On Planning and Priorities

Production Tool Ref #12

During the summer of last year, while we were still finding our footing in response to the pandemic, we conducted a survey of libraries and library-support organizations across the country. The two most pressing challenges libraries identified were the ability to effectively meet the needs of a changing community with static or declining budgets and expanding understanding of the library and the services it can offer to the community. Conducting strategic planning and fostering a culture of planning can be a valuable approach to those challenges, so it was no surprise to us to see that the number one service libraries considered hiring a consultant for was planning. In fact, strategic planning and facilities planning made up 69% of the services libraries saw themselves needing in the next three to five years.

A forced slow-down, followed by a world-wide uprising for racial justice, is apparently just the sort of environment that creates fertile ground for reassessment of “business as usual.” What we have seen in fall and early 2021 has spoken directly to the needs and intentions expressed in our surveying, as libraries of all shapes and sizes are requesting planning proposals and community needs assessments. We find this very encouraging. While some people still harbor an outdated and narrow image of libraries as warehouses for books, those of us in the heart of the work understand that a library needs to be as dynamic as the people it serves. This includes meeting needs that often extend far beyond supplying reading material.

The act of engaging the community in the planning process itself draws attention to the library, expanding its perception in the community at large, as well as helping the library see the places it might be change-blind. The planning process lays out priorities, so that the needs of the community can be more thoroughly integrated into library services. As expressed in the words of Lisa Donovan, Deputy Executive Director at Central Arkansas Library System:  

“The strategic plan that we adopted in 2019 with the help of Library Strategies called for us to remove barriers and connect more with communities, especially underserved communities, and to help people reach their full potential. We have a beautiful Children’s Library, and even before the pandemic, we knew that we could and should be reaching many more children and families than we were currently serving. When COVID-19 hit and use of the Children’s Library dropped even more, we felt we had an obligation and opportunity to focus on making Children’s Library more effective. Because of the strategic plan, we now have a new community outreach coordinator, and two new community liaisons to help us connect with the Latinx and African American communities around our Children’s Library.”

The process of planning results in a document that allows the library to live and breathe its values, and a good plan will truly reflect the needs and desires of the service area. We’ve been energized by the continued interest and deep need for planning services and are already using the opportunities presented by the last year to think critically and strategically about how we can help libraries serve and reflect their communities through thoughtful planning.

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