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AE 16: Planning for the Library's Future

This Administrative Essential covers:

  • The importance of planning
  • Planning basics
  • PLA's New Planning for Results
  • Wisconsin Library Standards
  • County library standards
  • Technology planning
  • A plan outline

The importance of planning

Library directors must work with their boards not only to enforce the library's policies, but also to operate and develop the library and its resources within the constraints of the budget. But to effectively carry out library operations, the director needs to have a well developed plan of service, as well as a clear sense of the library's mission.

Effective planning should be a coordinated effort between the library board, the director, as well as other library staff and members of the community. Although planning can be an uncertain process for some of those involved, the shared process can cause individuals to rethink how library services are provided, and the end result can be a shared community vision for the library. The plan will take into account the resources available to the library as well as community needs. If all parties involved in the process fully participate, the results can be fruitful and satisfying to all.

Planning provides a number of benefits to the library and its community, including

  • Confirmation and articulation of the library's purpose
  • Analysis of use, needs, and resources
  • Establishing a framework for priorities and decision-making
  • Identification of opportunities and problems
  • Consideration of the community's needs in the development of the library's program
  • Tangible evidence that the library is managed effectively
  • Qualification for additional outside funding sources

Planning basics

Each library board needs to determine the appropriate level of detail and complexity for their library's planning process. Such factors as the size of the community, the local planning resources available, the length of time since the last planning process, and other identified needs may affect the process. This brief chapter cannot substitute for planning resources, literature or consultants to lead to effective results, but directors can work with board members can determine what is needed and then take appropriate action to get there. A good planning process is analogous to a successful banquet recipe: the necessary resources, tools, and ingredients must be assembled; the appropriate cook selected; sufficient time allocated for mixing and cooking; then the community can be assembled to enjoy the results.

A strategic plan, no matter how elaborate or detailed, should include three essential components: a concise statement of the library's mission, clear indication the service to be provided to the customers, and a vision of the library in the future. A good mission statement is concise, general, clear, and memorable. The actions to achieve the services should be specific, achievable, and measurable. And the vision should be a coherent and inspiring vision of what the library will be at a specified point in the future.

If your library has a strategic plan that is regularly reviewed, adapted, and implemented, then the process may be fairly simple and straightforward. You might collect input from the community to determine if the library's mission and vision is still appropriate, and adapt the plan to newly perceived needs. If the library has not developed a plan in some time, then a more comprehensive process may be in store.

PLA's New Planning for Results

In 2001, the Public Library Association published The New Planning for Results: A Streamlined Approach, by Sandra Nelson (Chicago: ALA, 2001). That work, further developed and refined by Sandra Nelson, became Strategic Planning for Results (Chicago: ALA, 2008). The books present a comprehensive planning process for public libraries, with appropriate steps, time-frames, and necessary work forms to achieve results. The method encourages the use of a committee and facilitator and outlines a five-month process that involves assembling participants and information, determining the library's service responses, establishing goals and objectives, developing the final plan, informing the community, and putting it all into action.

The selection of an appropriate facilitator is an important consideration, and the right choice will depend on local circumstances. While it is tempting to hire a library planning professional to conduct the process, the cost can be prohibitive. Sometimes a community leader or local official has the skills to conduct the process, but if they do not, the result can be an outcome that is misdirected or poorly developed. While a library professional can bring certain knowledge of the field to the discussion, sometimes a facilitator who is not from the field can ask clarifying questions that help to provoke thought, challenge assumptions, or direct the flow of discussion. If you do not have budget to hire a professional, you may be able to recruit an experienced facilitator for little or no expense from your local businesses or schools. Your regional technical college may offer a quality assurance program or specialists to assist businesses and non-profits in the area.

Wisconsin Library Standards

The Wisconsin Public Library Standards publication provides a useful tool in a library's planning process. At a minimum, the checklists can be reviewed periodically to determine that the library meets at least a basic level of service, that its policies and programs meet statutory requirements for library service and library system membership, and that its staff are adequately equipped and trained to proved service to the community. But the document can also be a valuable tool to help measure where the library is in relation to others and to help set a realistic target of where the library wants to be.

