Libraries have always been dynamic institutions. From their earliest days they have served numerous purposes, growing organically as new public needs arose. The United States was an early proponent of universal education and individual initiative, and the idea of giving the whole community equal access to books and knowledge intuitively aligned with this cultural principle.
As “equal access” places of learning, libraries became community gathering places and civic centers, seen as safe and neutral spaces where all ideas might be pursued. Their roles as community anchors, centers for academic life and research, cherished public spaces in small rural towns and major urban locations alike, have led to many libraries becoming the center of their neighborhood social and cultural life. Often the largest and most important public building in a town, the library became the ideal place for holding classes and performances, concerts, and even exhibitions.
In recent years, public libraries have added even more services, particularly in the area of public programs. According to IMLS (2013), “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.”
This definition clearly covers a wide variety of possibilities, and libraries have served an increasing number of community needs through an impressive range of programs. Indeed, all types of libraries have responded to the growth in computer technology by providing both access to and training in their use, continually adding new tools and teaching. During the recent economic hard times, they have created job centers to help patrons cope, provided services to veterans and the homeless, and offered assistance in using government services. Libraries have addressed community issues, offering a neutral space for patrons, residents, faculty, and students to discuss and resolve critical issues. Many have added these services while continuing to schedule author talks and book discussion groups, craft instruction, film programs, lecture series, and an array of cultural and educational programs.
Presenting a full calendar of programs and responding to special needs requires the attention of dedicated staff, space and equipment, and significant financial resources. As programming accelerates, it has become increasingly important to determine the impact of this service on its many audiences. Measuring and reporting impact is essential to making good management decisions, seeking ongoing support, and creating and serving both internal policies and external policy expectations.
The recent meta-analysis undertaken by NewKnowledge included a review of evaluations from public, academic, and school library programs across the country. The analysis noted that these evaluations did not provide significant insight into impact. They did not include sufficient data to define the components of best practices, the outcomes of community collaborations, or the personnel competencies necessary to support library public programming. And, most importantly, they did not incorporate measurable evidence of the assumed public benefits. NILPPA seeks to explore these yet-unanswered questions.
How have you seen library programming change over the past five years, ten years, or the course of your career?
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When I first went into library work several decades ago, we saw programs as a way to bring people into the library to introduce them to traditional services. Over time, public programming has evolved more into a service in and of itself, not just a “come on” to draw people to the “real product,” i.e., books and other reading/informational resources.
Public programs have become more versatile. They have become broader in terms of their content as well there intent. There have also been changes in terms of location. A library program does not have to be in the library nor does it have to be about the library.
There has been more support for library programs from the administration in the past 4-5 years than in the past ten years. National traveling exhibits by ALA and NEH, and programs in conjunction with these exhibits have created an important presence for our library both on and off-campus. In addition, on many occasions, our library has been able to avail of the resources, speakers, and grant opportunities offered by ALA and the New York Council for the Humanities, and our programs are more learning focused. Discussion programs as developed by the NYCH have also been a big success and encourage critical thinking and interaction. The library now has more outreach possibilities than earlier, and it actively promotes programs and exhibits through its websites and libguides.