Were you a pandemic bread baker? A Great British Bake Off binger? A curator of lockdown kitchen disasters? Several staff members at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (JMRL) were all of the above and channeled it into an epic six-week-long virtual program: the Great Library Bake Off.
The program was the brainchild of former Scottsville Library branch manager M.K. England, who put out a call to other staff at the end of a very long 2020: “Anyone else obsessed with The Great British Bake Off and want to do a ridiculously ambitious program with me?” Several reference staff members gave early feedback on the program’s structure in November, and eventually two other staff signed on to help manage the unwieldy beast in early 2021: Tasha Birckhead (Children’s Supervisor at the Central Library) and Neda Defibaugh (Teen Librarian at the Northside Library).
The Great Library Bake Off (GLBO) program took place from March 22 through May 3, 2021, and was modeled after the three-challenge structure of the television show. The Signature challenge asked for a favorite spin on the American classic, the pound cake. The Technical challenge featured a bare bones recipe for chocolate cupcakes and frosting that required bakers to call upon their own knowledge and intuition. The final Showstopper challenge called for a literary layer cake. Each challenge was announced on social media and the JMRL blog via a video filmed by England, Birckhead, and Defibaugh and edited by England.
The all-virtual program was difficult, but ultimately perfect for this sort of event. We knew flexibility would have to be the name of the game to get a solid level of participation, so we gave two weeks for participants to complete each challenge on their own time and submit photos of their final product: both the whole thing, and a slice to show texture. In a way, the fact that we couldn’t taste the products to judge them was something of a blessing. It pushed us to make the program much more about participating and learning versus being the best baker.
We decided to structure our prizes to reflect that: every challenge completed was an entry into a drawing for a $25 gift card to a local cooking store, but only those who completed all three were entered into a drawing for the trophies (engraved wooden spoon and spatula sets). This allowed people to participate in as many or few challenges as they wished, while still encouraging people to do all three. To satisfy those with a competitive streak, though, we compiled all the entries into a Google form at the end of each challenge and posted them on social media for voting. Voters chose a Star Baker and several honorable mentions for each round, who we recognized on social media. It wasn’t perfect—there was definitely some “stuffing” of the virtual ballot box, which was obvious and easy to account for—but for the most part, it worked out wonderfully. We did separate prize drawings for adults and teens to better encourage our young bakers who put themselves out there. And of course, since it’s a library program, there was an accompanying book list to promote our collection of baking books and DVDs.
One of the most rewarding parts of the program was the virtual conversation series we held. After each challenge, we offered participants the opportunity to join in a Zoom chat to share their recipe, their experiences, and their knowledge. It was wonderful to see everyone supporting each other’s bakes and sharing tips and tricks, and we were so glad to be able to cultivate a very warm and supportive atmosphere for bakers of all ages and skill levels.
This program turned out to be, to use the internet’s favorite phrase, incredibly wholesome. Despite being marketed as a teen/adult program, we had a number of families who took this as an opportunity to bake together or have friendly inner-family competition. It was accidentally the perfect way to help parents grow their children’s confidence and skills, and practice speaking in front of others during the Zoom check-ins. We also had an adorable moment from one of the families that were competing against one another. The mother and daughter had run out of ingredients for their respective showstoppers and ended up borrowing batter and frosting from the father, so all three cakes contained shared elements—quite the bonding experience!
One of the biggest challenges was coming up with a recipe for the Technical round. It was important to us that our patrons have the ability to make substitutions for food allergies while maintaining the heart of the challenge: everyone bakes from the same recipe. Other challenges included staffing issues (M.K. was due to leave JMRL at the end of April, Tasha had just been promoted into a new position, desk coverage during a pandemic, etc.) and the sheer volume of work that the program required. Entries would pour in the night before they were due, which led to a frantic scramble to enter them all into the Google form before the evening’s Zoom meeting. There were a few other things—the usual upset that comes with any prize-winning situation—but nothing too dramatic, and nothing that outweighed the good vibes and tons of fun we had.
We got lots of wonderful feedback from our patrons. The participants all enjoyed being part of the program and having the opportunity to learn from each other and grow their baking skills. A large part of the GLBO’s popularity was doubtless due to the pandemic, but the love of baking (and the excuse to have sugary treats) is eternal. We even had a number of our winners decline their prizes—the real prizes were already sitting in their kitchens. (Awwww….yes, saccharine but true.)
We hope to repeat this program in the future, though hopefully without the pandemic next time. The next GLBO will probably keep its overall structure (replacing the Zoom meetings with in-real-life [IRL] or hybrid ones), but we will probably shift it from a teen/adult program to an all-ages one so more families can experience the joy of baking together.