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Inspire dialogue with pop-up polls

March 16, 2019
sticky notes and markers

Image credit: Pexels

This semester, our library is experimenting with using pop-up polls to transform passive exhibits into interactive installations. 

Pop-up polls spark informal dialogue in a social setting. They help us get feedback and gain insight from our patrons. They offer a novel way to encourage participatory learning that includes multiple voices. We hope that they contribute to a sense of community on campus. Plus, because pop-up polls are low (or zero) cost and are quick and easy to set up/tear down, they enable us to keep our displays fresh and timely.

When it comes to these kinds of interactive installations, we are inspired by the work of our colleagues in the museum studies field. In particular, an essential resource is Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum, which is available freely online with a Creative Commons license. Her book provides practical strategies for creating and evaluating what she calls “participatory techniques” at your institution. Simon’s focus is museums, but her techniques are transferable to libraries as well. 

In the preface to her book, Simon explains why these kinds of interactive installations are so important:

How can cultural institutions reconnect with the public and demonstrate their value and relevance in contemporary life? I believe they can do this by inviting people to actively engage as cultural participants, not passive consumers. As more people enjoy and become accustomed to participatory learning and entertainment experiences, they want to do more than just “attend” cultural events and institutions. The social Web has ushered in a dizzying set of tools and design patterns that make participation more accessible than ever. Visitors expect access to a broad spectrum of information sources and cultural perspectives. They expect the ability to respond and be taken seriously. They expect the ability to discuss, share, and remix what they consume. When people can actively participate with cultural institutions, those places become central to cultural and community life. 

Inspired by Simon and others, some of the pop-up polls we’ve tried so far this semester have included a “New Year, New Semester, New Goals” display; “What do you love about your library?” for Library Lovers’ Month/ Valentine’s Day; a “Where in the world will you be for spring break?” map; and “What do you feel lucky to have?” for St. Patrick’s Day. Upcoming ideas for polls include March Madness, Finals Week theme songs, suggestions for summer reading, and textbook prices for Open Access Week. Our student workers have expressed keen interest in the polls, and they have begun to suggest ideas for future questions and themes, too! 

photo collage of interactive displays

A photo collage of our interactive displays.

In some cases, our pop-up polls are freestanding. In other cases, they accompany a display of books or are incorporated into a library programming event. Supplies needed are as simple as a white board, sticky notes, dot stickers, and markers. In the future, we’re considering incorporating 3-D elements, such as having patrons use poker chips or marbles to vote. Typically, we install the displays for about two weeks—enough time to get a variety of responses but keep the displays changing frequently. We usually install them near the library entryway where there is heavy traffic. We also post pictures on our social media channels. 

We’ve already had some surprises. For instance, I expected the Library Lovers’ poll to focus on our collections, but I was happy to see that the many of the responses celebrated library staff in addition to free books and DVDs. 

We are on the lookout for new versions of these pop-up polls, so please share in the comments if your library has had success with these kinds of displays.  


Simon, N. (2010). The participatory museum. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum 2.0. 

Jessica Showalter is the Student Engagement & Outreach Librarian at Penn State Altoona’s Eiche Library. Say hello on Twitter @libraryjms 

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