MLA 2009: Opening session with Paul Holdengraber

Paul Holdengraber
Director of Public Programs, NYPL

  • President & director asked him to “oxygenate” the NYPL
  • Founder of Live at the NYPL (used to be called Public Education Programs) – series of conversations
  • wanted make the lions roar – make a heavy institution levitate
  • How did he get the buy-in? : get the staff excited. everyone wants to feel that energy
  • eclectic mixtures of people — “&” is the most important part of the program (who are you putting together)  — create something that’s lively – how do I save this author from the book tour?
  • “deep interest in the notion of failure” – as interesting when things don’t work as when they do
  • give people the power to try (which is really the power to fail AND the power to succeed)
  • why are we afraid to bring levity & humor into our programming ?
  • “I ask people for the most precious thing they have – their time.” Important to make them realize we need to find the humor.
  • cognitive theatre – has an artist in residence at NYPL (out of kindness of heart) – draws convos as they are happening
  • how do you take all this from NYPL to us?
  • you have a distinct community – learn who they are, what they appreciate, and take them one step further. don’t just give them what they want, give them what they didn’t quite know they wanted
  • takes advantage of the name recognition of NYPL to get some of the luminaries
  • we can probably move very fast even if we don’t know it
  • ”I never ask for permission, always for forgiveness”
  • when hired said he didn’t want to have a committee to do this work. “I don’t decide by myself because I’m never alone.” “I listen to people.” “I get a lot of pushback of all sorts.”
  • don’t pay speakers – they feel it an honor to be at the library, we treat them very well, want them to feel comfortable and happy and loved; take them to dinner or leave them alone, whatever they want.
  • some events are brilliant disasters
  • “digression is the sunshine of narrative”
  • everyone can collect emails (used to have to mail in a form to be added to email list)– make it easy – people want to be informed
  • get 1 or 2 big stars at the beginning
  • sells tix to these events — if he had his way it would be free; then again attrition is much greater when it’s free, people value things as much as you show that they are valued — if they have to pay it must be good
  • people need a place to meet other people
  • most of what they are having now are conversations, not lectures (one or two endowed lectures left)
  • often have 2-3 events a week – 60 a year!
  • important to partner with other organizations & get sponsorships when possible — partnered with Wired a couple of time
  • “it’s not a bad thing to feel small in the face of so much culture” — how do you go from that smallness to empowerment?
  • have put some of them online via iTunes University; others can be downloaded directly from the site. some have transcripts or were published.