NILPPA: Phase 1

A White Paper on the Dimensions of Library Programs and the Skills and Training for Library Program Professionals


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


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 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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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.