Better Programs, Deeper Impacts, and Expanded Capacities: What Makes Library Partnerships Valuable

How can partnerships help libraries reach their programming goals?

Photo of hands holding puzzle pieces

Over the last few months, we’ve been sharing results for a field-wide survey we conducted to better understand library partnerships. The survey asked libraries to describe one particular partnership that worked well for them, and in our last four posts, we discussed findings in connection with some of its key questions—including Who do you consider your public?; What did your partnership focus on?; How did you interact with your partner?; and What makes a partnership effective?

In this post, we focus on a fifth key question our survey asked: What makes partnerships valuable? We left this question rather open-ended and allowed respondents to define “value” as they best saw fit. Our results allowed us to create a new model for understanding partnership value for libraries.Read more and comment

Common Goals, Continuous Communication, and Teamwork: What Makes a Library Partnership Effective

How can partnerships help libraries reach their programming goals?

Photo of hands holding puzzle pieces

Over the past few months we’ve been sharing findings from a field-wide survey that asked libraries to tell us about one partnership that worked well for them. In previous posts, we shared information about the libraries who responded to this survey, and discussed responses to three of its key questions: Who do you consider your public?; What did your partnership focus on?; and How did you interact with your partner?

In this post, we focus on a fourth key question our survey asked: What makes a partnership effective? Our results highlight five factors that are key to the development of strong and effective relationships between libraries and their partners.

What Did Libraries Tell Us?

Understanding what makes partnerships effective is not a straightforward matter, as the question of what “success” looks like depends on many things: the community, the library, the partner, the goals of programming, and factors outside libraries’ control (for example, COVID-19). Nevertheless, the responses we received to this question point to five key factors that contribute to the success of a partnership. The graphic below illustrates these:

Graphic showing 5 key factors

Libraries defined each of these five areas as follows:

  • Strategic Alignment
    Many library staff pointed to shared understanding of the community and its needs as part of what made a partnership effective. Organizations with common goals (or that work to develop shared goals) are well-equipped to collaborate on programming that is both valuable to each partner and that creates change in the communities they serve.
  • Effective Teamwork
    Assigning roles in a way that plays to each partner’s strengths allows programs to be implemented with less burden on either organization. Library staff noted that taking the expertise and limitations of both organizations into account in the division of labor contributed to effective partnerships.
  • Communication & Expectations
    Frequent, open, and continuous communication were frequently mentioned as part of an effective partnership. Good communication leads to clear expectations of what each partner is realistically able to contribute and hopes the other can provide, allowing programs to be developed and implemented more smoothly.
  • Interpersonal / Relationship Qualities
    Library staff pointed out a wide range of attributes in a partner that contribute to strong working relationships, including flexibility, dependability, enthusiasm, willingness to compromise, sense of humor, and leadership skills. Furthermore, they pointed to qualities that develop over the course of a relationship, such as mutual trust, acknowledgement of each partner’s contribution, and seeing one another as someone to ask for help.
  • Tackling Operational Concerns
    Limited time, funding, and staff are issues facing both libraries and the organizations they partner with. Accommodating one another’s needs, whether for volunteers, branding, specific timing, a formal contract, etc., contributes to the effectiveness of partnerships, as does demonstrating impact to ensure administrators see the value in continuing the relationship.

Let’s Put It to Work!

We are confident that our findings are true for a range of libraries, but we’re curious to learn more about this. Some questions we’d like to get your feedback on include:

  • What do you think makes a partnership effective?
  • What are the elements of a successful partnership in your library, and do they match the findings laid out here?
  • How effective overall have your library’s partnerships been?

We’d love to know more about these things, so please let us know how our survey results square with your own library’s experience. You can do this either by commenting below or by emailing us at


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 Vardan Papikyan at Unsplash

Sharing Expertise, Providing Space, and Raising Awareness: How Libraries and Partners are Working Together

How can partnerships help libraries reach their programming goals?

