Nice intimate performance spaces.
Audiences that come to listen, and love to learn something new.
Events that are generally well publicized and completely free to the public.
Friendly, committed staff who know how to secure funding for performances and want nothing more than to provide a great experience for the community.
I love library gigs.
And I’ve had some truly memorable experiences as a performer working “between the stacks.”
In this Educate and Entertain post, we’re going to drill down into the nuts and bolts of performing in libraries.
We’ll cover a fair amount of ground here, including things like:
- what kinds of gigs are available in libraries?
- what do libraries want from performers?
- who’s the appropriate contact person?
- what should my promo materials look like?
- what should I charge?
If you’ve never considered public libraries as a performance venue before, I hope this might inspire you to take a closer look.
(You might also be interested in the articles “How to Get Gigs in Schools,” and “How NOT to Get Bookings“)
Opportunities for Gigs in Libraries
From my experiences here in the northeastern USA over the past 30 years, I can tell you there are three general categories of library performances that I get hired for most often.
While I imagine this will be somewhat similar for other parts of the country, and elsewhere, please let me know if your results differ!
#1. Youth Programs
Do you perform for audiences of kids?
It seems that just about every public library does some kind of programming for children; it’s kind of part of the library DNA, after all.
Some libraries will hold a series of programs on Saturdays in the spring; others do sporadic events for kids on a non-specific schedule.
Some libraries become the de facto daycare in town after school hours (for school-aged kids), or during the day (for toddlers and preschoolers), and may have the resources to bring in performers from time to time.
And then, there’s that holy grail of gigs for children’s performers….
Summer Reading Programs
Perhaps more than any other time of year, and for any other reason, libraries are alive with performances over the summer in an effort to entertain summer readers.
Think of a Summer Reading Program as a book club for kids.
I’ve seen these run all kinds of different ways, but always with the goal of encouraging school-aged kids to keep up their reading over the summer through a series of fun events at the library.
Some regions even host performer showcases in the spring to give youth librarians a peek at some of the many possibilities out there for entertaining their summer readers.
Do a Google search for “(Your State/Province/Region Name) Summer Reading Program” and start digging for contacts, showcase information, themes, etc. There may even be a website dedicated to all things summer reading in your area.
Summer Reading Themes
Many summer reading programs use a national, statewide or local theme that changes each year.
If your performance can somehow fit into this year’s theme, that’s a definite plus.
However, generally speaking, a super-fun show will appeal to librarians regardless of the theme they’re working with.
What makes for a successful Summer Reading Program performance?
According to Peg Mauer, Library Director at the Goff-Nelson Memorial Library in Tupper Lake NY,
“A successful performance is when I see the kids absolutely riveted to the performer. When I see them totally engaged: clapping and singing and laughing in delight, then I know it’s a successful performance!”
Contact person: Youth Services Librarian (or Director for smaller libraries)
Time frame: Varies. Some libraries plan nine months ahead or more, especially if they’re writing a grant for funding. Many more wait until a few months beforehand to book their performers. Best to ask.
#2. Adult Programs
Somewhat more elusive than programs for kids, but generally very rewarding gigs when you can find them, are library performances for adults.
Can you talk about your artform while you perform?
Better yet, can you present examples of your artform from a specific place or time period (“Civil War Songs,” for instance), or centered around a certain theme (“Dances of Friendship from Around the World”), sprinkling interesting information about the topic between songs, dances, stories or pieces?
Think lecture series, but in your case, it’s a lecture/concert, or a lecture/performance.
The audience has come to learn something, and you happen to be offering them extra value with some great entertainment along with the edification. (See the article Educate Your Audience and Write Your Ticket.)
It’s a win-win-win.
You’ll have a great time performing, the audience will love it (what’s not to love?), perhaps even buying stuff afterwards, and the librarian who booked you will be delighted because people were engaged and responsive to the program.
Contact person: Adult Services Librarian (or Director for smaller libraries)
Time frame: Varies. Typically, these are planned several months or even up to a year ahead of time; especially so if the library is writing a grant for funding.
#3. The Performance Series
A third category of library gigs that I’ve been booked for regularly is the performance series.
