NILPPA Builds Framework for Understanding Programs

While it has long been clear to library practitioners that public programming positively impacts their communities, there has been little existing research on the effects of such programs, or on how best to equip library staff. In response to this need, ALA has released the “National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment [NILPPA]: Phase 1: A White Paper on the Dimensions of Library Programs and the Skills and Training for Library Program Professionals,” the first stage of a multiyear, multiphasic foundational study.

cover of NILPPA white paperWhile it has long been clear to library practitioners that public programming positively impacts their communities, there has been little existing research on the effects of such programs, or on how best to equip library staff. Meanwhile, those outside the field are often unaware of the extent of what the library provides. Popular articles decry the decline in library circulation in recent years, while ignoring the dramatic increase in public programming.

“We were observing so many things that made us think that we needed to have research, but we couldn’t find any,” Mary Davis Fournier, deputy director of the American Library Association (ALA) Public Programs office, told LJ. In response to this need, ALA has released the “National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment [NILPPA]: Phase 1: A White Paper on the Dimensions of Library Programs and the Skills and Training for Library Program Professionals,” which reflects the first stage of a multiyear, multiphasic foundational study. Fournier, who spearheads this project, said researchers were “responding to the needs of librarians [with regards to] delivery, creation, and curation of programs.”

Funded by $512,482 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and conducted jointly with the think tank NewKnowledge, the study outlines the dimensions and depth of library programs and describes nine competencies that “encompass the unique skill set required of library programming professionals.”



As the first study of its kind, it was necessary for NILPPA to first create a framework: a basic set of definitions and categories related to library programming across all library types. This provides a foundation for further statistical review by clarifying the different aspects of programs and the libraries that host them. NILPPA defines a program as “an intentional service or event in a group setting developed proactively to meet the needs or interests of an anticipated target audience.”

Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of related studies and collaborated with organizations like Project Outcome, Measures That Matter, and the ALA site Programming Librarian. They further refined their preliminary results through practitioner interviews, focus groups, and surveys, resulting in a framework of four main dimensions of library programs.

  1. Library profile (What is the type of library—public, academic, K–12, or special? What is the library size? What are the community demographics?)
  2. Program characteristics (What is the program’s primary intended outcome—to acquire new knowledge, change attitudes or behaviors, build community, have fun? What is the program’s format, location, or frequency? Who is the presenter?)
  3. Program audience (Does this program appeal to everyone, or to a subset of patrons? What are the demographics of the target audience [who the program is created for] and actual audience [who attends]?)
  4. Program administration (Is the program led and developed by the library alone, with a partner, or by an outside organization? Who funds it?)



NILPPA also studied the competencies library staff need to conduct effective programming. (Competencies are “knowledge, skills, and abilities” which can be taught and quantified.). Researchers culled information from job descriptions and course listings from ALA-accredited graduate programs. To ensure as wide and diverse a response as possible, they sought additional information through digital and live forums, email surveys, and interviews at tribal libraries. They workshopped their findings to further define and refine these necessary skills.

After gathering a detailed picture of what abilities are being used, taught, and sought, NILPPA pinpointed nine key competencies (each with different “levels of mastery”) that library programming staff should work towards.

  • Organizational skills: Managing time and projects at all levels; understanding library’s workflow and logistics
  • Knowledge of community: Ensuring accessibility for most underserved and underrepresented populations; developing equitable partnerships; understanding their community’s specific needs
  • Interpersonal skills: Communicating clearly with staff, partners, and participants; developing a network; facilitating effectively
  • Creativity: Solving problems with flexibility (both on the fly and in response to feedback); developing original, targeted programs
  • Content knowledge: Understanding the program’s topic well enough to evaluate the quality of the program and presenter
  • Evaluation: Collecting quantitative and qualitative data to assess program effectiveness and impact (especially on underserved populations); harnessing such information to develop future programs
  • Financial skills: Managing funding and budget
  • Outreach and marketing: Using targeted communication (both digital and analog) to reach all potential audiences; reaching out to trusted sources in underserved communities (where information may be spread primarily through word of mouth)
  • Event planning: Managing logistics at all levels; setting a suitable tone for the environment; ensuring programs are “developmentally and culturally appropriate” for intended participants

“These aren’t things you learn in a formalized degree,” said Terrilyn Chun, deputy director of Oregon’s Multnomah County Library, who served on the core research team. “A lot of the things that [programmers] learn, they learn on the job.” Ninety-three percent of survey respondents said that they learned to lead programs while at work, and there was no difference in self-reported ability to run programs between those with a graduate degree and those without.



Chun is invested in the practical applications of the Phase 1 results. Her library holds an annual workshop called Curiosity Kick! to develop these competencies in staff members—from clerks to paraprofessionals to librarians—who are interested in creating programs, but don’t have experience in executing them.

“One staff member submitted an idea for a Somali sewing program,” Chun said. “She got to know the [Somali] community through her outreach, and she found out they wanted programs where they could learn skills to start their own business. They were also having a hard time finding culturally specific clothing.” But the staff member didn’t know how to develop the program. Through Curiosity Kick!, she worked with a team of five programming professionals who mentored her through the process.

The program turned out to be a huge success. Curiosity Kick! participants “increase their confidence in delivering programs, increased their knowledge of community,” Chun explained. “That's one of the tangible ways we have of helping staff that may not know how to do [programming] and all the different competencies that are required.”

That is NILPPA’s main goal—to empower library programmers and strengthen library programming across the country. Library staff can comment on this study at; researchers seek a wide range of responses to help refine their goals for future phases. “We hope our next phase is not what we planned from the beginning,” said Fournier; they want to develop their focus as the field develops.

While it remains to be seen how much it will change as the result of such feedback, as outlined in the initial whitepaper, PHASE II (planned to take the next three years) would use both qualitative and quantitative methods, including deep ethnographic techniques and case studies of innovative programs, to study the range of personal, institutional, and community program impacts that can be described and assessed, including building a database of such outcomes that would enable national trend analysis. It would also address how programming is facilitated through community collaboration and what other factors influence programming decisions.

PHASE III (planned for years six to eight) would build a predictive model which seeks to explain how programming responds to change in ways that impact overall quality of life, affects the perception of libraries, and predicts change in communities; how libraries can direct their energies toward the most useful programs for their communities; and how can programs be characterized to build greater institutional support for libraries.

Ultimately, Fournier said, NILPPA wants to shift the national narrative—to broadcast far and wide the “incredible multidimensionality of libraries.”

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