and partners to pull it off, so we did!” says Green.

Challenge Conquered The popular program was at first hobbled when the pandemic hit. But the enthusiastic rocketeers, high school students and their parents, were not daunted. “Launch days were socially distant; one family unit at a time, stations set up so that staff were socially distant from each other, and space between families and staff,” explains Green. “Even though we were outside, everyone was masked, and there was no in-person contact between families.”

Shining Moment “Our goal is to get more underrepresented students interested in a STEM career,” says Green. In the program’s third year, more than half of the participants are members of one or more groups that are underrepresented in STEM fields, including women, those living in low-income households, people of color, and rural residents.


LOOKING UP Taking part in Tom Green County Library’s Rocketry program, Angelo State University RAMgineer Kody Womack assists a high school student with the final rocket check. Photo Courtesy Of Tom Green County Library

What: Sewing Lessons

Where Florham Park Public Library, NJ

Why and How Ellen Lumpkin Brown, owner of Sew It! Workshop, a pop-up sewing studio, sets up sewing machines under a gazebo on library grounds. A Florham librarian came up with the idea as a way of letting patrons learn a skill and feel a sense of normalcy. Lumpkin Brown brings everything required to complete a project of the librarian’s choice. All she needs are tables, chairs, and long extension cords. “Sewing yields results so quickly. If you want to feel accomplished, sew!” says Lumpkin Brown.

Challenge Conquered Providing bottled water to participants on warm days and slotting rain dates into her schedule can impact profitability, Lumpkin Brown shares. Also, she’s had to streamline her making process to compensate for the distractions inherent in any public space. “But the extra creativity and excitement that comes along with sunshine and breezes offsets these challenges,” she says.

Shining Moment The gazebo is visible from a main road, so those driving by can see that cool things are happening at the library. Lumpkin Brown’s workshops are scheduled through July and beyond.


HOP, SKIP, AND A JUMP Patrons follow Kendall Young Library’s Obstacle Course. Photo courtesy of Kendall Young Library

What: Obstacle Course

Where Kendall Young Library, Webster City, IA

Why and How Library director Ketta Lubberstedt-Arjes was trying to think up a passive outdoor program to extend Kendall Young’s community reach. One of her assistant librarians, an artist, hit on a sidewalk obstacle course. The vividly painted course, which, for starters, demands running, skipping, hopping, and spinning, is positioned alongside the building. It was created using latex exterior house paint to bolster durability. “Most of the paint was donated, as we periodically invite the community to donate their leftover paint,” reports Lubberstedt-Arjes. A patron demonstrated how to use the course in a video that was heavily promoted on Facebook and Instagram. The opening of the course was also announced in the local newspaper.

Challenge Conquered An incident of vandalism took four days to fix, but in the end, the course morphed into an expanded version that was even better than the original. (The library couldn’t file vandalism charges against the perpetrators as the staff hadn’t gone through proper city channels before utilizing the area. Lesson learned.)

Shining Moment The course, originally intended for young families, turns out to have broader appeal. Lubberstedt-Arjes has seen older adults using it, and a nearby church incorporates the course into its teen programming.

Christina Vercelletto, Former News Editor at School Library Journal, writes for Education Dive, Family Circle, Trip Advisor, and NY Metro Parents.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing