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Lessons from Totality: Learning from the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse

September 29, 2017
Lessons from Totality: The 2017 Solar Eclipse
Total solar eclipse

The next North American total solar eclipse is only seven years away. Will you be ready?

In September 2016, our library learned that Laurens County would be in the path of totality for the solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, and that a program from the Space Science Institute (SSI) and NASA was offering free eclipse glasses for libraries to distribute to their patrons. Our director thought it might be good to plan an event, especially since we have plenty of parking and a large lawn. We thought it would be great to have folks come to our library to watch the eclipse with us.

Total solar eclipse

We ordered 500 pair of eclipse glasses from SSI. We are in a town with a population of 9,100, and our entire county only has 66,000 people, so we thought that would be plenty. We were surprised when SSI sent us 1,000 pair, and were certain we would be throwing away glasses on August 22.

Insert a big "LOL" at that notion. We had NO idea. 

The original plan

We had no way of knowing what to expect; the eclipses of my youth and childhood were not total eclipses, nor were they a big deal. However, now that we have social media and all the hype that comes with it, the eclipse of 2017 became a really big deal.

Let me repeat: We had NO idea. The popularity of this event was entirely unprecedented.

Over the course of 2017, we firmed up some plans for eclipse day. We would serve Moon Pies, Starbursts, Sun Chips and sun tea. All very cutesy, but seemed like fun. We would have a computer/projector on in our meeting room showing the live feed from NASA as the eclipse began in Oregon and made its way toward South Carolina. We would set up a large canopy tent on our lawn and take extra chairs outside. We encouraged people to bring blankets, coolers and lawn chairs to set up on our pleasant and spacious lawn. We thought perhaps we might fill the 59 spaces in our parking lot.

A run on eclipse glasses

Then we started getting calls, some coming from as far away as New York and Boston. We began to understand that this might get kind of big, especially since Laurens County was one of the longest viewing sites for the eclipse in the US, with a total viewing time of 2 minutes and 30 seconds. 

Many of the calls we received were about the eclipse glasses. Our original plan was to save 100 pair to distribute on the day of the eclipse, and to begin giving out the others on July 21, one entire month prior to the event. We developed a distribution policy for the glasses, once it became clear how popular they were: we would only give them to individuals 18 and over, and each person would have to come to the library and would be required to sign for the single pair of glasses they received. (This would prevent people from returning to the library repeatedly to stock up on glasses.)

We had many people ask if they could get glasses for a spouse, parent, grandparent, etc., who could not personally come to the library. Some requests were quite compelling, with stories of illness and mobility issues; as hard as it was to say no, we stuck to our policy of one pair for person, given out in person. Of course, we disappointed some people. But In two weeks we ran out of glasses, having given out 900 pair, one pair at a time. Lesson learned. We could have easily given out 10,000 pairs of eclipse glasses.

As August 21 grew nearer, the phone kept ringing, and people kept coming in and asking about the eclipse glasses. We offered suggestions for the other options in town but soon learned that they, too, had run out. I seriously considered putting my own pair on eBay.

The crowds gather

The weekend before the eclipse visitors from Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, San Diego and Lancaster (Penn.) came into the library, wanting to know where to eat, what there was to do, and where could they get souvenirs. This was getting big, and we as a town were so unprepared. Still, we at the library had no idea if we should expect two dozen, two hundred, or two thousand on the day of the eclipse.

The morning of August 21, I took my lunch to work; I was worried that if I left to get something to eat, my parking space would be snatched up. Arriving almost an hour before we were to open, I noticed there were already some cars in the parking lot with Virginia tags.

Half an hour before we were to open, people were starting to set up tents and spread out on the lawn. By mid-morning, all of our parking spaces were full, and we had met visitors from Canada to Miami and all the way to the west coast. The lawn was starting to look like a tailgating party on the day of a big home game. People were everywhere, and there were tents, lawn chairs, blankets, coolers, cameras on tripods and telescopes all over the place. More people were coming and beginning to park street-side. Soon that would run out also. 

Our idea about showing the live streaming NASA didn’t work, as all the extra people logged onto our wireless seemed to almost overwhelm the system. Before the event we had purchased what had seemed like an endless supply of ice and bottled water, but they were both running low as the day went on. 

We announced that we wouldn't begin distributing our remaining 100 pairs of eclipse glasses until 1 p.m., which left a few people grumpy. But then others came to us with spare glasses, so that ended up being okay.  At 1 we distributed the remaining glasses on the lawn and sidewalks as best we could. It was already quite a day.

A once-in-a-lifetime event

Then in the afternoon, it started — and people were in awe.