These tend to be events that bring out the entire community – – multigenerational audiences, if you will.
Beware though – – sometimes, “the entire community” means you end up with a solidly senior audience and just a handful of families and younger folks.
Other times, it’s exactly the opposite.
You just never quite know what to expect in terms of audience at a library concert.
One of the great things about performing at libraries is that the shows are free and open to the public, and anyone can (and will!) show up no matter how the show is advertised. Seniors at a “children’s concert.” Kids at an adult “lecture/performance.” Plan on asking the librarian their best guess on audience makeup based on past experience, and then, be prepared for anything!
What Kind of Performances, and When?
In my experience, “Performance Series” generally means concerts, though not always.
And generally these performances happen once a week for several weeks in the summer, except for when they’re scheduled for the winter, or in the spring, or fall.
There may be a theme (folk music, classical music, local performers), but typically, it’s just a series of concerts and events for the community.
Contact person: Start with the Library Director or Manager
Time frame: Varies. Some libraries plan nine months ahead or more, especially if they’re writing a grant for funding. Many more wait until a few months beforehand to book their performers. Best to ask.
How Do Libraries Pay for Performances?
Generally speaking, public libraries pay for performers through one of two sources: grants, and “Friends of the Library” groups.
Grants for Library Performances
There’s just not a whole lot of money in a public library’s operating budget to pay for programming, so librarians have gotten very good at securing programming grants from a wide variety of sources.
Community foundations, arts councils, humanities councils, multinational corporations with a local presence, regional and local businesses….you name it.
And in my experience, there seems to be a pretty clean division between those libraries that seek funding and those that do not.
(Believe me, I understand those that don’t….it’s not like they don’t have 150 other things they’re doing every day.)
How do you know whether they do or they don’t?
It’s best to ask, and if they need some suggestions for how to fund a performance series (and book you!), you can point them to this free guide on arts funding for performances and lectures.
“Friends of the Library” groups
Some public libraries have “Friends” groups, which are sort of like a PTA is to a school: a volunteer group that plans events and raises funds for the benefit of the institution and its constituents.
My payment for a library performance has come on a “Friends of the Library” check many times over the years.
Again, there’s no way to know whether a library has, and uses, these funds for hiring performers. You’ll just need to ask.
How to Promote Your Performances to Libraries
You will need to promote your performances to libraries – – it’s unlikely that they’ll find you.
Think about the three general performance categories listed above, and which one(s) would be the best fit for you.
Consider tailoring your presentation a bit, “framing” what you do so you can really speak to the needs of the library.
My general approach has been to do all of the following, all throughout the year:
- Participating in as many library performer showcases as I can (Google “[Your state] library performer showcase”)
- Watching upcoming summer reading program themes to see if I have a good fit
- Listing my various programs on the “Performers and Programs” website resource for New York State librarians. Your state or location may have a similar site
- Lots of email to market my programs to librarians (this has been very effective)
A colleague who has played over 2,000 American public libraries in 48 states had this to say about program content and promotion:
“Librarians seem to respond to the historical and literary content of my program. They seem to want a presenter who’s offering is both educational and entertaining. Without a great website and public library program brochure, I don’t think I’d be able to book so many library gigs. Very important to have hi-res photos and good PR text available for download (too).”
Think about branching out geographically. There are a LOT of libraries out there.
And, better promotion than all of the above? Stop me if you’ve heard this before…
Word of Mouth is King
I can’t tell you how many times a phone call or email from a librarian has started with this:
“A librarian friend told me what a wonderful performance you did for them….“
Word of mouth is the very best way to get library (and all other types of) gigs.
Back to my 2,000-gig colleague:
“The single most important ingredient to getting a library booking is a great recommendation, in writing, from another library client in that library system, county, state, or region. The accumulation of such client testimonials is, perhaps, the single most important asset to the performer seeking a library gig.”
The library side of the equation agrees completely. Here’s Sue Wool, Director of the Wead Library in Malone NY:
“The performer should have experience at public libraries. I would be more likely to book a performer that someone I know has recommended, or that I have seen myself.”
(See the article on how to use testimonials and social proof on your website.)