Small libraries may determine that more comprehensive planning processes, such as the PLA's Planning for Results, are too complex or involved to be considered for local needs. Libraries may wish to take on an abbreviated process based on the Standards document. The planning might involve steps such as:

  • Use the checklists to target areas for improvement
  • Use annual report data to compare your library against quantitative standards
  • Use annual report data to extract comparable information for targeted comparisons

The planning group might combine such comparisons with a three-question process:

  • What business are you in? Ask yourselves "who, what, where, why, how?"
  • What do your customers want? Rely on the information you hear from public.
  • How do you get to what your customers want? Be creative, build local relationships.

However you decide to go about your strategic planning, make it happen! Be sure to make the process inclusive of library staff, local officials, community members, and the business community. Be prepared to provide the necessary resources and information. Plan your planning so that the participants know how much involvement and responsibilities they will have. Once the plan is completed, promote it, execute it, re-allocate resources as necessary, measure and review results, and make appropriate adjustments, but not unilaterally. A good planning process includes a plan for evaluation and review. A strategic plan is never truly finished, since periodically the process should be repeated.

County library standards

Counties may improve county-wide library services by establishing library planning committees to create a plan of service ensuring that public library services are available for all residents of the county. Those plans may also include minimum standards of operation for public libraries within the county, and the plan for library service can also require cross-municipal compensation among the libraries within the county. [Wis. Stats 43.11 (3) (d) and (e)]

If your county has adopted minimal standards as part its plan of service, you should work with your board to ensure that you have sufficient funding and resources to meet those standards each year, or your municipality could lose the right to exempt itself from the county library tax. [s. 43.64 (2m)]

Technology planning

Computing and networking technologies, in all their various forms, are an integral part of almost all library services. To help make certain these technologies are used in an efficient and cost effective manner, libraries should develop a technology plan. Ideally, any technology plan will be part of a broader long-range plan encompassing all library services.

Although technology plans are not required for a public library to qualify for E-rate discounts (the regional system technology plan is sufficient for member libraries), effective library plans should include components for technology since library services are so infused and influenced by the availability of computing resources, the Internet, and changes in information media formats. Besides addressing local needs for adequate workstations, training, and support, the plan should dovetail with the library system plan. 

A plan outline

This plan outline is based on five-month model in The New Planning for Results(Chicago: ALA, 2001).

Month 1: Plan to Plan

  1. Decide on the process to be used: The board commits to a process and determines a facilitator
  2. The board establishes participants for the planning committee: The director or staff may arrange logistics, and coordinate invitations or recruit family members.

Month 2: Invent the Future

  1. Determine the Community Vision. Visualize success-what would it include? Articulate elements of the vision, those affected, the benefit & result.
  2. Identify Community Needs: Collect data, conduct S.W.O.T. analysis, compare & prioritize statements or outcomes.
  3. Determine the Library's Service Responses.

Month 3: Assemble Future

  1. Draft Goals and Outcomes
    • Goal: The outcome your community (or target group) will receive because the library provides a particular service response
    • Outcome: The way the library will measure its progress toward a goal.
  1. Identify Activities: What is required to achieve the goals?
  2. Determine Resources Required: Personnel, partners, materials, equipment, facilities, funding.

Month 4: Inform Everyone

  1. Write the Plan, committee review, Board approval.

Month 5: Move Into the Future

  1. Communicate the plan to staff, the governing body, and the community

Ongoing: Re-allocate resource and implement the plan.

Sources of additional information

For more information consult Trustee Essential 11: Planning for the Library's Future and the Wisconsin Public Library Standards,

Matthews, Joseph R., Strategic Planning and Management for Library Managers. Westport CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2005.

Provides tools and techniques for managers for planning, including development of mission and visions statements.

Nelson, Sandra, The New Planning for Results. Chicago: American Library Association, 2001.

Nelson, Sandra, Strategic Planning for Results. Chicago: American Library Association, 2008.

A comprehensive planning process, including the expanded services responses, for public libraries, with work forms and resources. A companion volume, Implementing for Results, is planned for publication.