Photo of hands holding puzzle pieces

In previous posts, we shared information about a recent survey that asked libraries to talk about one partnership that worked well for them. So far, we’ve discussed responses to two of our survey’s key questions: Who do you consider your public? and What did your partnership focus on?

In this post, we focus on a third key question our survey asked: How did you interact with your partner? Our results 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. The diverse nature of these interactions underscores just how valuable partnerships are for libraries, and highlights the variety of ways that local organizations and institutions can help advance libraries’ community outreach and engagement efforts.

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Health, Media, and More: What Partners Help Libraries Do

How can partnerships help libraries reach their programming goals?

Photo of hands holding puzzle pieces

As part of our research in this phase of the National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment (NILPPA), we developed and administered a survey designed to give library workers an opportunity to talk about their experiences in partnering with community organizations. In previous posts, we shared information about the libraries who responded to this survey and discussed how libraries understand the “publics” they serve.

In this post, we focus on a second key question our survey asked: What did your partnership focus on? Our results show that libraries are pursuing partnerships to create a wide range of programs, and that many of these programs simultaneously address lots of different topics. Taken together, this indicates that partnerships are an incredibly effective way for libraries to further their community outreach and engagement efforts, and that there are lots of opportunities for forging partnerships with local organizations and institutions.Read more and comment

Who do Libraries Serve? Defining the “Public”

How do libraries define the “public” they serve?

Photo of hands holding puzzle pieces

At its heart, the National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment (NILPPA) explores the impact of public programs on the people served by libraries. But how do we understand a library’s public? For this project, we have previously understood the term to mean “the audiences the library tailors its programs to and the people the library serves.” For a recent survey we developed and administered, we wanted to give libraries an opportunity to further define their specific “publics.” In a previous post, we shared information about the libraries who responded to this survey.

In this post, we begin sharing key findings from our survey, focusing on one key question: Who do you consider your public? A total of 350 libraries responded to this question, and their responses varied significantly. Our results show that libraries are defining their publics in lots of different ways, and that when considering who their programming audience is, they’re thinking about both the community on the whole and about specific groups.

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A Survey of Libraries: Tell Us About Your Community Partnerships!

How can partnerships help libraries reach their programming goals?

Photo of hands holding puzzle pieces

Libraries of all types are taking on new roles and responsibilities. Through robust programming agendas, they’re at the center of community-building efforts all across the US. As they do this important work, libraries are increasingly forging partnerships with different groups and institutions within the communities they serve. Working with schools, churches, healthcare providers, and a variety of other organizations, they’re creating joint programming to directly address people’s needs.

These partnerships are key to libraries’ community engagement efforts. We know that libraries do some of their best work when working with other community organizations. But how exactly do they do this? Who are libraries partnering with, and how are they interacting with their partners? What kinds of partnerships work well, and what makes these effective? And how can partnerships be leveraged to support libraries’ programming goals?Read more and comment

‘Knowing Your Community’: What It Really Means for Programming Librarians

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to face some unexpected truths. Many of us quickly realized, while quarantined in our living rooms-turned-workspaces, that all the technology in the world could not replace human connection. We missed our neighbors, classmates and colleagues — our sense of community.
Illustration of people in a city park.

During the pandemic, programming librarians drew upon knowledge of their communities to succeed. What do these skills look like, in practice?

Necessity is the mother of invention. With their doors closed to the public, libraries had to find new ways to reach diverse populations and develop meaningful connections during a time of disconnection. Libraries increased digital collections, shifted programs online, and developed curbside services. Staff became Zoom experts and figured out how to turn parking lots into Wi-Fi hotspots. We designed services with the ever-changing needs of our customers in mind.

How did we do it? It was library workers’ knowledge of their communities that enabled them to respond so effectively. Now, as libraries and their staff begin the slow and thoughtful work of reopening, knowledge of the community will be essential to address people’s evolving needs once again.Read more and comment

Event Planning ≠ Program Planning: Teaching Event-Planning Skills

When you set out to plan a new program for your library, you likely think about content first. What information will you cover? What will the program be named? What are your goals, and how will you achieve them based on your budget and resources? This is the process we have come to know as “program planning.”
Illustration of a group of people stand near big calendar, watches, document.