What to do if you don’t have any references or performances under your belt?
If you’ve done library shows before, call up the librarian who booked you and see if they’d be willing to write you a brief letter of recommendation.
No experience whatsoever?
Storyteller Regi Carpenter has some pretty cheerful advice:
“It’s easy to “break in” to libraries because librarians are the best people! Call up your local librarian and ask if you can do a program. Ask them what themes they are working on. Send postcards and emails. Librarians love to program artists so don’t be afraid, just call them and give it a go!” Regi Carpenter, Storyteller
Pricing for Library Performances
Performer pricing for library events is literally all over the board. Same for library budgets.
Personally, I’ve been paid anywhere from $250 when I was first starting out to $2,500 for my trio to play a very well established concert series.
Far more typically, my pay has been in the $400-700 range for a solo performance.
If you charge less than that, you WILL get more work. Ultimately, it’s going to boil down to your circumstances.
Not sure what to charge?
Take a look at the Performers and Programs website and do a search by the category of performance you fall under. You’ll get a great idea of what other performers in your genre are asking for library performances in New York State (although not a great feel for how many calls they’re getting). While you may need to adjust slightly for your state or region, this is a quick and easy way to assess the landscape. You can also refer to the article How Much Should I Charge? 3 Pricing Strategies for Performers.
Here’s storyteller Regi Carpenter again, on the subject of pricing:
“I always give libraries a sliding scale. They don’t have much money but I give discounts and I also offer them residencies that allow me to perform for them multiple times throughout the summer and I give them a discount. I prepare ten different programs and that way I can get to know their community and what they like and need.”
Nancy Bailey, Library Manager at the Byron-Bergen Public Library in Bergen NY, thinks about it this way:
“The ability to be flexible on cost would increase a performer’s chances of being booked because what you charge a larger library for a group of 50 or more may be different than what you charge a smaller library that only gets 15 in a group. A willingness to have multiple shows in one area to cut costs for both the library and performer is also a plus.”
Final Advice from Librarians
I thought we’d give the last word here to the librarians as we wrap up…
Sue Wool from Wead Library:
“From our perspective, a successful performance is one in which each member of the audience (young and old) is engaged and involved. As the audience leaves the show, they are talking about it with each other, and asking when the library will be offering the next one! The performer should appeal to an audience with a wide age range, and be really flexible with the audience.”
Nancy Bailey from Byron-Bergen Public Library agrees:
“(We like) an engaging performance that incorporates people from all age groups.”
Perhaps most importantly, she said “(we look for) someone that is easy to work with.”
One Last Question
I asked my neighbor Peg Mauer from the Goff-Nelson Memorial Library “what would increase a performer’s chances of being booked to perform at your library?
She said “as long as you’re the performer, there’s nothing that you can do to increase your chances!”
I wonder which way I’m supposed to take that….
Leave me a question or comment in the Comments section below!
About The Blog
Since leaving a white-collar marketing job in 1992, Dave Ruch has been educating and entertaining full-time in schools, historical societies and museums, folk music and concert venues, libraries, and online via distance learning programs.
Along the way, he’s learned a great deal about supporting a family of four as a musician.
The Educate and Entertain blog provides articles, tips, encouragements, and how-to’s for regional performers (in any region) interested in making a great full-time living in the arts.
I came across this article while I was searching for performers directory where I can submit our company’s information. In eight years, we’ve done over 1500 art programs in libraries and now we are reaching out to senior centers and corporate events to expand our business. This is great information for anyone that wants to perform in libraries. Librarians really are the nicest people to work with, It’s always a pleasure to meet them and work with their patrons.
I thought i might make a comment here because Libraries are what I do. I do educational programming(not music, but lectures about historical things ) for adults in libraries. I work county by county. I get a list of all of the libraries in the county. Not hard, it’s on the internet. And I am now cherry-picking my counties according to which ones have the most money per capita. Those are going to be the libraries that have the most money. I then call each library and look for the name of the librarian responsible for adult programming. for that library. Now we have a reputation in our area and I ask the librarian if I can send them a letter and brochure about the work that we do. Once they say yes, I get their email address and send them a letter and brochure about what we do. I wait a few days and follow up. This has worked well for me–I have as much business as i can handle for the moment. Of course, I’ve been doing it for several years now and have a reputation to work with, but I start every new county the same way.
