‘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

Question 1: How Can We Characterize and Categorize Public Programs Offered by Libraries Today?

This first phase of NILPPA’s research provides the foundation for national metrics to assess how library programming is impacting library services and users. A critical step in this process is finding a way to characterize and categorize the breadth and variety of public programs occurring in libraries of all sizes and types. What are the topics and formats in use? How are programs paid for? What audiences are being served? Who are the most valued community partners? How are programs evaluated to assure quality and meaningful impact? And, ultimately, what outcomes are evidenced through effective public programming?Read more and comment

Defining Key Terms

A student participating in a discussion of ALA’s Great Stories Club at Pasadena (Calif.) Public Library at Zion-Benton Township High School in Zion, Illinois

A student participating in a discussion of ALA’s Great Stories Club at Zion-Benton Township High School in Zion, Illinois.


The feasibility of the project required that respondents and researchers share a common understanding of key terms that, on one hand, appeared simple, but on the other, required a great deal of discussion and vetting within the field. As part of the current research phase, terms such as program, public, and instruction have undergone testing and refinement to ensure they are commonly understood. One term, competency, already had an effective definition that was affirmed through the testing process.Read more and comment

Project Design

The NILPPA: Phase I research used a range of research methods, including surveys, interviews, conferences, discussion forums, reviews, and reports, to gather national data from many different library sectors. Participants in this process were ALA PPO staff, the NewKnowledge research team, a core research team of six library professionals, a national advisory team consisting of 20 additional library and allied field professionals, and over two thousand3 library workers around the U.S. currently responsible for programming. Resources included a broad review of university curricula, as well as a sampling of library job listings and position descriptions. Researchers drew on findings of such related projects as Project Outcome, WebJunction, the University of Washington Impact Study, Measures that Matter, Programming Librarian, the Pew Library Typology, and others. Blog posts on the NILPPA website have highlighted the project’s core questions and preliminary findings, and presentations at professional meetings have provided ongoing updates.Read more and comment

NILPPA’s Role in Understanding the Importance of Public Programming

Many individual libraries have reported data about their programs, but the library field has little aggregate data about the collective impact of programs or how programs have changed over time. The growth of programming is accompanied by several important questions: How do library programming workers prepare for their changing roles and responsibilities? What skills are needed? Where will they be learned? How will growth in programming impact library infrastructure and building needs? How do librarians select programs? How can they determine trends in community needs? What impacts are programs having at the community level? How can librarians enhance programming through strategic partnerships? How has the focus on programming impacted public perception of libraries? NILPPA’s multiphase research will examine these questions.Read more and comment

The Rise of Public Programming

A space exploration exhibit at Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin, Illinois


Historian and Carnegie Corporation of New York President Vartan Gregorian once called libraries “the treasure houses of civilization,” a description that is likely to inspire images of vast shelves of books and magazines, reference materials, perhaps films, photographs, and even precious artifacts. This image speaks to the perceived essence of libraries. But libraries today have expanded their traditional roles. They are also meeting places, theaters, classrooms, laboratories, lecture halls, children’s spaces, performance platforms—a host of gathering places. The existence of these spaces, in part, reveals an accelerating commitment to public programming that is occurring at an unprecedented level in the library community. Through these programs, libraries are extending the ways in which they provide equal access to knowledge and informal education opportunities as their core purpose in a democratic society.Read more and comment


As U.S. libraries transform to meet the needs of a changing nation, public programming is rising to the forefront of their daily operations. While libraries have always had a broad educational mission and an esteemed role as collection holders and lenders, the 21st century is witnessing their rapid transformation to centers for lifelong experiential learning, hubs for civic and cultural gatherings, and partners in community-wide innovation. To date, little national data is available to understand the impact of this shift on libraries, library users, or their communities, or to describe effective practices across the field. National research— including the findings shared in this white paper—is imperative to assess current program offerings in libraries of all types as well as to identify the skills and training necessary to support library workers as they address these new demands.Read more and comment