Public Programs

Courtesy of the Bay Ridge Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library
Courtesy of the Bay Ridge Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library

Despite existing impediments, many libraries do offer a wide range of programs and services that attract older adults.

Whether they are marketed as “senior” services, “adult” programs or simply “public programs,” older adults who have prior relationships with libraries and strong interests in learning can usually find stimulating programs of one sort of another.

Typical Library Programs for Older Adults

They can be lecture series, craft classes, world affairs conversations, language classes or tours to local cultural institutions. They may not be based on a pedagogical framework that reflects new understanding of older adult learning; they may not be participatory or even very challenging; and they may or may not help older adults to experience the kind of mastery that comes, for instance, with a structured arts education program. However, they offer a platform on which responsive libraries and librarians can build as older adults become a more visible and vocal part of their communities.

Humanities Programming

One category of public program that is especially attractive to older adults is humanities programming. Characterized by a focus on issues, ideas or historical topics, humanities programs usually involve a core theme expressed in an exhibit or a book. Programming is designed around that theme to engage diverse learners, viewers and readers  and community partners are often invited to develop their own interpretations of the theme.

Programming Resources

There are a number of national and regional organizations and agencies that work to respond to library trends in public programming. Libraries often seek replicable programming models, ideas and even funding through organizations such as state libraries, state humanities and arts councils, and the ALA Public Programs Office.

ALA Office of Public Programs

The American Library Association’s Office of Public Programs has successfully funded and and circulated thematic exhibitions and stimulated local programming over the last 30 years on topics such as Looking at: Jazz and Picturing America.

The American Library Association Public Programs Office (PPO) promotes cultural and community programming as an essential part of library service in all types and sizes of libraries by distributing program resources in the form of traveling exhibitions, template program models such as the “Let’s Talk About It” reading and discussion series, and grants to fund varietal cultural and civic engagement programs, offers professional development opportunities for librarians, and hosts, and online hub for programming librarians.

PPO has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and numerous foundations including the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Wallace Foundation; collaborated with state libraries, state humanities councils, museums, and nonprofits representing the breadth of the arts, humanities, culture, civic engagement and science.

Book discussions, particularly the “Lets Talk About It” series, have proven one of the most consistent and successful program formats, drawing diverse, intergenerational audiences.On a yearly basis PPO supports hundreds of libraries with on the ground grant-funded programs, reaching at least one million community members nationally.

At the State Level

At the state level many state humanities councils and even some arts councils provide grants programs that enable libraries to design and carry out interpretive programs, including reading and discussion programs, readings of historical documents or film festivals and literary fairs. Some state libraries take the lead in adult programming through statewide-initiatives, such as the California State Library’s recent partnership with CAL Humanities to support “California Reads” activities throughout the state.

Although none of the above programs are marketed specifically to older adults, and there is no systematic data on the age breakdown of participants, anecdotal reports from libraries and their cultural partners across the country confirm that older adults constitute a significant portion of the audiences for humanities programs, if not a majority.