Thanks for sharing, Rochelle.
There are 11 libraries in my county. I’d love to tour them all , but I’m wondering if that would mess with their funding to be hiring the same artist in a calendar year? It would be a lot easier for me to tackle libraries one county at a time. How much do you spread out your library gigs? Or does this even matter?
I think the 11 libraries would probably be very happy to get a “package” deal from the same performer.
Hi Dave – great info, as always! Thanks so much! Can you recommend some type of software or online spreadsheet to input contact info and follow-ups that can be accessed by more than one person? I’m looking to organize all my info and allow other band members to access and add to it.
Hey Nina – my process is pretty “manual,” so unfortunately no good recommendation there. Maybe some others will chime in…
Your article is very helpful. But do libraries ever get caught by the performing rights organizations (PROs) like ASCAP or BMI when performers do a song that is not in the public domain? I am with BMI so I can do my own humorous songs but I wanted to include some historic examples of songs that influenced me like by Tom Paxton or even project some YouTube samples of The Smothers Brothers or Pete Seeger. I have been told that that is all off-limits. So that the concerts of Jazz standards at libraries are technically in violation. I had thought about having an open mic also but that would likely invite problems.
Hi Peter – sorry, I can’t really advise on this, as I do 100% traditional, historical, and otherwise non-copyrighted material when I perform in libraries. BUT, anecdotally, I’ve seen lots of other performers work in this setting and haven’t heard about any issues yet with BMI or ASCAP. Your mileage may vary.
Thank you for the informative site and good suggestions! I was wondering if you could offer any suggestions as to the best way to make the proposal- do they tend to prefer some kind of printed brochure detailing your program- or a referral to a website or epk- or an in-person meeting and presentation of the idea?
Thanks so much!
Hi Jon – I think it varies greatly. No fancy epk or mail package necessary in my experience though. A mailer, email or phone call should be a good starting point.
Thank you Dave!
Thank you for your wisdom and encouragement
Glad this was helpful Paul!
I’ve sort of become an expert on library performances since I do so many in any given year. The 2019 theme is a Universe of stories and marks the 50th anniversary of when man walked on the moon. I’ve helped libraries win awards for their shows and proven that a Victorian Vanities’ show can drive audiences to the library. Because this is my 6th year doing this type of work, we have groupies who will follow us from show to show. One year we did a performers showcase in Delaware. While we didn’t win the grand prize, we are now performing in 6 libraries in Southern Delaware which is much farther away than we would normally go. I’ve had to be very upfront about how I figure my rates, particularly discounts. I give a discount of $10.00 if I do two shows in a day and another $10 if six libraries in the county go together. The librarians coordinate this among themselves and I just show up to do the shows. I also ask that the shows not be done on consecutive days because of the amount of driving. involved. We don’t want to stay over but we also don’t live that far away. I explain that due to the time and distance, I can’t give much of a discount but the libraries understand and keep[ asking us back.
This is great. Go Rochelle!
Rochelle, you have addressed one of the issues that is big here in my part of the Northwest, that of distance between population centers. East coast billing structures don’t apply very well here. I would like to know more. I am also curious as to how you format your presentations to best meet the needs of your clients. thank you for your post. LTEC
In this case it depends on what the libraries are looking for. In this area, musicians are a dime a dozen. I don’t do musical shows. My shows are based on historical themes and and usually ppt and narration. For example, our signature show is called “10 Unforgettable Stories that History Forgot.” Look this up on Listverse and this is my show, expanded to include You Tube videos. The takeaway here is what stories will we be telling our children 50 years from now or 100 years from now and who determines what the important stories will be? No show i have is more than one hour long including the murder mysteries. Our more popular shows, particularly the farther away we go is the antique appraisal event. Each of these shows is one hour long and we will only do 40 pieces-no nazi memorabilia, gold jewelry or guns. Our brochures are available on the website as well as videos and snippets of some of our shows. I’ve been very careful to make the site entertaining (Dave helped me with that) as well as educational.
