Passive Programming Playbook

Steve Thomas: Paula, welcome to Circulating Ideas.

Paula Willey: Hi, it’s great to be with you.

Steve Thomas: Before we get deep into passive programming, which is the subject of the book that you co-wrote, what led you to the library profession in the first place?

Paula Willey: Actually I had, unlike a lot of people who work in libraries, I had worked in a lot of different industries. I had worked in software, I had worked in museums, I had worked in publishing, and I was in a graduate program for museum studies and needed to augment that with a master’s degree. So, since I was interning at a museum library at the American Museum of Natural History, the librarians there saw the way that I was working with data and cataloging and told me to go to library school because they were like, “If you like cataloging, there aren’t that many people like that out there. So get a library degree and join our profession!” I was strong armed into it.

Steve Thomas: So can you tell me a little bit about your current position?

Paula Willey: Currently I’m acting branch manager at the Orleans Street branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. I’m very fortunate. It’s a new ish building, and we’re sort of right in the center of Baltimore. We get a lot of teenagers, we get a lot of kids, we get a lot of families. We get a lot of adults using the library for business aspects and for accessing social services.

Steve Thomas: And how long have you worked in Baltimore?

Paula Willey: I’ve worked at Pratt for almost four years. And before that I worked in the county library system, the Baltimore County Library System for something like 13 years.

Steve Thomas: So how did you and Andria meet and how did you decide to write this book together?

Paula Willey: Oh, thank you for asking. Andria and I just had our friend-versary and the reason we know is that Facebook told us. This is the one friendship I think I’ve had that literally started on Facebook. I mean, it’s kind of a morass of not great things and steals your information and all that kind of stuff, but it got Andria and I really good friends. So I guess we have Mark Zuckerberg to thank for that. We ran in the same commentary circles and then eventually met in person at an ALA conference, I think in Boston, and when I started talking to ABC-CLIO about maybe writing a professional development book and talking about doing passive programming, because it’s something that I had been educating myself on and doing more, the first person I turned to was Andria, because I knew that she does lots of passive programming and I said, “What do you do in a month ordinarily?” And she sent me back this email with a laundry list of passive programs as long as your arm. And I was like, “Oh, I clearly can’t write this book without the expertise of Andria.” So I wrote her back and I’m like, “You want to co-write a book?” And luckily she was into it. So we did it together.

Steve Thomas: And that book ended up being the Passive Programming Playbook: 101 Ways to Get Library Customers Off the Sidelines. Can you define passive programming for the listeners and why should libraries be engaging in it?

Paula Willey: We talk about what passive programming is all the time, and I’m just going to use one of our little blurbies: passive programming is a budget friendly way to make every library user feels seen welcomed and important without putting pressure on their stretched schedules or overloaded attention spans. Passive programming can be anything from a poll on a piece of paper or something elaborate like a photo booth or some other way that library customers can interact with your library surroundings without it being a scheduled or necessarily staff led program.

Not only is it clearly good for the budget, but it is an extremely welcoming and engaging way of making your customers feel like this is their place, that the library belongs to them, they can make their mark, they can express themselves. Even a scavenger hunt or a bingo card pulls your customers into every nook and cranny of the library, and that makes them feel like they belong in that space and that they’re welcome in that space.

Steve Thomas: Can you talk about what makes something a passive program, as opposed to just like laying out a pile of bookmarks or putting up a book display?

Paula Willey: Yeah. Make sure that there’s an interactive element. Yeah, you can put out a pile of bookmarks, but you’re not going to count that as an interaction. A writing prompt or a drawing prompt, an invitation to answer a poll, all of those things are give and take. We are showing our customers something and asking them to respond to it. During the pandemic, we saw a lot of these hopscotches outside on the sidewalk and getting someone to engage in that way. When you jump on these spaces, going down the library sidewalk, they pause, they think about the library, and it’s clear to them that the library is thinking about them.

