It Is Their Library | The Purpose of the Planning Process | The Planning Process | Information Needed for the Planning Process | Data Gathering Methods | Collection Development and the Planning Process | Further Reading | Self-Assessment #16
It Is Their Library
As the librarian in a small public library, you probably already base your selection decisions on what you know about your users’ tastes and backgrounds. If you are involved in community activities and events, you will be somewhat familiar with your town’s socioeconomic make-up. It is unwise to think that you, your staff, and your board know all that there is to know about the community and the role the library can play in helping the community achieve its potential. In order to really engage the community in identifying the roles the public library can and should play in the life of the citizens, a planning process should be undertaken at least every four to six years to ensure that the library is moving with the community rather than independent of it.
The full planning process, as it is presented in The New Planning for Results: A Streamlined Approach (2001) by Sandra Nelson along with the 2007 Public Library Service Responses by June Garcia and Sandra Nelson provide detailed information about the planning process and the roles a library might choose to fulfill in the next few years. The older concept of a community needs assessment still has some place in this planning process, however the emphasis now is upon engaging key community leaders and citizens in helping the library identify the needs of the community and selecting library service responses to emphasize during the next cycle of the organization’s life. While the difference between the planning process and a needs assessment may seem minor, the important point is that the library ought now to be responding to identified needs of the community that can be documented outside of the library’s sphere rather than doing the same things it has always done; this can be a matter of doing the wrong things really rather than doing the right things even if they are new things for the library. The newer process and the newly redefined service responses help to create an environment for innovation and local excellence that goes beyond previously prescribed library roles.
By engaging in a planning process and thus identifying appropriate service responses, a library discovers many things about the interests of individuals, the diversity of the community, and the number of programs, issues, and concerns previously unknown or unacknowledged by the librarian and/or the board members. All of us tend to “hang out” with people who are much like ourselves and this often blinds us to the needs and expectations of those who are less similar. Since the planning process will be time-consuming and therefore expensive, it is important to understand the advantages the library gains by engaging in this exercise. You will find it useful to familiarize yourself with the process and to use it when the time is appropriate.
The Purpose of the Planning Process
The purpose of the planning process is to develop a plan that will take the library from where it is today to where the community needs it to be three to five or more years from now. The plan serves as a road map to enable the library board, the city/county, and the library management and staff to clarify priorities and to make daily decisions that move the library forward towards clearly stated goals. In the process of planning, the library will become more fully aware of the needs of the community and will be able to better identify the services that will assist the community in reaching the goals and vision that it has for its future. The library will also identify organizations and initiatives that can serve as potential partners to help the library be more fully involved in the community. The planning process also requires that the library provide data about the community and the library to provide meaningful context for the process. Then those involved use and analyze the data to help set goals and objectives for on-going progress. While a community needs assessment or a long-range plan are not part of the collection development policy, decisions regarding information resources should be made as a direct response to the needs of a specific community and can only be effective if there is a clear sense of the direction the library intends to take over the next three to five years. The planning process can help the library move forward and answer the following types of questions:
- How is the user community changing (e.g., socioeconomic status, demographics, employment trends, development plans)?
- What organizations and programs in the community might the library consider as partners for future endeavors?
- Who uses the library and why?
- Who does not use the library and why?
- What additional services or programs might better meet the needs of segments of the community?
- To what extent are the current library programs and services successful?
- Are the physical facilities adequate for providing the types of library services needed by the citizens?
- Which organizations and initiatives in the community would serve as good partners for library projects and programs?
- What types of materials and information would best help the community as a whole reach its vision?
- What are the community’s expectations regarding the library for the future?
- Are staffing patterns and library hours adequately meeting the needs of the community?
Engaging in a planning process can be a major undertaking. The level and intensity of the exercise depends on your particular library and community but it is essential if the library is to be truly responsive to the community and set meaningful goals and achieve them.
The Planning Process
The steps in the planning process as outlined by Nelson (2001) are the following:
- Step One: Preparing to plan
- Decide the techniques to use for initial data gathering
- Select the individuals to be involved as part of the planning committee
- Establish the timeline for the project
- Gather the initial data and format it to best inform the committee & others
- Prepare the board, staff and planning committee
- Step Two: Identifying possibilities
- Convene the committee for a working session
- Through discussion & group process determine a community vision
- Identify community needs necessary to achieve the vision
- Step Three: Inventing the future
- Select likely service responses (18 possibilities, Garcia & Nelson, 2007)
- Librarian, staff and board engage in discussions
- Board revise service responses as necessary
- Librarian, staff and board draft goals and objectives
- Step Four: Assembling the future
- Librarian and staff identify preliminary activities
- Librarian, staff and board determine resource requirements
- Step Five: Informing the stackholders
- Librarian, staff and board write the plan
- Board and other officials approve the plan
- Librarian and board communicate the results of the planning process
- Step Six: Moving into the future
- Librarian and board allocate or reallocate resources
- Monitor implementation
- Evaluate outcomes
- Adjust strategies and resources as needed
It is during the initial planning to plan that the librarian and staff will be involved in the process of gathering the baseline data about the community and the library. This process was previously referred to as a community needs assessment but in the total context of the planning process it becomes the orientation material for the work of a broad segment of community leaders and representatives to use in defining the vision for the community. With the changes in our society and our understanding of strategic management and planning, this data gathering phase has become only the ground work for a bigger and more extensive process (the planning process) that provides not only the raw data about the community and library but also brings together community representatives to establish a vision for the community and to fit the library’s role into that vision. This is a more holistic approach and provides more involvement by the community. It is, after all, their library!