With regard to cost, to put it simply, the farther you are away for me, the more the show costs. And the venue pays mileage. And if you can’t pay the cost, we’ll help but that’s all we can do. The mileage is the single largest expense that i have for any show. I believe that Dave does do overnight gigs, I won’t, so i can’t speak to that. But I do know that the libraries in this area are not going to pay for stays in hotel rooms and meals in addition to a program. Don’t be afraid to do research into this. Ask the librarians what they want, and also what they are willing to pay. if you do this enough times, you begin to get a feel for what is expected and affordable in your area. While I was doing the research for this, I never tried to sell anyone anything. I told people i was doing research to bring a plan like this to market. We had already been successful with retirement homes and now we were ready to move into libraries. And I told the libraries that when i had a plan, I would get back to them. So I researched this first before coming up with anything. Its also important to know what YOU need to have in the way of compensation. Are you planning on living off these gigs or adding to what you already do? I think i have enough here. But none of this is new.
Hi Dave. Great article with much useful “nuts-and-bolts” info. Some of this I had already figured out for myself, but it is neat to receive validation from someone with your range of experience in the field.
One comment: In my part of the world, the local libraries don’t have a clue as to how to effectively publicize their event. They typically feel that a flyer on their counter and an email to their “Friends of the Library” group constitutes “advertising”. The attendance numbers are terrible.
I can only entertain and educate those people that actually come through the door. I’m really wondering how to improve this situation without spending ridiculous amounts of my own money and time to make their event successful. Ideas welcome!
This rings true in my experience too, Lonnie. Some libraries do an exemplary job of promoting their events, with attendance well over 100 people in some cases, but others, as you say, don’t have a clue. It’s just not in their wheelhouse. Two things that may (or may not) be helpful:
1) Feel free to direct them to this video that I was asked to do for the state humanities council here in NY – it addresses this very issue with some nuts and bolts ideas for busy librarians (and others) who are hosting an event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OKqOAQPxKw
2) This short article addresses one key oversight that’s very common in my experience – https://daveruch.com/the-event-promotion-tip-you-may-be-overlooking/
Hi Dave. Thanks for the great article. My potential gig for libraries is a bit different. It will be a historical lecture that could lead to a series. (Possibly). I am an actress so I am not worried about my speaking skills but I am clueless as what to charge, especially since I don’t know how long to make these lectures. ( I hate using the word lectures. Sounds so dry. Hopefully mine would be more animated.) Any advice would be very appreciated. Thanks.
Hi Mikhaila – there’s a section on pricing your performances for libraries above. That should give you a good ballpark.
I just got booked for my first library gig here in Central Illinois. It’s not until October, but my favorite part about the the gig is that it has a theme. There’s a satisfaction in focusing / tailoring my performance to fit the small town audience. The library is doing a series on farming, and I so happen to write country / folk songs about growing up on the farm. I plan on telling my story which is that of a Millenial coming of age around the early 2000’s and how growing up on the farm has made me different that my millennial peers. Enough rambling.
Long story short, I am looking forward to this gig more than I have looked forward to any bar gig in the past. haha.
Awesome Seth! Let us know how it goes!
Great Article! I just finished recording a group of Bug Songs. I’m finishing up my website and was wanting to promote my music. I have incredible bug puppets and am a elementary school drama teacher looking to promote my songs. I am looking forward to using some of your strategies. Thank you.
Thanks Kathy – glad this was helpful.
Dave, many thanks for this very useful article (for those of us who are pursuing libraries gigs).
I was wondering if you could offer any insights as to when most librarians tend handle the scheduling of their programs?
Are there specific months/time-frames during the year when librarians tend to focus on that?
On the flip side, are there any particular times that are NOT good? (might also help to know what to avoid!)
Along those lines, (though slightly off the library topic) have you noticed similar trends with other types of
venues (certain times of year are better for promoting) — be they PAC’s, Colleges, Schools….
What has your booking experience taught you regarding this?
