News & Updates

‘Knowing Your Community’: What It Really Means for Programming Librarians

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to face some unexpected truths. Many of us quickly realized, while quarantined in our living rooms-turned-workspaces, that all the technology in the world could not replace human connection. We missed our neighbors, classmates and colleagues — our sense of community.
Illustration of people in a city park.

During the pandemic, programming librarians drew upon knowledge of their communities to succeed. What do these skills look like, in practice?

Necessity is the mother of invention. With their doors closed to the public, libraries had to find new ways to reach diverse populations and develop meaningful connections during a time of disconnection. Libraries increased digital collections, shifted programs online, and developed curbside services. Staff became Zoom experts and figured out how to turn parking lots into Wi-Fi hotspots. We designed services with the ever-changing needs of our customers in mind.

How did we do it? It was library workers’ knowledge of their communities that enabled them to respond so effectively. Now, as libraries and their staff begin the slow and thoughtful work of reopening, knowledge of the community will be essential to address people’s evolving needs once again.Read more and comment

Event Planning ≠ Program Planning: Teaching Event-Planning Skills

When you set out to plan a new program for your library, you likely think about content first. What information will you cover? What will the program be named? What are your goals, and how will you achieve them based on your budget and resources? This is the process we have come to know as “program planning.”
Illustration of a group of people stand near big calendar, watches, document.

Poster for social media, web page, banner, presentation. Flat design vector illustration

Then there are the logistics. Where will your program be held? What sort of seating do you need for the accessibility needs and comfort of your patrons? How will you take attendance, take questions, and keep folks hydrated?

This second set of questions falls into the category of “event planning,” another important skillset for programming librarians — and one that is rarely taught in MLIS programs or formal professional development offerings.

How can library instructors prepare their students for the event-planning aspects of librarianship? We asked members of ALA’s 21st-Century Librarians Task Force to recommend exercises that could be used to teach library-specific event planning. Read more and comment

Local Networks: The Librarian Skills of Outreach and Marketing

Library workers need to be skilled in outreach and marketing so they can promote their libraries’ programs and services and advocate for their organizations. But in many MLIS programs, skills like outreach and marketing — things that many programming librarians do every day, but that fall outside the “typical” librarian job description — often go untaught, leaving workers to learn on the job.

Outreach and marketing skills are frequently taught in classrooms in fields outside librarianships, for example, in business and entrepreneurship and nonprofit management. Members of ALA’s Skills for 21st-Century Librarians task force recently assessed materials from these two fields to see what we, in the library field, could learn from them.

Concept of online communication or social networking. Wooden cubes with speech bubbles linked to each other with lines.

An ALA task force looked at fields like business and nonprofit management to see how they teach outreach and marketing — and what we, in the library field, can learn.

What we found

An online business and management course at Wharton University of Pennsylvania, “Selling Ideas: How to Influence Others and Get Your Message to Catch On,” offered some useful ideas. The course teaches how social media and word of mouth can spread messages. This information certainly applies in a library context, especially as information sources become more specialized and social media platforms further segmentize attention. Crafting “contagious content” and writing “stickier messages” — topics covered in the Wharton course — are relevant to the business and library worlds alike.Read more and comment

The Lesser-Taught Programming Skills: Evaluation, Financial Skills and Creativity

Ask a programming librarian what a typical workday for them entails and you’re likely to get a long and varied list of tasks: meeting with partners, handling event logistics, working with budgets and creating marketing materials.

Research has shown just how varied a programming librarian’s skillset must be. In 2019, ALA identified nine areas of library programming competencies in its National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment (NILPPA): Organizational Skills, Knowledge of the Community, Interpersonal Skills, Event Planning, Creativity, Content Knowledge, Outreach and Marketing, Financial Skills and Evaluation.


Image of the 9 Core Library Programming Competencies Chart. Going clockwise text reads: Knowledge of the community, interpersonal skills, creativity, content knowledge, evaluation, financial skills, outreach & marketing, event planning, organizational skills.

Given the increased emphasis on programming in the library field, ALA argued in the same 2019 study that it is increasingly important for library workers to receive training in these programming-related skills — including so-called “soft skills.” “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),” the report stated.Read more and comment

When Programming Goes Digital: The Changing Skillset of Programming Librarians

If you’re like most programming librarians, there’s a good chance that you’ve spent a lot more time online in the past year. As COVID sent library workers scrambling to do their jobs in a little- or no-contact environment, many of us have faced a steep learning curve.

So, how is that going for you? Could you have benefited from some training ahead of time?

Illustration of a person taking a book from a virtual shelf, symbolizing an ebook.

Digital programming, in some format, is probably here to stay. How can we prepare future programming librarians for the task?

The need for a programming curriculum

There is a reason we’re asking this now. In January 2021, a task force comprising library workers and MLIS instructors — including the authors of this blog post — gathered virtually to explore an idea: the creation of a programming curriculum for library students and practitioners.

The need for such a curriculum is clear: Previous ALA research has shown that programming librarians tend to develop their skillset through on-the-job training or life skills rather than formal training. Some library workers surveyed explained that they learned programming skills by working in retail, doing theater or planning their children’s birthday parties. Although programming is a core component of many libraries, few MLIS programs offer programming courses, and those that are offered are not required for graduation.

In the National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment (NILPPA), ALA and researchers at Knology identified nine Core Competencies that lead to successful public library programming. Those Core Programming Competencies were defined as: Organizational Skills, Knowledge of the Community, Interpersonal Skills, Event Planning, Creativity, Content Knowledge, Outreach and Marketing, Financial Skills and Evaluation.Read more and comment

Now published: NILPPA: Phase 1 white paper and summative report

The American Library Association (ALA) Public Programs Office and the NILPPA research team are pleased to share the results of our NILPPA: Phase 1 research.

