Exploring public programming in U.S. libraries

What does excellence in library programming look like, and how can library workers achieve it together?

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A vibrant illustration of a busy library with diverse groups of people reading, studying, and engaging in various activities across three rows. Shelves filled with books, a clock, and large windows are visible, along with a librarian assisting patrons.

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.

But little is known about the impacts of public programs, or about what makes a public program successful.

The evolution of US public libraries into bonafide community centers dates back at least as far as 1992, when the ALA’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 there’s much to learn about its impacts, and about the skills library workers need to conduct successful public programs. The American Library Association (ALA) and Knology, a social science research nonprofit have been investigating these things since 2017 through the 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 U.S. — along with their impacts.

Illustration of five people collaborating on a project, depicted by large, colorful interlocking gears. One person stands on a ladder adjusting gears while others work together on the ground, moving and connecting various gears to demonstrate teamwork.
Illustration of a diverse group of people in a classroom or workshop setting, seated at desks with laptops. A woman stands at the front, gesturing as if teaching or presenting. The background features a large bookshelf with various books.

Resources for Libraries

Want to equip your library with new tools for understanding, evaluating, and planning public programs? See the various resources we’ve created over the years.


Interested in digging into the research? Check out the white papers, reports, and publications that have resulted from years of study.