Libraries and Public Programming

Through public programming, libraries help create stronger communities.

by Jena Barchas-LichtensteinElliott BowenJoanna Laursen BruckerRebecca Joy Norlander
Oct 30, 2022

Public libraries are doing a lot these days. They're places where patrons can take exercise classes, receive job training, or even get vaccinated. If you're interested in learning about mental health, you can participate in library workshops that teach about the warning signs of depression. If you want to improve your dietary habits, you can participate in one of the nutrition programs many libraries have created (some of which even serve meals!) Regardless of your age, chances are that your public library has something to offer you—whether you're a kid looking for summer reading programs, a middle-aged adult interested in learning a new language, or a retiree looking for companionship.

The evolution of US public libraries into bonafide community centers dates back at least as far as 1992, when the American Library Association's Public Programs Office was established to support what at the time was regarded as a non-traditional type of library service. Since then, library public programming has risen dramatically, and the trend is unlikely to abate any time soon. In 2016, the number of programs held in U.S. public libraries was 5.2 million—an increase of 72% from 2010. Responses to this development have been overwhelmingly positive. In 2014, for example, a survey conducted by Pew Research indicated that 45% of all American library users believed that programs and events were "very important" to them.

Clearly, library public programming is here to stay. But until recently, little has been known about its impacts, and about the skills library workers need to conduct successful public programs. We've been examining these things since 2017, when we launched a project with the American Library Association (ALA) called "National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment" (NILPPA). Our goal with this project, which is supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), is to provide a foundation for understanding the varieties of library public programs in the US—along with their impacts. Our key questions are:

  • What does excellence in library programming look like?
  • What training do library workers need to create and host successful programs?
  • What are the key indicators that demonstrate the impacts of library programming?
  • How are libraries partnering with other organizations to achieve that impact?

The answers to these questions can help libraries make informed decisions about how to invest their resources. They'll also provide useful data for thinking about how library workers are trained. In this web article, we provide an historical overview of NILPPA, highlighting its key contributions to research on library public programming.

NILPPA Phase 1 (2017-19)

In NILPPA's first phase, we worked with ALA to bring together a network of researchers, practitioners, and advisers to understand the primary characteristics, audiences, outcomes, and values of public library programming.

Our first goal was to create a common language for talking about public programming in all of its myriad dimensions, and to do so in a way that would help libraries better understand and meet their own program-related needs. Toward that end, we produced a conceptual framework for categorizing public library programming. Capturing the diversity of public programs libraries offer, this framework highlighted four key dimensions of programming:

  • Library Profile
  • Program Characteristics
  • Program Audience
  • Program Administration

For a more detailed discussion of these four dimensions of library programs, click here.

In highlighting these different ways of conceptualizing library programs, we sought to help libraries develop their own programming identities.

Infographic entitled What Makes a Library Program

For the second output, called "Library Programming Competencies," we identified the core skills library workers need in order to create successful public programs. These include:
  • Organizational skills
  • Knowledge of the community
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Creativity
  • Content knowledge
  • Evaluation
  • Financial skills
  • Outreach and marketing
  • Event planning

For more on the research that went into developing this list, click here.

Derived from conversations with library professionals across the US, this framework is something that libraries can use for hiring and professional development. Graduate programs can also use the framework to guide curricular development.

Infographic entitled 9 Core Library Programming Competencies

During Phase 1, both of the above visual tools were disseminated through blogs, webinars, and conferences. Our findings were also communicated in an official report, an ALA white paper, and in two peer-reviewed articles. Links to these articles can be found here and here.

NILPPA Phase 2 (2021-Present)

The second phase of the NILPPA project began in 2021. Building on our earlier work, the goals for this phase are twofold: (1) to understand how libraries work with partner organizations; and (2) to identify indicators that resonate with the impacts libraries hope public programming can have.

As with the first phase of the project, a key goal here will be to develop a shared way of understanding key concepts related to library programming—in particular, what we mean by "partnership" and "impact". Once we have a better understanding of these terms, we can then help libraries devise strategies for forging partnerships and leveraging them toward their own program-related goals. All of this work is currently underway, and we are now analyzing data from a national survey of programming professionals. Check back here later for an update on our key findings!

Partnerships are key to helping libraries develop and implement effective public programs. The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic made this more true than ever before, as shutdowns and closures forced libraries to pool resources with other organizations. But much remains to be learned about exactly why partnerships are valuable, or about how to make these relationships successful. These are the gaps our research is going to fill. Doing so will help us create tools to better support library partnerships.

