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.

Top Nine Skills for Programming

  1. To do public programs, library workers need communication skills, including customer service, networking, public speaking, facilitation, and “people skills.” Running programs requires talking to all kinds of people in all kinds of contexts.
  2. Staff working in public programs also need organizational skills. We included two frequent keywords, “project management” and “time management,” in this category.
  3. Perhaps obviously, event planning skills came up time and again.
  4. To run programs at libraries, it’s important to have knowledge of the community. That means everything from listening skills and open-mindedness to intercultural and diversity skills. It also includes group-specific competencies like second language skills or knowledge of child development.
  5. There’s no point in running a program if nobody comes. Outreach and marketing also made the list.
  6. It’s also important to be creative. Unexpected challenges come up with programs all the time, and quite a few people mentioned “flexibility” and “problem-solving” as essential.
  7. This job function also requires financial skills: budgeting, grants, and fundraising, depending on how the library functions.
  8. Many of the library staffers who answered the survey emphasized evaluation skills. To assess the value of programs, library programming staff need to understand statistics, benchmarking, and how to assess a community’s needs and resources.
  9. Finally, we received many responses pinpointing content knowledge. For example, it’s nearly impossible to run a coding class if you don’t know how to use a computer.

A quantitative analysis generally corroborated the popularity of these categories among the responses.

Library Degree Programs

We also asked what knowledge or skill areas these people believed should be part of library degree programs. While the skills fit into the same categories, people talked about them in different ways. In particular, they were more likely to emphasize teachable skills rather than personality traits.

For example, many respondents said that “people skills” were necessary for running public programs — but they were more likely to say that “customer service” should be taught as part of the degree.

We’ll see why in our next blog post, when we look at how library staffers learned to run programs.

What Do You Think?

We would love to add your voice to our research.

  • Do you think any of these skills aren’t as important?
  • Is there something we haven’t mentioned that you use a lot?
  • Do the skills you need change according to library type?

Comment below or email ALA’s Public Programs Office at publicprograms@ala.org to share your thoughts.

Comments ( 5 )
  • Carol Eyman says:

    I would add the ability to work under pressure. By its nature, programming is deadline-driven. Not only do you have to complete certain tasks by the date of the program, you have deadlines to publicize the program to successfully draw an audience, to request a check for the presenter so it’s ready in time for the event, to make arrangements with vendors (e.g., for food), etc. In addition to meeting deadlines, you need to be able to maintain your composure when things go wrong: when AV technology doesn’t work, when a presenter is late or doesn’t show up, when a room is filled to fire-code capacity and people are banging on the door to be let in. Some of this is alluded to in item 6, creativity/flexibility/problem-solving, but I think it’s important to let potential employees know that the job can be stressful. A good programmer will minimize the stress by using other skills mentioned–organization, planning, communication–to prevent mishaps (by confirming dates, times, and locations a few days ahead of a program; testing AV equipment and maintaining backups; taking registrations for events on popular topics, etc.).

    • Institution Name/Affiliation: Nashua Public Library
  • Debby Preiser says:

    I have been planning and hosting adult library programs for more than two decades for the Oak Park Public Library in Oak Park, IL. I have been active in the Oak Park community, belonging to groups like the OP-RF League of Women Voters, the Oak Park Art League ( I also have managed our OPPL Art Gallery since 2003 when our “new” Library opened), and the Historical Society of Oak Park & River Forest . I have also worked with a small group of volunteers who now plan and run the public Memorial Day and Veterans Day commemorative events in our community.

    I often ask these and other organizations to join the Library in hosting public programs which I think would interest their specific membership.

    For me, grant-writing skills have greatly added to the special series, exhibit and documentary film series which I have been able to bring to Oak Park with funding from National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts. These have included Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” Big Read, funded by NEA in 2007; the Abraham Lincoln: A Man of HIs Time, A Man for All Times” traveling exhibit with related films, music, lectures and an historical interpretation, “An Afternoon with Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln” funded by NEH in January, 2009; “Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience” traveling exhibit with related films, author events including Larry Lester who wrote “Black Baseball in Chicago, a book discussion with William Brashler, author of “The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars & Motor Kings,” funded by NEH in May-June 2009 and “Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle,” a dynamic series of film and panel discussions funded by NEH February-March of 2014, among others.

    • Institution Name/Affiliation: Oak Park Public Library
  • Beth Keller says:

    I agree with the two comments above! Additionally, I would add to the creative aspect. Although creativity was mentioned in regards to: ” unexpected challenges come up with programs all the time, and quite a few people mentioned “flexibility” and “problem-solving” as essential,” I would add the ability to program creatively. Perhaps it’s adding fun and creative”extras” such as refreshments or music related to the theme of the program. Perhaps it’s thinking creatively to come up with unique programs and expert speakers or finding the perfect moderator to interview your speaker. I would also add awareness as a programming skill. Be aware of trends, current events, and cultural happenings and tie programming into these. For example we’ve had programs around coloring books, “Hamilton,” food trucks., hygge, new media, and exhibits at our city’s museums to give our patrons an opportunity to experience new things or develop or increase their knowledge.

    • Institution Name/Affiliation: Highland Park Public Library
  • Marcia Conaghan says:

    I’ve been doing adult programs for only a year now in the rural but touristy White Lake area of Michigan. I come from a varied background, but find that you have to love people and love to bring them out. I say this because my curiosity helps me to discover great programming right at the circulation desk. Facilitation skills are also needed for laying out good event room floor plans, holding space and keeping conversations fun and sometimes even productive. And have I mentioned asking questions? Designing good
    programs should begin and end with them.

    • Institution Name/Affiliation: White Lake Community Library
  • Barbara Huff says:

    A programmer has to be performance savvy. I have done programming for children in a couple of vastly different cities. When programming performers, you have to know your audience and develop a sense of what programs are going to be successful for each audience in each branch. Be intentional about who you bring in. Do your homework about the branches. Do your homework about the performers. Don’t rely on reviews alone. Observe the performers or watch youtube performances of the group before you contact and contract them. Develop a second sense for what is performer jargon, smoke and mirrors and con artists. Just because a performer says they will incorporate the”joys of reading” or the “summer reading theme” into their performance doesn’t make them contract worthy. If they keep the audience actively engaged and have great crowd management skills you have a win-win situation! Beware the “hard sell” and the performers who are pushy. Trust your gut. Make sure you and your performers know what the audience age range is and how to connect with them. A storyteller for a middle grade group will flop if only toddlers show up. Look for performers who will enlighten, enrich, and enthuse your audience to learn something new or look at things in a new way. Think outside the box when looking for programming. Jump rope teams, jugglers or jousters might be a big hit in some branches. After successful performance, offer a “how to” class! Good luck!

    • Institution Name/Affiliation: Pikes Peak Library District

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