As totality approached we closed the circulation desk, and all library staff went outside. The library was totally empty. People enjoyed the cereal box viewers and other gadgets, gizmos and viewers we had made, but this was the time for the glasses. This was twilight from overhead, in the middle of the afternoon. This was weird, and different, and unique.

At 2:39 p.m. local time, totality hit. It seemed everyone clapped and cheered —750 people from all over the county, the country, the continent, and even some who had come from Europe clapped and cheered together to celebrate this amazing and beautiful moment that would last about two and a half minutes. When totality ended, we clapped and cheered again to celebrate the return of the sun. To celebrate the return of light. 

Some began to pack it up as soon as totality ended. Others would wait until the very end. I had to go back in and open our circulation desk again, so that things could get back to normal inside the library. 

The response

Then people started coming up to us to say “thank you.” Some asked if we had a website where they could make donations to the library. We hadn’t thought of that! Others handed us cash or wrote checks. We never expected this! We handed out our refrigerator magnets to some. We told them to take the magnets home, put them on their fridge at home, and when they noticed it, to think of us and to say to themselves, “I had fun there.”  Some would use that address on the magnet to mail us donations weeks later.

As the crowds thinned out, and we discussed the events of the day, one thing was evident to us as library staff: the spirit of the crowd was almost as amazingly wonderful as the eclipse itself. We were so happy that everyone, from everywhere, and from all demographics had been able to put their politics and opinions aside for the day and enjoy the show that had brought us all together.

What worked

We had beautiful weather — typical of August in South Carolina, hot, but not too hot. Some clouds but not enough to mess up viewing. (We had been really worried it would be a cloudy or rainy day, but it turns out it was just right.)

Our lawn was mowed the Friday before so it was nice and pretty, and the grounds team had killed the fire ants. There are open areas on our lawn and nice shady places also. Our parking lot is nice. We supplied the crowds with clean, well-stocked restrooms. We also had refreshments, and they were greatly appreciated.

The eclipse was on a Monday, so it was easier for people to have the day off and make it a long weekend.

Media hype was off the charts. We got kind of tired of all the local news stories but are glad now that they kept interest stirred up.

Social media did a lot to spread news and to spread interest. It may have played a key role in people deciding where to go for totality. I know many people picked us because of our Facebook posts and website.

Lessons for 2024

When the next solar eclipse passes over the U.S. in 2024, we’ll take what we learned from 2017 and improve things a bit. On our to-do list for next time:

  • More glasses. More glasses. More glasses. 
  • Printed t-shirts and some sort of souvenir trinkets
  • Maps of Laurens
  • Big map of the United states with map pins so visitors can pin their homes
  • Set up a way to accept online donations
  • Assign staff to committees/tasks
  • Offer programs about eclipses, making eclipse viewers, eclipse t-shirts, etc.

No longer is traveling to an eclipse’s path of totality something done only by those who are “so vain” as to fly a “Lear Jet up to Nova Scotia, to see the total eclipse of the sun” as Carly Simon sings. South Carolina makes use of 1-20, I-77, I-85 and I-95, and they were all heavily used to bring people in from out of state. Our major cities with big airports — Greenville, Columbia, and Charleston — were all within totality and were extra busy around the eclipse. I feel it is safe to bet our Amtrak stations were busier than usual also.

Major cities along those interstates were packed, but some people told us that they were looking for small towns within the path of totality and they simply found us on a map and decided to come here. Some came to Laurens because the major cities had run out of hotel rooms. Some probably closed their eyes, stuck their finger on the map, and when they opened their eyes their finger was on Laurens. It was amazingly random how some chose us. However they did it, we are grateful and really enjoyed their visit.   

Final thoughts

Those who were in the path of totality will not want to miss another. Those who missed totality will not want to miss it again. Eclipse tourism will grow, especially with the next big eclipse in 2024. We, as libraries, can no longer claim that we had no idea what to expect. We cannot say anymore that it’s unprecedented because we’ve now set that precedent!

Going forward, we’ve got a pretty good idea how to deal with it and make the most of this unique opportunity. If you are in the path of totality for the 2024 eclipse, plan ahead and order PLENTY of eclipse glasses. I promise it will be one of the biggest events you’ll ever host at your library.

I have spent much of my life outdoors, seeking the wonders of nature. After the eclipse, I would make this post on my personal Facebook page:

I’ve been from the Chihuahua Desert to the backwoods of Maine, from the prairies of Colorado to the mangroves of South Florida. I have made my way through crowds in Manhattan and I have been alone on mountaintops. I have met hundreds of thousands of lives large and small, from flying fish to subterranean salamanders. I have had chats with some very powerful politicians and entertainment legends beloved by millions. Today, today in my hometown, today at my job, today I had an experience I will never forget! MIND BLOWN!  WOW! THANK YOU!

Date / Time
Friday, September 29, 2017 - 15:30
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