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.

When library scientist and mathematician S.R. Ranganathan proposed his Five Laws of Library Science in 1931, he could hardly have anticipated how the Fifth Law, “The library is a growing organism,” impacts library practices today.1 The archives of the ALA’s Public Programs Office (PPO) reveal that tens of thousands of libraries of all types have presented an array of programs through PPO grants alone. The Public Libraries Survey, conducted by IMLS in 2016, reported that public libraries across the United States had presented 5.2 million programs that year, an increase of 72.1% since 2010. In another measure of the proliferation of library programs, PPO’s website and opt-in mailing list have grown dramatically — from 3,796 subscribers in March 2015 to 6,556 in March 2019.

The trend toward increased programming continues in libraries of all types, including public libraries, academic and school libraries, and a host of special libraries. Programs may be on special topics, such as gardening, finance, or photography. They may facilitate wide-ranging discussions on world affairs, climate change, or healthcare. They may present authors, encourage book club activities, or support political debate. The topics, formats, intended audiences, and program partnerships vary widely. But the common denominator in libraries across the country is that public programming has become central to libraries’ work.

1. Ranganathan, S. R. 1892-1972. (1931). The five laws of library science. Madras: The Madras Library Association. Retrieved from$b99721;view=1up;seq=12

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