NILPPA Update: 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.”

Hands raised in the air, as in a classroom
Only about half of respondents said they learned programming skills in their degree programs.

Between September and November 2017, the National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment (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.

Learning on the job

More than 93% of respondents said they had learned on the job, while 74% said they had other informal training (e.g. webinars or workshops) and 62% said they learned from colleagues.

In detailed written responses, almost everyone cited hands-on learning as key. As one person wrote, “There is no substitute for real-world, trial-and-error experience.” Many said that they had been unprepared to manage library programs at the beginning of their careers, and only became comfortable with the job after working on project committees and attempting to organize their own programs. Others echoed this sentiment, emphasizing that when considering interpersonal skills like public speaking, communicating, and anticipating the needs of patrons, classroom training is not as effective as learning on the job.

For many respondents, colleagues are the most useful resource when learning how to run library programs. Answers frequently mention coworkers who taught them the job in an apprentice-style relationship, with a couple even writing guides for future colleagues.

Library professionals also connect through conferences and social media to find ideas. Attending other institutions’ programs is also helpful for many, as many respondents report visiting other events to assess whether certain techniques or ideas work.

This critical approach to colleagues’ work helps library professionals evaluate their own programs. Self-assessment, whether informed by others’ approaches or one’s own successes and failures, helps professionals learn to put on programs that have a positive impact on their communities.

Learning in degree programs

Though three-quarters of survey respondents hold master’s degrees in library sciences, responses diverged as to whether this schooling is useful for running public programs. Only about half of them said that they learned programming skills in their degree program.

Respondents often described their master’s coursework as focused on theory and best practices, which are not always applicable to real-life situations. Some cite this as a negative aspect, as the job requires a much more direct approach to potential problems than coursework can offer. Others feel that the theory learned in graduate studies gives them a framework for their understanding of their role, their community, and what services their institution ought to offer.

Of course, library schools differ in the courses they offer, as some prioritize running programs and others do not address it. Of the 874 respondents who answered an open-ended question, 119 mentioned explicitly that their graduate school experience has helped them in their role as a programming librarian, while 110 disagreed, citing irrelevant courses or outdated curricula.

Those who felt that the coursework was unhelpful often cited professors who were removed from the day-to-day experience of running programs, or changes in the years since the librarian had completed their degree. One person stated, “The half-life of an MLS is ten years. Twenty-five years in, very little of my professional practice relies on my MLS program.” Others lament that their program did not offer courses on marketing and budget management.

Learning over time, in real time

Here’s one possible reason why. Degree programs may not be able to provide the same longitudinal opportunities that real-world experiences can, and they cannot always simulate the constraints that crop up in the real world.

Several survey respondents noted the length of experiences that had taught them about running public programs: “20 years on the job,” a typical response noted. Others echoed this sentiment: “Doing it for years shows what works and what doesn’t,” one wrote. Another noted, “I feel I’ve drawn my skills and abilities from nearly everything I’ve ever done — over a long career.” Similarly, when respondents were asked to explain their self-assessment, many pointed to their time on the job.

Other respondents focused on the importance of practical constraints that cannot be easily integrated into formal training:

“Formal training isn’t a requirement, but planners need to know their personal and institutional constraints. If at a university, when are midterm exams offered, what competing events are already calendared, what time of day is best.”

For that reason, more than 50 people suggested that degree programs must provide opportunities to plan an actual program or require programming internships. Both of these approaches were seen as much more valuable than traditional coursework in teaching programming skills.

What do you think?

  • How did you come to running public programs?
  • What skills and experience do you find the most relevant?
  • How else could degree programs prepare students to do this kind of work?

Comment below or on the NILPPA website, or email ALA's Public Programs Office.

NILPPA: Phase I is made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services grant number LG-96-17-0048-17.