It certainly now, since we wrote the book, we’ve all had to sort of close and then reopen, and we had sidewalk service and all this kind of stuff. And so I’m a little less judgy about what is not passive programming. At this point, we’re all building our engagement communities back up. And so at this point, putting out a pile of bookmarks, if that’s all that your customers are comfortable with taking, that’s fantastic. I’m not ever going to say that something is not worth doing.

Steve Thomas: Right. Well, you mentioned budgeting and that’s obviously an issue that every library has to deal with, or if there is a library that I guess doesn’t have budgetary restrictions, give me a call. So, how can passive programming help with budgeting and what are some of the lower budget ways that library spaces that are already in your building can be repurposed for passive programming?

Paula Willey: Most passive programming takes advantage of existing supplies and that’s one of the neat things about it is that you can look at your existing supplies and go, ” I have this whiteboard that’s been tucked in a closet that we bring out only for certain things.” What about bringing that out all the time? What about buying yourself a fancy set of whiteboard markers might set you back a whole 20 bucks and put up a writing prompt, put up a drawing prompt. That’s almost cost free. Plus, when you start doing your stats, then you get to figure out cost per engagement.

So you put up a poll. My favorite example is the candy corn poll. Candy corn is disgusting and horrible, or candy corn is delicious and you look forward to it every October. Everyone has an opinion on candy corn. You put that up as a poll on a whiteboard or on a piece of roll paper or on an easel anywhere, you have two jars and a bunch of pompoms and people can vote by putting a pompom in one jar or the other. You can utilize any little bit of space to put up a poll like that. And then it’s easy to count at the end. How many hash marks do you have on the yuck side and the yum side? It doesn’t matter what they vote for, the fact that they voted, that’s your engagement, that’s your transaction.

And then you say, “Well, this cost me 20 minutes of staff time, and we had to replace the orange whiteboard marker so that’s possibly $15 and then we got 280 responses to it? Well, there’s a lot of argument there that that is some budget friendly community building.

Steve Thomas: Yeah, and I have to ask, what is your response to that poll?

Paula Willey: Oh my gosh, Andria and I agree on everything, but she hates candy corn and I think it’s great. So that’s our one knocking heads opinion.

Steve Thomas: No friendship is perfect.

Paula Willey: Well, yeah, without disagreement, then you’re just an echo chamber.

Steve Thomas: So you talked a little bit about the pandemic. Could you mention some other examples of how passive programming was used during the pandemic?

Paula Willey: Yeah. Our book came out in May of 2021? The years blur now. So as soon as we started talking about the book and doing presentation sessions, we immediately realized we were going to have to look for things that people are doing. And we saw a lot of windows. We saw a lot of coming up with an I Spy that you place put in your window or a counting challenge for little kids, how many stars do you see? Can you find the matching squirrels that you put up as paper cutouts in the windows? And that was, it wasn’t ideal. Of course, none of it’s ideal when the library doors were closed.

You couldn’t track stats very well, and so we did see people doing a lot of neat online stuff. You had librarians very quickly adapting and learning new ways to do things like making escape rooms in Google Docs and they were using Canva to put up book lists and multimedia things. We had Instagram and Facebook challenges of take a picture of yourself with the book that you recommend most highly right now.

 And I was just so impressed and inspired by the ways that people got creative and tried to keep it going because that’s the one thing that’s been so heartbreaking is coming back to the library now that we are open and we’re doing in-person programming again and the communities that we’d built up say for a story time or something, those kids have aged out of storytime and the next group of kids hasn’t come along, doesn’t have the experience of coming to story time and watching their older peers and how they react. So we’re building everything back up from scratch, and that’s why it was so important to do all this virtual stuff.

Steve Thomas: One of the things that I liked are the take and make kits. Can you talk about those and the specific benefits of those kind of kits?

Paula Willey: Take and makes are a lot of fun. They take the place of the regular craft programs that we would have had after school. My ideal situation for a take and make is that you, and this isn’t necessarily passive programming, but that you pair it with an online or virtual video that’s either scheduled or recorded that gives you a little bit of a sense of engagement and seeing a face and listening to a library staff member explaining how to do the craft and just having a little bit of fun with it, but also to create a recursive, interactive element. Like once you’ve made your toilet paper roll butterfly, take a picture of it and share it to our Facebook page. That’s what I ideally like about a take and make is that, you have this little opportunity for expressing yourself as a member of the library community when you’re done.