We began NILPPA Phase 2 by workshopping with our advisors, who helped us develop a survey that was sent to libraries all across the US. The survey gave library workers an opportunity to talk about their experiences in partnering with community organizations. It asked about the kinds of partnerships that work well (and why), and about the specific goals libraries wanted partnerships to serve—for example, helping better meet the needs of diverse audiences. Data on these questions has started coming in, and we’re going to share this in a series of posts. See below for these!

  • A Survey of Libraries: Tell Us About Your Community Partnerships! - In this post, we discuss the different questions our survey asked, and share information about the libraries who completed this. As the results show, our survey reflects the diversity of the US library landscape, which means the partnership tools we’re developing will work for libraries regardless of their type, size, location, or operating contexts.
  • Who do Libraries Serve? Defining the "Public" - Who do libraries think their programming audience is? Our survey results indicate that libraries are defining their publics in lots of different ways. When considering who they serve, they're thinking about both the community on the whole and about specific groups.
  • Health, Media, and More: What Partners Help Libraries Do - What do library partnerships focus on? Our survey results show that libraries are pursuing partnerships to create a wide range of programs, and that these programs often address many different topics.
  • Sharing Expertise, Providing Space, and Raising Awareness - How can partnerships help libraries reach their programming goals? The results of our survey show that libraries are deeply invested in the partnerships they've forged, and that they're collaborating in lots of different ways with their partners.
  • Common Goals, Continuous Communication, and Teamwork - What makes a library partnership effective? Our survey results indicate that libraries have identified strategic alignment, teamwork, regular communication, interpersonal skills, and operations management as five key factors that contribute to the success of a partnership.
  • Better Programs, Deeper Impacts, and Expanded Capacities: What Makes Library Partnership Valuable - How are partnerships helping libraries reach their programming goals? The results of our survey indicate that partnerships are beneficial for libraries in lots of different ways, including program design, program planning, program implementation, program impact, and capacity building.

We are also devising ways of measuring the impacts of programming. To do this, we're looking at 9 different "impact domains"—in other words, the areas we've identified where library programs can really make a meaningful difference in people's lives. To see how we're defining each of these domains, along with examples and suggestions for how libraries can make progress within them, see the series of posts below!

  • Connected communities - How libraries can help build up "social capital" within their communities.
  • Knowledgeable communities - How libraries can help ensure that their communities have both information access and information literacy.
  • Creative communities - How libraries can nurture the arts and give community members opportunities to express themselves through creative endeavors.
  • Civically engaged communities - How libraries can create programs that encourage community members to play an active role in civic life.
  • Healthy communities - How libraries can promote wellbeing, and help build communities where all members are able to lead physically and mentally healthy lives.
  • Economically vital communities - How libraries can contribute to conditions that promote economic development, prosperity, and the equitable use of community resources.
  • Welcoming communities - How libraries can help newcomers integrate into the community, promote cultural diversity, and protect community members' human rights.
  • Joyful communities - How libraries can help community members come together to have fun, celebrate one another's lives, and affirm both their histories and the futures they are making together.
  • Caring communities - How libraries can promote compassion, empathy, mutual helping, and a sense of social responsibility for the community's most vulnerable members.

Libraries are working to advance all of these domains, but at the moment, it's unclear what impacts their programming efforts are having within them. With regard to any of these domains, how can libraries know whether they're making a difference? What would indicate that their programs are having real-world impact? To help libraries answer these questions, we're developing a series of "indicators"—that is, a way of measuring how library programs are making a difference in people's lives. Indicators are things that let us know that programs are having their intended effects. Examples of indicators we validated on our survey include "more people perceive libraries as spaces to connect with others" and "community access to food and healthcare becomes more equitable."

In Phase 2, we're also working to develop a series of key impact indicators. At present, our indicators research is progressing through workshops with advisors and a cross-disciplinary literature review exploring different ways to think about and measure community well-being. Part of the same survey asked library workers to weigh in on the validity of some of these indicators, and we are currently analyzing results.

When completed, all of this work will help us refine the model of library community partnerships we developed in a related project, and begin to measure the impacts of library programming at scale.


These materials were produced for National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment (NILPPA), a project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The authors are solely responsible for the content on this page.

Photo by Erik Brolin at Unsplash

I was hoping for a grant this year to conduct civics workshops I do for adults, usually at libraries, and then do pre/post surveys to see how it impacted knowledge, behavior and attitudes along lines of civic knowledge and engagement. Unfortunately, the grant did not work out. I am a firm believer that libraries should be centers for lifelong civic education. Civic literacy in this country is dismal.
By Donna Cohen, MLIS, MEd
On Tuesday, December 13, 2022
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