Where libraries go wrong

Strategic planning is an excellent and necessary thing to carry out in libraries. I am always a fan of stopping and thinking and listening. It’s how you move forward in a thoughtful, well-planned way. Libraries right now have to move forward or they will stop being useful to their communities, so getting out there and talking to the taxpayers is a fine thing.

I’m not going to claim to be an expert in strategic planning, because I’m not. Still, I see the results of strategic planning going on in libraries all around me, and I listen to the librarians who work in those places, and it feels like sometimes the process gets a little crazy.

Here’s one problem with the way strategic planning is often carried out in libraries. They hire a consultant. The consultant comes in and talks with the director to discover his or her plans, hopes, and ideas for the library. They tell about what they see happening in the trend-setting libraries. They then talk to the staff, who will tell them all sorts of things that they don’t realize they don’t quite understand. I’d venture to guess that virtually all of the time, people complain about communication. But one person might mean “Nobody tells us what’s happening,” and another person might mean “We never get a chance to talk to people in other departments”. The consultant doesn’t realize there’s a difference there, so they pick one or the other as something that needs to be fixed. Someone else might bring up their particular pet peeve, and voila! There it is as a point on your strategic plan.

They then talk with the community, usually through surveys and in person, and they ask them what they like about the library and what else they would like from the library. But they never ask it in a way that makes it clear that they are making choices. A patron might say, “Whenever I want to study, there isn’t a place to do it,” or “I couldn’t get into the program I wanted to see–they need a bigger space.” So that gets written down as Patrons want more study rooms and bigger program rooms, and it’s very true that they do. But no one ever asks the patrons, “Are you willing to sacrifice 25% of the book collection to get the study rooms?” They don’t ask “What do we absolutely need to preserve?”

They might ask if they are own an e-reader, and if they say yes, then that gets written down as “50% of the population own e-readers” but maybe they don’t ask them, “Do you still read print books too?” So that information isn’t factored in. They might ask about the website, and a patron might say, “I have trouble renewing my books online,” and voila! You have a point on your strategic plan about overhauling your website when the real problem is that, for instance, the patron’s card expired so they can’t renew their books using the catalog, which is linked to from the website but isn’t the website. The consultant just usually doesn’t have quite enough information to ask the right follow-up questions to get to the real issues.

There are other phases to the process–working with the library board, and so on–and I am sure that most of the time, the plan in the end brings up some changes that patrons would really like. I am quite sure ours did. But it seems to me that patrons, generally speaking, don’t like change very much–they like stability. Experienced children’s librarians know that you build up your program attendance by offering the same program at the same time for so long that customers learn to expect that program so they remember it exists. And we all know that every time you move your collections around, people can’t find what they want easily for awhile, and it makes them cranky. Just like when you go to the grocery store and they have moved things around and it takes longer to find everything? That’s how patrons feel when you rearrange the library. Part of our job is to keep changing enough to keep our services and collections and spaces fresh and in keeping with the community’s needs, but not so much that patrons lose the library they love.

My problem with library strategic plans is that by their nature, they are all about moving forward, often without taking care to preserve what is strong and working well. What we’re doing well is no longer very exciting. You can’t write articles about it and you won’t be presenting at conference about your outstanding DVD collection or your deep selection of folktales or crime fiction. You’re not going to be declared a Mover & Shaker, and make a name for yourself by making smooth, gradual changes and adaptations.  So we end up throwing all of our resources toward the shiny and the cutting-edge, but like the library that cut its outstanding teacher services because it wasn’t part of the strategic plan, we will be eliminating things that our patrons need and value.

Strategic planning is absolutely a great idea. I just wish more libraries did it better.

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