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.
As with research on library program categories, research on the competencies and training was a multi-step, detailed process. Throughout the research program, NILPPA’s research and
advisory group met in workshops, through phone calls, and online discussions to review the findings and summarize the work.
To understand the specific competencies required for library programming professionals, the research first looked at how the library field perceives competencies overall. This initial phase of the research in 2017 reviewed three types of information across many sources and institutions in the library field:
- Explicit competency frameworks for the library field as a whole;
- Competencies described in advertisements for library positions;
- Websites for ALA-accredited graduate programs, examining programming components of the 58 English-language websites.
The websites for the graduate programs included overviews, course listings and descriptions, specializations and concentrations, and highlighted competencies. Based on this review, only 50 of the 58 degree programs that had publicly available materials offer courses that address programming. However, no university required students to take these courses; all were offered as electives. The course titles and descriptions suggested that programming courses were heavily focused on young adults, children, storytelling, and diversity. Fewer than half of the degree programs listed an explicit programming related competency that graduating students must master.
In parallel to the review of printed information, the research team went directly to the field for additional input. Researchers surveyed library professionals for their perspectives on the skills, knowledge, and abilities they found most important. Asked how confident library programmers felt about their ability to run programs, 1,086 of 1,247 respondents to our surveys answered positively, replying “always,” “almost always,” or “usually.” Of these respondents, 961 had completed a library and information science degree or were currently enrolled, and 278 had not received this type of degree. Interestingly, completing a library and information science degree did not seem to make a difference to self-reported ability to run programs. In fact, ninety-three percent said they learned to run programs on the job, 62% from colleagues, and 74% from other informal learning.
In June 2018, the research team held five 90-minute discussion forums with 41 library practitioners, representing K–12 libraries, academic libraries, various library types in rural areas, tribal libraries, mixed library types, and emerging library leaders. The forums expanded on the core competencies identified by the field through the survey on program skills, knowledge, and ability. These discussions placed particular emphasis on the importance of assessing community needs, noting that the process is critical but challenging as communities become more diverse.
Research Findings: The Nine Competencies of Programming Librarians
Shifting roles for libraries have significant implications for framing the competencies needed by library program professionals. Interpersonal skills like convening, collaborating, and facilitating increasingly take on greater significance. 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). By becoming more context-dependent, programming competencies require greater flexibility from setting to setting.
The ability to conduct a community assessment emerged across research activities and received considerable attention among advisors as well. They discussed the embedded competencies of being able to map and analyze assets and needs, develop programs based on this work, identify underserved and unserved populations, and forge productive partnerships.
The emphasis on creating community connections underscores the need for programming librarians to recognize and celebrate cultural diversity. This is an area in which community partners, especially those trusted by culturally diverse groups, can help librarians who are not insiders to a group build new relationships and hone services with community members’ involvement. Library workers can learn many skills from others in the community. They can also look to the work of other professional associations in setting diversity standards, such as the American Psychological Association and the International Literacy Association. Competency frameworks in fields like social work, psychology, and other social sciences may have applicability to this work. An important next step in serving the needs of programming librarians, therefore, is to define more fully how such competencies can be developed and strengthened.
Researchers and advisors also recognized that informal learning opportunities contribute tremendously toward developing competencies. They discussed how such opportunities can be made more available, citing mentoring, conference attendance, MOOCs like those offered by Coursera and other platforms, online webinars, and other types of credentialing as possibilities. And, importantly, certain skills may be best learned in these informal settings and on the job. In addition, nationally distributed and grant-funded cultural and science projects such as Bridging Cultures: Muslim Journeys, NASA @ My Library, and other traveling programs can combine effective content with guidance on using and adapting them to specific audiences.
As a result of the research activities, NILPPA identified nine areas of library programming competencies (see FIGURE 3) that, when combined, are unique to library program professionals. Each area includes competencies with different levels of mastery. Future NILPPA research will further explore these competency areas.
Library Programming Competencies
In addition to basic administration and management skills, this competency includes diplomacy and management skills with outside organizations.
Knowledge of the Community
This competency includes open-mindedness, listening skills, intercultural and diversity skills, and group-specific skills such as knowledge of child development or language skills.
These competencies include such “people skills” as customer service, networking, communicating, public speaking, and facilitation — the methods used to interact effectively with many different audiences.
This area requires two types of skills: logistical skills and the ability to “set the tone” for the event. The latter requires sensitivity and understanding of the nature of the audience and flexibility in establishing the appropriate environment.
Outreach and Marketing
A variety of skills are needed to ensure that programs meet the community’s needs and interests, including targeted communications strategies that inform, build support, and use digital and social media effectively.
This broad category incorporates everything from developing unique and personalized programming, to flexibility and problem-solving to designing online communications and graphic pieces — maintaining a flexible and responsive spirit.
Programming professionals can expect to be increasingly involved in budgets related to space use, rentals, and construction or renovation, as well as basic fundraising and budgeting both internally and with collaborative partners.
Core assessment skills will continue to be required, along with a greater focus on culturally responsive evaluation and targeted assessment of relatively small populations, including the ability to measure changing needs in the target populations.
These skills may be specific to a program, library, or community culture, but at minimum require the ability to assess program quality, presenter qualifications, validity of source material, community engagement theory, and principles of inclusive practice.