Poster for social media, web page, banner, presentation. Flat design vector illustration

Then there are the logistics. Where will your program be held? What sort of seating do you need for the accessibility needs and comfort of your patrons? How will you take attendance, take questions, and keep folks hydrated?

This second set of questions falls into the category of “event planning,” another important skillset for programming librarians — and one that is rarely taught in MLIS programs or formal professional development offerings.

How can library instructors prepare their students for the event-planning aspects of librarianship? We asked members of ALA’s 21st-Century Librarians Task Force to recommend exercises that could be used to teach library-specific event planning. Read more and comment

Local Networks: The Librarian Skills of Outreach and Marketing

Library workers need to be skilled in outreach and marketing so they can promote their libraries’ programs and services and advocate for their organizations. But in many MLIS programs, skills like outreach and marketing — things that many programming librarians do every day, but that fall outside the “typical” librarian job description — often go untaught, leaving workers to learn on the job.

Outreach and marketing skills are frequently taught in classrooms in fields outside librarianships, for example, in business and entrepreneurship and nonprofit management. Members of ALA’s Skills for 21st-Century Librarians task force recently assessed materials from these two fields to see what we, in the library field, could learn from them.

Concept of online communication or social networking. Wooden cubes with speech bubbles linked to each other with lines.

An ALA task force looked at fields like business and nonprofit management to see how they teach outreach and marketing — and what we, in the library field, can learn.

What we found

An online business and management course at Wharton University of Pennsylvania, “Selling Ideas: How to Influence Others and Get Your Message to Catch On,” offered some useful ideas. The course teaches how social media and word of mouth can spread messages. This information certainly applies in a library context, especially as information sources become more specialized and social media platforms further segmentize attention. Crafting “contagious content” and writing “stickier messages” — topics covered in the Wharton course — are relevant to the business and library worlds alike.Read more and comment

The Lesser-Taught Programming Skills: Evaluation, Financial Skills and Creativity

Ask a programming librarian what a typical workday for them entails and you’re likely to get a long and varied list of tasks: meeting with partners, handling event logistics, working with budgets and creating marketing materials.

Research has shown just how varied a programming librarian’s skillset must be. In 2019, ALA identified nine areas of library programming competencies in its National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment (NILPPA): Organizational Skills, Knowledge of the Community, Interpersonal Skills, Event Planning, Creativity, Content Knowledge, Outreach and Marketing, Financial Skills and Evaluation.


Image of the 9 Core Library Programming Competencies Chart. Going clockwise text reads: Knowledge of the community, interpersonal skills, creativity, content knowledge, evaluation, financial skills, outreach & marketing, event planning, organizational skills.

Given the increased emphasis on programming in the library field, ALA argued in the same 2019 study that it is increasingly important for library workers to receive training in these programming-related skills — including so-called “soft skills.” “Confidence in one’s ability to do programming appears to stem less from subject-area expertise (information skillsets) and more from the ability to leverage community resources and facilitate experiences (social skillsets),” the report stated.Read more and comment

When Programming Goes Digital: The Changing Skillset of Programming Librarians

If you’re like most programming librarians, there’s a good chance that you’ve spent a lot more time online in the past year. As COVID sent library workers scrambling to do their jobs in a little- or no-contact environment, many of us have faced a steep learning curve.

So, how is that going for you? Could you have benefited from some training ahead of time?

Illustration of a person taking a book from a virtual shelf, symbolizing an ebook.

Digital programming, in some format, is probably here to stay. How can we prepare future programming librarians for the task?

The need for a programming curriculum

There is a reason we’re asking this now. In January 2021, a task force comprising library workers and MLIS instructors — including the authors of this blog post — gathered virtually to explore an idea: the creation of a programming curriculum for library students and practitioners.

The need for such a curriculum is clear: Previous ALA research has shown that programming librarians tend to develop their skillset through on-the-job training or life skills rather than formal training. Some library workers surveyed explained that they learned programming skills by working in retail, doing theater or planning their children’s birthday parties. Although programming is a core component of many libraries, few MLIS programs offer programming courses, and those that are offered are not required for graduation.

