How To Get Gigs in Libraries

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?

dave ruch performance for kidsIt 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.

3567108689_3e923e6120_oThink 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.

Untitled design (2)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?

DSC_0019Better 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.

19900479178_9c64cca006_zThese 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.

Untitled design (2)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.

psAnd 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?

5899676716_ff0d235315_zGenerally 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.

4284011682_7a8e006f67_zAnd 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

PerformancescheduleSome 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.

-this trio was dynamite...-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?

19467848_b63feca025_oGet some!

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:

regi“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?

Untitled design (2)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?

kid-minShe 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

The Largest Online Gathering of K-5 Classrooms for Connected Educator MonthSince 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.

Please Post Your Comments

Your email address will not be published.


42 Responses to How To Get Gigs in Libraries

Get Dave's News, Discounts, and More
Join Dave's Mailing List
Quick Contact

Have questions or looking for booking information? Call Dave at 716-884-6855, or send him a message below.