Steve Thomas: Other than ideas that you implemented for yourselves, how did you and Andria go about gathering examples?

Paula Willey: Well, we’re big thieves ourselves. We try to credit anything that we have found if we can find credit. Nowadays I haunt the programming librarians interest group on Facebook. I follow the hashtag passive programming on Instagram and on Pinterest, although there’s not much going on on Pinterest lately. And I just sort of keep an ear out and certainly this is the what’s most embarrassing for my family. If we go anywhere, I stop into anybody else’s library and take a look.

One of my favorite libraries in Virginia had a “match the animal track to the animal” bulletin board, just a bulletin board, or maybe it was in a display case, but in any case, I was like, well, that’s brilliant. I never would’ve thought about that. I live in a city. And so immediately start taking notes and took a picture. They were the ones who did Wacky Wednesday, which we mention in the book. And that’s a library that’s very tight on space. And so what they did is they took something unexpected and hid it in library every Wednesday. And so maybe you’d find a Kitchen Aid mixer tucked among the picture books, and so when their customers noticed a KitchenAid mixer mixer, or a rubber glove, or a pair of sunglasses on a stuffed animal, then they’d come up, and mention it to the library staff, and get a sticker or a piece of candy or whatever they use for little prizes at that library.

But yeah, that’s what I do is I keep my eyes open when I go to a school. When I go to a museum, when I go to Trader Joe’s, there’s ideas everywhere. Once you get yourself into that mindset, you just notice it and then you notice opportunities that aren’t being taken.

Steve Thomas: Trader Joe’s is a good example because retail is trying to be interactive with their customers as well. So you can get ideas from them.

Paula Willey: Really anywhere. I love when I go to the grocery store and they’ve got something up in the window, like they’ve got a heart for everybody who donated a can or whatever. That’s your way of creating community. Your heart is up on the window at your grocery store with your name on it. Your name is on the building now. You own that place. And obviously retail establishments are doing it to create brand loyalty and get repeat customers, but kind of we’re doing the same thing. We’re just not taking any money for it.

Steve Thomas: You also mentioned Canva earlier. I love Canva so much.

Paula Willey: Yeah, this is not something that we ever got taught in library school, and it’s not something that is part of our job description is that you will be early adopters of new technologies and new means of engagement with your customers. This is something that we have to just appreciate in each other and praise in each other. And it is librarians going above and beyond the call of duty to come up with something engaging in some way of doing the things that they wish that they could do, in person, although now looks like in person is happening again. At least it is in my neck of the woods.

Steve Thomas: Yeah, no, I think most places it is now, and the nice thing about Canva is because of those skills that you don’t learn in library school, graphic design is one of them. Maybe you have an eye for it, maybe you don’t, but just having good visuals to work from that you don’t have to steal from Google without permissions. I love it, especially because you can make it perfect for social media, different formats.

Paula Willey: Yeah, that graphic design thing is kind of a best practice that we emphasize, certainly when we do in person presentations. There’s a fine line between funky and personal and kind of crappy looking and haphazard. So we talk about, no hand printed signs. So if you’ve got a sign or a set of instructions that you’re going to put in a sign holder, print it up, put it in Word, give it a color, make it larger, and use the same set of fonts and colors for a single program. It’s just good design basics. You’re right, not something that we ever got taught. There’s a good book by Molly Bang that’s about design.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. So much Comic Sans use in library signage.

Paula Willey: When I started, I went to work at a new branch and I said, well, do we have any display signs? And they handed me a binder of literally dot matrix printed signs. I almost dropped it. It was almost like it was on fire. It was so terrible.

Steve Thomas: Well, maybe among some things that you’ve done personally, can you tell me some of the other favorite passive programming that you’ve done that you haven’t mentioned yet?