In the National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment (NILPPA), ALA and researchers at Knology identified nine Core Competencies that lead to successful public library programming. Those Core Programming Competencies were defined as: Organizational Skills, Knowledge of the Community, Interpersonal Skills, Event Planning, Creativity, Content Knowledge, Outreach and Marketing, Financial Skills and Evaluation.Read more and comment

Now published: NILPPA: Phase 1 white paper and summative report

The American Library Association (ALA) Public Programs Office and the NILPPA research team are pleased to share the results of our NILPPA: Phase 1 research.

“National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment: Phase 1: A White Paper on the Dimensions of Library Programs and the Skills and Training for Library Program Professionals” highlights findings from an intensive research project conducted by ALA and a team of researchers from 2017 to 2019.

With funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), ALA conducted the first phase of a multi-year, multi-part research project to document the characteristics, outcomes, and value of public programs and to contribute information to help prepare future generations of library workers to excel in this work. This intensive research brought together a network of researchers, practitioner-researchers, and advisors to explore two foundational questions:

  • How can we characterize and categorize public programs offered by libraries today?
  • What competencies and training are required for professionals working with library programming today?

We invite you to read our findings and share your feedback:

You may also explore our findings through two free one-hour webinars, recorded on June 10 and June 14, 2019:

“What is a Program, Anyway? Findings from NILPPA, ALA’s National Study of Library Public Programs”


“The Nine Competencies of Programming Librarians: Findings from NILPPA, ALA’s National Study of Library Public Programs.”


The ALA Public Programs Office is grateful to our research committee members Carolyn Anthony, Jennifer Weil Arns, and Jamie Campbell Naidoo (Q1), and Michele Besant, Terrilyn Chun, and Janine Golden (Q2); project advisors Miguel Figueroa, John Horrigan, Robert Horton, Richard Kong, Colleen Leddy, Samantha Lopez, Annie Norman, Emily Plagman, Manju Prasad-Rao, Kathy Rosa, Marsha Semmel, Rebecca Teasdale, Sarah Goodwin Thiel, and Angel Ysaguirre; as well as Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein, Joanna Laursen Brucker, Kate Flinner, John Fraser, Rebecca Norlander, and Beverly Sheppard from New Knowledge Organization Ltd., and Colleen Barbus, Sarah Ostman, and Deborah Robertson from the ALA Public Programs Office, for their work throughout this project. We have deep appreciation for the hundreds of library practitioners who participated in the NILPPA survey, focus groups, and feedback solicitations during the past two years. Finally, we are grateful to Sandra Toro, from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, who has been an invaluable thinking partner in this work.


NILPPA: Phase I research will have many useful applications for the field. It provides two essential baseline frameworks that can help library workers shift the perspective from thinking about individual library program outcomes at their own library to a broader consideration of library program impact across the US, offering vital insight into how individual libraries may move forward, or how programming staff may shape their professional development focus. Our results offer guidance to library and information science graduate programs, encouraging them to consider curriculum to help students develop core programming competencies. National and regional organizations, including ALA, will also be able to use this research to create new opportunities for continuing education and professional development for all library workers. Finally, an articulated understanding of programming competencies can help library workers of all types design strategic plans — including hiring decisions, space allocations, and processes towards diversity and inclusion — with intention toward and attention to the growing importance of programming in today’s library.Read more and comment

Question 2: What Competencies and Training Are Required for Professionals Working with Library Programming Today?

The second question explored in NILPPA: Phase 1 asks how programming librarians, in today’s fast-changing library landscape, acquire the skills and competencies needed to perform their jobs well. Do most programming librarians hold advanced degrees in library science? Are they gaining these skills through formal education, on the job, or in some other manner? How can we best prepare the programming librarians of tomorrow to be leaders in their communities and the field? Of course, before we answer these questions, we must first determine the competencies and skills required by today’s programming librarians.Read more and comment