“National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment: Phase 1: A White Paper on the Dimensions of Library Programs and the Skills and Training for Library Program Professionals” highlights findings from an intensive research project conducted by ALA and a team of researchers from 2017 to 2019.

With funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), ALA conducted the first phase of a multi-year, multi-part research project to document the characteristics, outcomes, and value of public programs and to contribute information to help prepare future generations of library workers to excel in this work. This intensive research brought together a network of researchers, practitioner-researchers, and advisors to explore two foundational questions:

  • How can we characterize and categorize public programs offered by libraries today?
  • What competencies and training are required for professionals working with library programming today?

We invite you to read our findings and share your feedback:

You may also explore our findings through two free one-hour webinars, recorded on June 10 and June 14, 2019:

“What is a Program, Anyway? Findings from NILPPA, ALA’s National Study of Library Public Programs”


“The Nine Competencies of Programming Librarians: Findings from NILPPA, ALA’s National Study of Library Public Programs.”

Challenges in assessing community needs (or, what does the community need, anyway?)

by Rebecca Teasdale, Principal, Rebecca Teasdale & Associates

Excellent library programs are grounded in a deep understanding of community needs. I’ve seen this firsthand in nearly two decades of working in and with libraries—and I’ve also seen how programming staff can struggle to determine what, exactly, those needs are.

In fall 2017, the NILPPA team surveyed 1,249 programming staff nationwide from all types of libraries to identify the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully run public programs. Community-related knowledge and skills was a common theme, with 28% of respondents mentioning “community” in their answers. This included knowledge of the community, investment in the community, partnerships in the community, and analysis of the community.

To learn more, the NILPPA team conducted discussion forums and interviews in January 2018 with 41 staff members who worked in public, school, academic, and tribal libraries. Across all library types, participants discussed the importance of assessing community needs to understand how programming could be most valuable.Read more and comment

The Programming Pulse: Notes from ALA Annual 2018

Our team is back from ALA Annual in New Orleans, where we presented some of our findings, conducted more research, and learned more about some of the awesome things happening in programs that occur across all types of libraries.

Here are a few of the sessions we attended relevant to program design, development, and facilitation in libraries.Read more and comment

What Do Academic Degree Programs Teach about Public Programming?

Planning public programs is a skill that’s more and more important to library work, and we wanted to know: is that reflected in the curriculum? As part of our comprehensive review of the library programming landscape, we explored requirements in library degree programs across the US.

In 2017, we looked at all of the publicly available material on the websites of 58 English-language ALA-accredited library degree programs[1]. That information includes overviews, course listings and descriptions, specializations and concentrations, and highlighted competencies. Here’s what we found:Read more and comment

What Is a Public Program, Anyway?

As we began our research into library programming skills, we realized that programs are a lot like art. That is, we knew it when we saw it – but we had a hard time articulating a definition that everybody agreed on.

We started with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which defines a program this way:

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.”

But we found this definition simultaneously too narrow and too broad.Read more and comment

How Do We Learn to Run Library Programs?

“My event planning, volunteering for 16 years doing cultural events for my school district, and my theater/musician training helped a lot.”

“These are basic life skills learned by parents (e.g. doing homework in grade school, planning a birthday party, etc.).”

“Working in a very high-scale restaurant as a server and working in a public museum on the visitor services side of things helped me gain skills in good customer services and event planning.”

Between September and November 2017, the NILPPA team surveyed more than 1,200 library programming staff about their professional experience. They come from all around the country and from all types of libraries.

In an earlier post, we looked at the skills staff need. Here, we look at how library workers acquired relevant skills.

We quickly realized that the overwhelming majority had benefited from informal training — and less than half of them thought their formal training was relevant to the everyday work of planning programs. For many of them, past experience outside libraries is also essential to their ability to run public programs.Read more and comment

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.
Read more and comment

The Wide and Wild World of Programming

Makerspaces. Beekeeping classes. All-ages coloring. Glow-in-the-dark storytime. Butchering demonstrations. Reading aloud to therapy dogs. Slumber parties for adults. A Lego robotics team. What is your library doing?

Libraries across the US are offering some incredibly cool programming — and yet it’s been challenging to document the full range of what’s happening. That’s one of NILPPA’s core questions: How can we characterize and categorize public programs offered by libraries today?

We want to know what types of program are being offered, who is offering them, and how. Down the line, this information will help us understand the impact of public programming. But first, we need a baseline.Read more and comment

Kicking off NILPPA in 2017: $500,000 IMLS research grant will strengthen library public programming across the nation

IMLS has awarded a $512,000 research grant to the American Library Association (ALA) that will enable libraries across the country to understand the value of their public programming and the skills needed to achieve excellence in this work. The funding supports research into the characteristics, audiences, outcomes, and impact of library public programming, which has become a core library service.

The project, National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment (NILPPA): Phase I, will provide essential information to the nation’s libraries as they continue to serve their communities through public programming. Its results will build a strong community of practice, reaching individual libraries of all types and sizes.

The research project is led by ALA’s Public Programs Office in collaboration with researchers from New Knowledge Organization Ltd., an interdisciplinary social science think tank. With a network of researchers, practitioner-researchers, and advisors spearheading the initiative, NILPPA will further solicit input from library professionals across the field, so results reflect their day-to-day needs and experiences.

“ALA believes that a research project of this scale will have tremendous impact on the future of library public programming, and we are excited to have such a talented group of library practitioners, academics and MLIS instructors to lead the effort,” said Mary Davis Fournier, deputy director of the ALA Public Programs Office. “These advisors will lead the unprecedented work of creating taxonomies of library programs to closely examine the skills librarians leverage to benefit their communities.” Read more and comment