Paula Willey: Ooh. I’ve done a lot of whiteboards. I worked in a branch that had no space. I had a whiteboard on the back of a closet door, literally. And that was where I would put up my writing prompts and my drawing prompts. And one of my favorite ones ever was, it was allergy season, and I was like, Hey, what are you allergic to? And the responses at that point, people had gotten used to looking for that whiteboard and looking for something new and fun on it. And that’s a really important point. Keep your passive program, find a good spot for it and keep it updated and keep it fresh, and people will make a habit of looking for it. So the answer to, what are you allergic to, I got a lot of people drawing what they thought pollen looked like and cats and peanuts, and then people were like meetings and other people and I’m allergic to death. And it was just so entertaining to see all of these responses.

That is the charm of passive programming. When people feel a little bit free, they can be funny and they can be honest and they can put up these amazing charming responses. Some of my favorites always are the writing prompts that are like, what makes you happy, what makes you angry? What makes you angry is a cute one. Last time we did it, we got like rude people make me angry, I’m angry when my sister comes in my room, and wet feet, wet socks, wet socks makes me angry. And I just fall in love with the people who come to my library over and over again anytime I put out a writing prompt.

Steve Thomas: Candy corn makes people angry.

Paula Willey: Candy corn makes Andria see red.

Steve Thomas: Are there any ideas that you remember that Andria brought that you thought were especially inventive?

Paula Willey: Oh, my gosh. Andria’s ideas are totally inspiring. For a long time, Andria did a news quiz, and because she works with teens, she did a lot of stuff that you print out on paper and they could pick up at the desk and run away and hide in the corner and do it. So she was very big on quizzes and puzzles, she did a lot of word searches, but the news quiz was such a brilliant idea because it combines passive programming and getting kids engaged and getting them to exercise research skills. There’s no cheating when it comes to being well-informed. And so you can ask Siri, you can look it up. As long as you come up with the answer, then everybody wins.

Nowadays, if you check our Instagram, which is @passprogplay, Andria built a tree in her teen space because she had no space. So she used a corner and made this tree out of chicken wire and roll paper, and then hung paper chains off of the branches all through the space and uses this area above the head, so it takes up no library real estate whatsoever, but she has different writing prompts about leave a kind word, or what’s the best book you’ve read over the summer, and she cuts out Cricut shapes and kids get to write their answers and then they get hung on the green paper chains above your head. It’s, again, a teen lounge, but it’s this sort of magical environment.

That’s one of the things that I sometimes forget to say about how much I love passive programming: when you use a mobile or a garland, as your responses to your writing prompt or whatever, come in, it just sort of builds visually. And again, keep your color palette kind of limited, but it becomes more and more beautiful and people come back and they look at these responses that other people have left. It’s a way to decorate your library, but in an interactive way and just has so much charm.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. And I think the interactivity part of it is interesting. And I’m trying to think of how to put this together in my head. It’s almost like, passive programming is passive, but it’s interactive and it’s almost like it’s extended release programming that you do it and it just keeps going. It’s active, but it’s active over a period of time. It’s not just, here’s this hour, we’re doing this, it’s this. And it’s in public so that encourages that community of people to look at what other people have done and interact with it and respond to it.

Paula Willey: Timed release, that’s a fantastic way to put it. I know a lot of people who dislike the term passive programming because passive is really not the right word here, as you just said. It is active. It’s something that people interact with. So people have said unscheduled, and nothing really ever worked for us besides passive programming, because everybody knew what it was, besides we love alliteration cause we’re big nerds, but this timed release, accretive facet of it is lovely. There’s a project that they did during the pandemic, or maybe it was just during the Trump presidency. It was called the Subway Therapy Project in New York and a guy named Michael Chavez, maybe I’m wrong about that name, but he sat down in the subway with a table and a couple hundred pads of post-its and he encouraged people to write what they’re worried about. And put it on the wall. And because they’re just post-its, what is more budget friendly than a Sharpie and a pad of post-its, but because the post-its were all the same size, it made this grid and it grew and it expanded and then it went around corners and then it went up the platform. And I imagine every time somebody got off the car on their commute, looking at that wall and seeing how it had expanded and listening to the thoughts of their fellow New Yorkers in a time of crisis, why would you not do that?

