We Need to Talk (about Strategic Planning)

“Big problems can be solved by starting at the community level.” – Kate Graham, 2022

When was the last time you looked at your library’s strategic plan? If the answer is “not since we launched it”, we need to talk. Ideally, a strategic plan will guide the library board, management, and staff in making decisions about where the library is going and how it will get there within a set timeframe (typically 3-5 years). Unfortunately, it is often the case that the strategic plan is merely a showpiece document that fails to integrate itself into the regular and ongoing work of the public library.

A great place to start is to ask the question of what “strategic planning” means to you and your library. At its core, strategic planning is the process of determining an organization’s future direction and then identifying the best approach for successfully achieving that direction. While the process typically follows standard methods, the elements and results produced may be drastically different from one library/community to the next. No library is too small to have a strategic plan in place, especially when supported with the right resources.

For public libraries in Ontario, it is the Board who holds primary responsibility for the highest-level organizational planning. That role often develops in the form of strategic planning (and business planning, not addressed in this post), which requires a coordinated and organized approach that is separate from an annual report, which summarizes what your library has accomplished in the previous year. Strategic planning is all about looking ahead, dreaming big, and envisioning where the library is going and what it wants to become in the years ahead.

As you know, public library boards are comprised of community volunteers who may or may not bring expertise in this area and so for many, developing and maintaining a strategic plan can be a daunting, or frankly terrifying, task. This is why it is vital for libraries to determine early on who they will select to participate on a steering committee from among the Board, management, and staffing levels; as well as whether the Board intends to lead the process internally or bring in an external facilitator.

“A full understanding and analysis of the community allows you to uncover what the community needs, what they want, and what they aspire to be. The Strategic Plan outlines how the public library will meet the need, fulfill the want, and anticipate the aspirations.” – Ontario Library Service

Whether your library takes the route of contracting an external planning facilitator (such as the Ontario Library Service) or handles strategic planning internally, there are three primary concepts to keep in mind:

    1. Collective Intelligence – something as large and far reaching as a strategic  plan, something that will affect services and planning for an entire community, is a collaborative effort. Everyone involved is a representative of the community and therefore a valuable contributor.
    2. Strategic planning is part art AND part science – effective planning includes both standardized elements (research and information gathering) and more creative elements (thinking beyond what the library does now and really thinking about what the community is saying about its future through the data and input).
    3. Time to Think – between the necessary research, information and input gathering, community engagement, data analysis, debate and brainstorming, the strategic planning process deserves and requires time devoted to it. Planning the future direction of a cornerstone community organization such as the public library is not one to be rushed or hurried.

A primary benefit of strategic planning for public libraries is the opportunity to test your individual or group assumptions and constructively question what you think to be true about the library and its place in the community. The library’s strategic plan should reflect the needs and priorities of its community and ideally align with those of its municipality, county, or Band Council. Think about themes, ideas, and language that will resonate with your library and community.

On the flip side, a primary challenge of strategic planning for public libraries is often that of balancing the work involved with the competing demands of daily activity at the library. Scheduling time for meetings, let alone for new tasks, can be a significant barrier. But keep in mind the purpose of this type of planning and the organizational value to be gained from striking the right balance between a visually appealing document and one that is highly effective in guiding the organization forward. The strategic plan can help focus energy and resources, support clear communication, and lead to a stronger understanding of the library’s purpose.

Once your strategic plan is in place, be sure to allow room for it to grow and adapt alongside the library. Tracking progress, adjusting workplans as circumstances shift (and they will!), and assessing performance measure will ensure the plan remains a living document that helps the library meet and exceed its goals.

For anyone looking for more content and resources on strategic planning for public libraries in Ontario, and to learn more about how the OLS team can provide support, check out the OLS Strategic Planning Resource Guide.