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


The National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment (NILPPA) has an ambitious goal: to conduct foundational research documenting and illuminating the potential of library public programs to fortify libraries, strengthen communities, and improve lives.

In today’s fast-changing world, library programming is increasingly integral to enhancing library responsiveness and adaptability. Through programming, libraries identify, address, and reflect community needs; enhance their institutional capacity and services; and contribute deeply to our democratic society. But the library field has lacked sufficient data on whether, and how, these efforts are working—knowledge that is necessary in order to prepare the library workers of today and tomorrow to provide the best possible library experiences for our communities.Read more and comment

Challenges in assessing community needs (or, what does the community need, anyway?)

by Rebecca Teasdale, Principal, Rebecca Teasdale & Associates

Excellent library programs are grounded in a deep understanding of community needs. I’ve seen this firsthand in nearly two decades of working in and with libraries—and I’ve also seen how programming staff can struggle to determine what, exactly, those needs are.

In fall 2017, the NILPPA team surveyed 1,249 programming staff nationwide from all types of libraries to identify the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully run public programs. Community-related knowledge and skills was a common theme, with 28% of respondents mentioning “community” in their answers. This included knowledge of the community, investment in the community, partnerships in the community, and analysis of the community.

To learn more, the NILPPA team conducted discussion forums and interviews in January 2018 with 41 staff members who worked in public, school, academic, and tribal libraries. Across all library types, participants discussed the importance of assessing community needs to understand how programming could be most valuable.Read more and comment

The Programming Pulse: Notes from ALA Annual 2018

Our team is back from ALA Annual in New Orleans, where we presented some of our findings, conducted more research, and learned more about some of the awesome things happening in programs that occur across all types of libraries.

Here are a few of the sessions we attended relevant to program design, development, and facilitation in libraries.Read more and comment

What Do Academic Degree Programs Teach about Public Programming?

Planning public programs is a skill that’s more and more important to library work, and we wanted to know: is that reflected in the curriculum? As part of our comprehensive review of the library programming landscape, we explored requirements in library degree programs across the US.

In 2017, we looked at all of the publicly available material on the websites of 58 English-language ALA-accredited library degree programs[1]. That information includes overviews, course listings and descriptions, specializations and concentrations, and highlighted competencies. Here’s what we found:Read more and comment

What Is a Public Program, Anyway?

As we began our research into library programming skills, we realized that programs are a lot like art. That is, we knew it when we saw it – but we had a hard time articulating a definition that everybody agreed on.

We started with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which defines a program this way:

A program is any planned event which introduces the group attending to any of the broad range of library services or activities or which directly provides information to participants. Programs may cover use of the library, library services, or library tours. Programs may also provide cultural, recreational, or educational information, often designed to meet a specific social need.”

But we found this definition simultaneously too narrow and too broad.Read more and comment

How Do We Learn to Run Library Programs?

“My event planning, volunteering for 16 years doing cultural events for my school district, and my theater/musician training helped a lot.”

“These are basic life skills learned by parents (e.g. doing homework in grade school, planning a birthday party, etc.).”

“Working in a very high-scale restaurant as a server and working in a public museum on the visitor services side of things helped me gain skills in good customer services and event planning.”

Between September and November 2017, the NILPPA team surveyed more than 1,200 library programming staff about their professional experience. They come from all around the country and from all types of libraries.

In an earlier post, we looked at the skills staff need. Here, we look at how library workers acquired relevant skills.

We quickly realized that the overwhelming majority had benefited from informal training — and less than half of them thought their formal training was relevant to the everyday work of planning programs. For many of them, past experience outside libraries is also essential to their ability to run public programs.Read more and comment

What Skills Make for Good Library Programming?

“What skills or abilities do you think are necessary to successfully run public programs at libraries?”

More than 1,200 library professionals from all around the country and from all types of libraries weighed in on this question last fall as part of the NILPPA research. As we read their responses, we found nine categories of skills that came up time and again.
Read more and comment

The Wide and Wild World of Programming

Makerspaces. Beekeeping classes. All-ages coloring. Glow-in-the-dark storytime. Butchering demonstrations. Reading aloud to therapy dogs. Slumber parties for adults. A Lego robotics team. What is your library doing?

Libraries across the US are offering some incredibly cool programming — and yet it’s been challenging to document the full range of what’s happening. That’s one of NILPPA’s core questions: How can we characterize and categorize public programs offered by libraries today?

We want to know what types of program are being offered, who is offering them, and how. Down the line, this information will help us understand the impact of public programming. But first, we need a baseline.Read more and comment

Kicking off NILPPA in 2017: $500,000 IMLS research grant will strengthen library public programming across the nation

IMLS has awarded a $512,000 research grant to the American Library Association (ALA) that will enable libraries across the country to understand the value of their public programming and the skills needed to achieve excellence in this work. The funding supports research into the characteristics, audiences, outcomes, and impact of library public programming, which has become a core library service.

The project, National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment (NILPPA): Phase I, will provide essential information to the nation’s libraries as they continue to serve their communities through public programming. Its results will build a strong community of practice, reaching individual libraries of all types and sizes.

The research project is led by ALA’s Public Programs Office in collaboration with researchers from New Knowledge Organization Ltd., an interdisciplinary social science think tank. With a network of researchers, practitioner-researchers, and advisors spearheading the initiative, NILPPA will further solicit input from library professionals across the field, so results reflect their day-to-day needs and experiences.

“ALA believes that a research project of this scale will have tremendous impact on the future of library public programming, and we are excited to have such a talented group of library practitioners, academics and MLIS instructors to lead the effort,” said Mary Davis Fournier, deputy director of the ALA Public Programs Office. “These advisors will lead the unprecedented work of creating taxonomies of library programs to closely examine the skills librarians leverage to benefit their communities.” Read more and comment

Research Methods and Next Steps

– A Note on Ethics –

Dr. David Carr has framed the argument that evaluation requires that a phenomenon must be either askable or observable. This methodological simplification reveals a conundrum in light of this research project because the ethics of librarianship seem to oppose efforts to ask or observe individuals as they seek out information relevant to their lives. This resistance is not without sound reasoning. The principles that created the nation’s libraries and librarians’ professional and tacit codes of ethics have been fundamentally challenged by moral debates surrounding titles held by libraries and intrusive efforts to monitor, track, and persecute the learning behaviors of individuals. The library profession holds fast to the ethical principle that users have an absolute and inviolable right to privacy, and the interpretation of this ethical stance poses a challenge for the study of impacts and outcomes that accrue from library programs.Read more and comment

Assuring Participation

While it would seem that the multiple benefits of designing and initiating a comprehensive research framework would assure widespread participation across the library field, there are many potential barriers. The first is likely the fear of the process becoming burdensome. How will libraries feeling the weight of recent cutbacks free up staff to participate? How will the research process fit into the already heavy burden of completing numerous required surveys? How can the process meet the differing needs of small and large libraries, urban and rural libraries, academic and school libraries, contrasting geographic locations, and purposes that vary from serving specific academic needs to urban outreach? What will be the best way to “get the word out” across the library field?Read more and comment

Research Audience

The stated goal for developing and implementing a comprehensive research framework is “to ensure all library stakeholders have access to information they need to make strategic policy and investment decisions that will further leverage the infrastructure and expertise that flow from libraries’ public programming.” The ultimate goal is to provide optimal benefit to the individuals and communities that are the participants in exemplary public programming in libraries. Thus, comprehensive research will guide library practice and create public value.Read more and comment