Steve Thomas: I guess you could also do passive programming in tandem with in-person programming. Have you done that before?

Paula Willey: Oh yeah, I really like that. It’s a great way to do concurrent programming. If you’re really snazzy, everybody always wants to do programs for kids at the same time as programs for adults. So adults have a home buying workshop or composting or whatever, and you want to do a thing for the kids too, so that you get more adults. Well, the fact is nobody has the staff to do that, and so the way to do it is to do a passive program for the kids, give them a Lego challenge in the back of the room that doesn’t necessarily have to be super monitored while the grownups are doing their thing in the front of the room, or conversely, you’ve got kids who are coming for a magician program or something like that, and you have something for older kids to do in the back of the room. People do this already, and don’t realize that that’s double stats. So if you put out coloring sheets, I mean, and that’s sort of the lowest bar right there. If you put out coloring sheets for some kids that are too old or too young for the program that you’ve got going, then that is concurrent programming. That’s two programs at once.

But there’s also, especially for reading recommendations, if you’ve got a jar out or a whiteboard or something like that, and say, what’s the last book you read that really made you laugh, and collect all of those recommendations, then you get to put that not only into a display, like what cracks your neighbors up, but that informs who you’re going to have come as a speaker. And if you’re voting for what should the new color scheme be for the new book lounge, then that turns into the day that you unveil the new book lounge, then that’s an active program and you are inviting people back. You guys weigh in and here’s the results and we listened to you, but there’s a lot of ways to leverage that one way or another.

Steve Thomas: We talked about social media when you’ve done a take and make. You can post it, you can hashtag it. Would you say social media itself can be passive programming?

Paula Willey: Sure. Send us a picture of someone in your community that you admire or what’s something that you see on your daily commute that sticks out at you. You can’t post a picture on a whiteboard or on a piece of roll paper at the library, but you can do it online. And eventually doing a photo challenge like that, you have a gallery and you are looking at what inspires other people and the people that inspire other people, and I absolutely think that that’s passive programming.

We did a chalk challenge early in the pandemic, when people were literally not leaving their houses and they put it on Instagram and they said, hashtag us, but go out on your sidewalk and draw a hopeful, happy message, and so people all over town went out and drew on their sidewalk and wrote stop and smell the roses, or you are smart and beautiful and wonderful, and took those pictures and posted them to social media. And that was absolutely a passive program.

Steve Thomas: Well, if listeners would like to passively learn more about this, they can read the book, which again is the Passive Programming Playbook: 101 Ways to Get Library Customers Off the Sidelines, which is available from our friends over at ABC-CLIO / Libraries Unlimited, and the wonderful Jessica Gribble is your editor. But if listeners have any active questions or comments for you or Andria, how can they get in touch with you?

Paula Willey: Well, certainly follow us on Instagram. We’re @passprogplay, but my email is We just heard from a librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who was saying how she had bought our book for her staff, and they’ve gotten a lot of ideas about it, but she had some specific questions about a Teru Teru Bozu doll that Andria had done for a take and make, and we’re like, sure, absolutely. We’ll tell you how to package that up.

Steve Thomas: Do y’all have any other presentations coming up? I know you just did one at ALA’s LibLearnX in January.

Paula Willey: That’s right. We did LibLearnX. We have a presentation on Niche Academy that’s available anytime you want to. And I think we have another presentation coming up that will incorporate some ideas for school libraries. So we have a school librarian joining us for that presentation, and that will be in, I think, the first week of May for Niche Academy.

Steve Thomas: Excellent. So make sure you go and watch those Niche Academy courses because the more reviews and things that they get, the more they might get invited back to do more.

Paula Willey: Those things are fun.

Steve Thomas: Well, Paula, thank you so much for coming on the show to talk about the book and passive programming in general. And we do miss Andria, and we will of course talk about how great she is while she’s not here.

Paula Willey: I can talk about how great Andria Amaral is all day, every day.

Steve Thomas: You hear that, Andria? All right. Well, thank you, Paula.

Paula Willey: Thank you so much. What a pleasure talking to you.