Information Needed For the Planning Process
The process that is typically called the “planning process” for public libraries has been adapted over a twenty-plus period to adjust to the changing nature of the environment and the culture of public libraries in the United States. The most current version of the formal process and its various steps are clearly delineated in Nelson’s book published by the American Library Association. It is one of the few really essential books for a public library. It provides step-by-step guidance to assist even the smallest public library in moving from the present to a planned and deliberate future. The data prepared at the outset of the project, usually by the library staff, will enable those engaged in the planning process to make the best possible decisions. The community leaders and representatives will use this data to help determine the needs of the community and to recommend potential service responses for the library to consider. There is no need to reiterate here the steps, forms, and outcomes contained in the guide book but it is important for the librarian to realize that much of the work of gathering the initial data and information that the planning group will require will fall to the librarian and staff. This is the information that those invited to participate on the planning committee will need to help them identify the primary roles they will wish to recommend for the library’s future.
The types of information typically gathered as a prelude to the planning process are the following:
- Historical development of the region and the community
To understand the historical context of today’s city, town or county and to identify underlying values and assumptions that still might be influencing people’s thinking about both the present and the potential future.
- Geographical and infrastructure information
To understand the community’s growth patterns and population distribution as well as its transportation, media and other infrastructure factors and how these affect the use of library services and facilities.
- Political and legal factors
To understand the political and official leadership and the less obvious power structures that might be at play within the community in order to make plans that are as congruent as possible with the future vision for the community as perceived by the movers and shakers of the community.
- Demographic data
To provide statistical data (not just impressions) of the current demographics of the community including those segments that might be somewhat invisible to the library board and staff and to identify population distribution changes and trends that will affect library service needs.
- Economic data
To clarify the true economic base of the community and to better understand the needs of the employers and employees while appreciating the impact the local economics have upon the ability of local government, including the library, to deliver appropriate services. The cost of living, the average salary levels, the cost of housing and manufactured goods all impact the tax base and the library’s funding.
- Social, cultural, educational and recreational organizations & providers
To complete the picture of the community the planning committee will need to understand the broad array of social, cultural, educational and recreational organizations in the community and to see their relative influence on both their members or participants as well as upon the rest of the existing and future citizens of the area. These organizations help to determine the community’s values and social patterns.
Data Gathering Methods
All of this information can be acquired in a variety of ways. Some of it will be available in public records while others will have to be gleaned from between the lines and through conversations with key individuals or groups of citizens. You can collect data by interviewing key informants in the community, holding a community forum, conducting focus groups, researching social indicators/demographic information from public records and reports, and performing field surveys. Most libraries do not have the necessary budgetary and staff resources to use more than one method for any given type of information and the library often relies upon data gathered by power companies, school districts and other governmental agencies (federal, state and local) for use in the planning process. The data collection methods most often used are discussed further below.
The most often used method of data collection for the initial basic data is to mine appropriate public records (such as the U.S. Census). Here you can find out social indicators and demographics for your community. Using this data, research has found several factors (e.g., age, gender, education level, income level, locality, marital status) that tend to contribute to library use (from Evans, 2005) but all of these could be questioned as the environment changes:
- Library use decreases with age.
- Women use libraries more than men.
- Library use increases when people have more education, until the post graduate level; library use decreases when people reach the post graduate level.
- Library use is low when people have a low income or a high income.
- The greater the distance people must travel to get to the library, the less they use the library.
- Couples with children use the library more.
You can determine these and other traits in your community from public records, which can help the planning group identify the current needs for your community and the most likely service responses to meet those needs.
Surveys and questionnaires involve asking individuals in the community about their library needs. Surveys can be implemented in several ways:
- Mailing questionnaires to randomly selected members of the community (or in small communities, to all households)
- Performing telephone surveys
- Handing out surveys while people are in the library
- Posting questionnaires on your public access computer catalog (if your library has one)
- Posting questionnaires on the library’s webpage
Response rates vary depending on the method used. For example, mailed surveys tend to have the lowest response rates while surveys performed over the telephone tend to have higher participation rates although as fewer and fewer households have listed numbers for landline phones, many potential survey participants will be eliminated from the survey pool. While mailed surveys are the most expensive option and get low response rates, the mailed survey method requires very little time to implement and is easy to coordinate. It is standard practice to provide confidentiality to your survey participants; reassuring your participants that their survey responses will be kept confidential might help improve your response rates, especially in a small community.