Hi Gladius – what I’ve discovered is…..it depends. I don’t think there’s any set rule. If you’re targeting summertime programs, early in the year seems like a good time, and for those libraries that apply for arts council grant funding, you want to be aware of what those deadlines are. In my experience, almost everyone waits until the last minute to submit grant applications, so if the deadline is late October for the grant application, for instance, then mid October is a damn good time to get in touch. Get written into the grant and keep your fingers crossed.
I’m also trying to determine if/how I could get libraries (out-of-town) to cover travel/lodging expenses– I see some performers asking for flat rates (no mention of lodging/travel) and others that are mentioning lodging/travel along with their fees.
Any ideas as to which approach is generally more effective with libraries?
I always build that into my fee when quoting a price – “it will be $XYZ dollars, and that includes all travel and lodging expenses”
I LOVE doing libraries! Give me a library over a retirement home any day of the week! There is actually more to this. I have a complete list of all the libraries I contact in the areas in and around Philadelphia on up into Central NJ. I keep up with it. I’ve been doing libraries since 2014. They pay quickly and the librarians are great to work with and they are in. No chasing after them with messages. YOu could say I’ve become expert at libraries.
OK, I’ll say it Rochelle – you’ve become an expert at libraries!
Thanks so much for this terrific article! I am part of a vocal quartet that specializes in new and contemporary classical music and poetry. We have been struggling to find our niche and I had never even thought about libraries! Given our interactive format of “discussing” the poetry and the music with the audience and, when possible, the composers, a library setting would be really terrific! Thanks for the inspiration!
Melissa – I’m so glad to hear the article was helpful for you. You might also be interested in recent pieces on educational performances and gigs in schools. Please keep us all posted on how it goes for you in the libraries.
I’m a baritone soloist with a classical music repertoire, and I’m performing at my hometown public library in April 2016. I secured this engagement simply by asking the correct library staff member. I will be presenting an all-English language recital by composers from various countries and eras. My piano accompanist is a long-time friend and colleague. My challenge, starting March 1, is to get as much publicity for this recital as possible, including ads in local newspapers, posters in various public locations, library assistance, emails to more than 100 of my music colleagues, and of course, word-of-mouth. Baritone Steve Curylo and Pianist Jerry Noble will present this recital on Sunday April 17 at 2:00 p.m. (Eastern time) at Chicopee Public Library, Chicopee MA.
This is great stuff! I have been kicking around the idea of approaching libraries for some time now. Armed with this information, I think I might actually do it. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!
My pleasure Robert; glad it was useful!
Hey Dave, I guess my comment didn’t come across as I intended. When I said, “as long as you’re the performer, there’s nothing that you can do to increase your chances!” I meant it as a compliment — your chances of getting booked to perform at my library are 100% because we love your performances! And you can’t improve on 100%. But I certainly agree with Sue Wool — if a performer is recommended to me or I see them perform, then I’m much more likely to book them at our library!
Hi Peg – thanks for checking in here. I was being a little “tongue in cheek” when I said I didn’t know which way to take that…
great job,Dave!the last bit was a little cryptic,but i guess that is the librarian’s fault.i like this idea even better than the. school thing.i do not see the libraries in my town having performances,and renting their utility rooms at $250 seems like a losing game,considering the fact that their parking situation is bad.a funding by grant seems more plausible,for sure.i hope you continue to list as munch info as possible on contact person/persons,depts,etc.. i applaud you for being one of the few visionaries working to re-invent the music gig.
Hey Richard – glad the articles have been useful for you. I’ve never paid to rent a room at a library; it’s the library that would be hiring you and providing the space. Let me know how it goes.
Very interesting. I really dig this idea of seeking out non-traditional venues. Playing at your average bar or coffee shop is cool, but the “audience” is typically not there to see the band, and so you end up playing what is essentially background music. Playing for audiences–kids, adults, whomever–who actually come to see the show sounds pretty cool.
Hi Jeremy – agreed! I’ve gotten pretty spoiled at this point, as 95+% of the performing I do now is for a listening audience. Not that it’s always a packed house – there are times when it’s just a few handfuls of people, but what a luxury to perform in intimate settings where the pay is not dependent on the audience size.