Program Development: Key Issues

The first workshop in Philadelphia in January 2014 covered considerable ground in describing the types, audiences, and goals for library programming. Missing from their analyses were discussions of how public programming decisions are made. What are the best practices to guide this process and how might they differ from one type of program to another?

Following this first meeting, scholar and librarian Dr. David Carr distributed his personal notes in which he wrote, “A public library is constructed for use by the people. Its purpose is to address a community’s character and needs, and to anticipate its changes. Its services and collections serve the common wealth in that place. And by its presence and programs, it creates something that lives.”

Carr’s comments address a primary theme, regardless of the type of library being discussed, that occurred throughout the advisors’ conversations: Programming is effective to the degree it serves the authentic needs and interests of its target participants.

There are several program-development models through which libraries seek to meet these needs and interests. The development of library programs generally fall into three categories:

  1. Programs developed at the local/branch or college/university level by the library staff;
  2. Programs developed and distributed by a regional or national entity; and
  3. Collaborative or culturally co-created programs, developed through partnerships.

The second group of workshop participants examined each of these program types, defining elements of strengths and weaknesses of each. They sought to define elements of success unique to each type. To some degree, the participants found little difference in the impact based on how the program was developed. Overall, the success of a program had far more to do with its relevance and relationship to audience interests. For evaluation of these programs, they continued to look to such indicators as attendance, engagement in the topic, follow-up “buzz,” and repeat visitation.

There were, however, some notable differences. Locally developed programs, for example, were seen to have the advantage of flexibility, targeting audience needs quite specifically. If well received, they can become part of a series that continues to build audiences. They afford the opportunity to connect to collections, local events, new population groups, and current issues. The effectiveness of local programs can build community support and increase funding as well.

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Beyond audience, however, success can also be defined by the impact on the institution itself. Nationally distributed programs may particularly afford this benefit. They are generally adaptable to different sizes of communities, regardless of type of library. They link to issues of national interest. They are accompanied by such resources as bibliographies or templates that each library can use. These kinds of programs offer replicable models and sometimes direct training, leading to useful professional development. The challenge to each library, however, is to create the links between national issues and community concerns.

Both project workshops emphasized the need for libraries to understand community issues. Because libraries are perceived as neutral spaces, they can present difficult or controversial topics. The groups likewise stressed, however, that programs do not all have to be about critical issues. They can be designed for entertainment and pleasure, to bring together individuals who share a specific interest, or to teach new hobbies or crafts. Programming librarians can look at their populations as “prisms” and develop different kinds of programs to fit each audience’s interests.

The selection and development of programs does not appear to have a widely shared or well-defined process. Some libraries, especially those with a small or overburdened staff, report being largely reactive, building programming around availability in many instances. The best-case scenarios were defined as programming that combines opportunity with strategic direction, resources, and feasibility.

The NILPPA research framework should include an inquiry into how best to establish a framework and process for developing and presenting library programs. This process would retain the potential for flexibility and regional customization, but establish some useful guidelines. Research should learn how programming librarians select program topics and prioritize staff time, providing insight into existing best practices.


What, in your opinion, is the added value of hosting a state- or national-level program at your institution versus a program you create internally?


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Comments ( 3 )
  • Melinda Ludwiczak says:

    We were fortunate to receive grants for ALA touring exhibitions and programming. The Looking at Jazz program circa 2007 was most rewarding. The program required the library to collaborate with a local music partner – mostly radio stations, universities, etc. In our case we partnered with a local community music school – MacPhail Center for Music. The head of their jazz program had a PHD, was a teaching artist, performer and recording artist. Kelly knew his stuff – he knew the music, the history and local musicians. He was also very easy to work with and full of great ideas. The program template provided with the grant included film screening rights to present film clips of jazz documentaries, an annotated bibliography, a curriculum divided into 6 themes, promotion templates and much more. We used local funds to pair the 60-minute film program with a live concert. The program was a huge hit and brought hundreds of people to 6 Sunday afternoon programs at the library. Librarians created displays and a printed resource brochure for each theme/program. We have continued our longtime relationship with MacPhail. We’ve presented hundreds of early literacy programs for thousands of preschoolers and 2 CDs that are distributed free to families. Plus we’ve continued with live performances in many music genres using MacPhail faculty.

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  • Manju Prasad-Rao says:

    A program which is of State or national importance helps to bolster the image of the campus and the library. It also helps in increasing collaborative efforts with organizations on campus and in the local community, and makes it easier to obtain programming grants from outside agencies.

    • Institution Name/Affiliation: Long Island University
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  • Vince Juliano says:

    The advantages include lower costs (hopefully), demonstrated success at other libraries, professionally designed promotional materials, wider audience, easier and less time-consuming preparation work especially for smaller libraries that may not have the staff to fully commit to ongoing programs, and “bottom-up” suggestions from local libraries that may result in a larger audience for locally successful programs that can presented at other locations.

    • Institution Name/Affiliation: Russell Library
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