Another possibility for surveys is to have the staff, while roving in the library, engage individuals in a very brief live survey and conversation about the library. One need not bother everyone using the library but as individuals browse the collections or seem to have some time, a few focused questions might solicit excellent ideas. However, it is unlikely that you will hear many negative comments when discussing the library in the library. This would not be a good approach to gain balanced opinions about the current library but would work when you are looking for ideas about “if money were no object, what would you like to see the library have or do?” Another possible question might be “what do you see as the greatest challenge in our community for the next few years?” Or, “what is the best idea you ever heard about something a library is or was doing?” You and your staff could probably design a one or two really good questions to solicit ideas. An idea wall with post-it notes for people to use to post their ideas in response to such questions would be another way to proceed.
Information gathered from surveys is only as good as the questions that are asked; thus, the phrasing of survey questions is a very important consideration and can have a tremendous impact on the results you get. In addition to the way the question is phrased, survey questions can be formatted in several ways: as open ended questions that require the participant to write in a response, as fixed alternative questions that ask participants to select one of the presented options, or as closed questions that require participants to answer yes or no. Each of these formats has advantages and disadvantages; how you phrase and format these questions must be carefully considered. It is always a good idea to pretest your questions to help identify flaws in the question format. You might also want to solicit help from an experienced survey researcher at this stage if you are not engaging a consultant to assist with this stage of the planning process.
An initial stage in the information gathering stage is often for the librarian and perhaps one board member to schedule formal interviews with key community players so as to solicit their advice and support and to draw upon their knowledge of the community, the trends and changes, and the envisioned future. Such interviews should be conducted at a time and place convenient for the community leader and should not last more than one hour. It is appropriate to take notes during the interview and to discuss the key points afterwards so that the information can be shared with the planning group if appropriate.
Focus group interviews
Focus group interviews were developed as a tool for marketing and have been used extensively for this and other purposes. There are many books and articles addressing the specifics of focus group interviews which might be used by the librarian who wishes to engage in this form of market research as a component of the planning process. For now, it is sufficient to say that the process involves inviting 10 to 15 individuals at a time to participate in a structured discussion about the library and/or community with at least one person as questioner and at least one person as observer/note-taker. The questions to be asked are structured prior to the meeting which typically lasts up to two hours. A series of such interviews are held to draw upon various segments of the community and then the findings are combined into a report. This can be a labor intensive process and to be successful, those conducting the interviews need both experience and training in the techniques.
Another form of focus group interview, one that is usually for a larger audience rather than individuals invited to attend, is the community forum. In this instance, all interested individuals are invited to attend a public meeting to discuss the future services of the library. An agenda and protocols for the forum or forums need to be developed prior to the forum and it is useful to have the forum conducted by a skilled facilitator but not by the librarian. One of the difficulties with this type of information gathering event is that it is easy for a few individuals to derail the central effort with personal issues or negative attitudes that do not result in positive input for the planning process.
Collection Development and the Planning Process
The primary service responses selected by a library as a result of the planning process will provide very specific guidance regarding the appropriate resources necessary to fulfill the service initiatives. The resources needed are likely to include staff, collections, facilities, and technology. Once the service responses are approved by the Board, the staff will have an opportunity to outline programs and more practical plans with goals and objectives that might enable the library to provide the types of services envisioned for the community. When the goals and objectives, along with the programmatic details are fleshed out for the plan, the library will have its marching orders with regards to all of these types of resources—staffing, information resources, facilities, and technology. The priorities for the collections will be just one component of the whole but it will influence all of the aspects of collection development work from selection and acquisitions to weeding and disposal. The Plan will provide specific goals related to collections that will then need to be incorporated into the collection development policy and procedures. Furthermore, the Plan will provide the measures to be used to determine the degree to which the library achieves success in implementing the service responses. Some of these measures will be directly related to collection development.
Thus the planning process is an integral component of the collection development function of the library and provides focused and necessary direction for the development of information resources at all levels of the organization. The data gathered in the initial stages of the planning process will enable the library to characterize the community served by the library and to link from the collection development policy document to the planning document as a means to justify the policy choices being made with regards to information resources. The planning process goes beyond a mere needs assessment by identifying how the needs will be met and what implications those choices have for the management of the library. The planning process and the collection development policy are two important documents that can guide the operations of the library towards a brighter future on behalf of the community.
Baker, S. L. & Wallace, K. L. (2002). The responsive public library collection: How to develop and market it (2nd ed.). Englewood, CO: Library Unlimited, Inc.
Cassel, K. A., & Futas, E. (1991). Developing public library collections, policies, and procedures: A how-to-do-it manual for small and medium-sized public libraries. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.
Evans, G. E., & Saponaro, M. Z. (2005). Developing library and information center collections (5th ed.). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Garcia, J. & Nelson, S. (2007). 2007 Public library service responses. Chicago: The Public Library Association of the American Library Association. (electronic file available for downloading as a purchased item)
Nelson, S. (2001). The new planning for results: A streamlined approach. Chicago: American Library Association.
Robinson, C. W. (1983). “Libraries and the community,” Public Libraries 22(1): 7-13.
Scheppke, J. (1994). “Who’s using the public library,” Library Journal 119 (October 15): 36.