Home 9 Blog Posts 9 Post-Covid Futures Planning For Libraries: Part 1

Post-Covid Futures Planning For Libraries: Part 1

by | Feb 20, 2024 | 0 comments

#

By Nancy K. Herther, consultant and former academic librarian, University of Minnesota Libraries

McKinsey Global Institute published their early assessment of the long-term impact of COVID, “The future of work after COVID-19” in February 2021. The impact on libraries, as with many institutions, was what has been called “pandemic-transformation.” In this literature review, authors noted key indicators including “human and infrastructural challenges, workplace anxiety and stress, infodemic and changed information seeking behavior, and leadership and planning, respectively.”

DEVELOPING A BROAD PANORAMIC VIEW 

Another similar effort, the Panoramic Project, provides another type of tool for public service planning in a crisis.  This organization describes itself as “a cross-industry research initiative working towards purposeful collaboration and transparency to more accurately measure the role public libraries play in the book business, while partnering with publishers and libraries to measure and analyze the impact of library marketing and events on discovery of specific titles and authors, and sales via local booksellers any beyond.”

THE SEISMIC INFLUENCE OF COVID: THE LIMITS OF FUTURE PLANNING

In March 2020, the Financial Times quoted Beatrice Weder di Mauro, of the pan-European Centre for Economic Policy Research, about the inability of anyone to truly anticipate COVID-19 and its lingering global impacts: “If anybody had told you at Christmas that this year would be one [with] an enormous symmetric shock hitting all the advanced countries and that this would cost something like 50 per cent of GDP for a few months or maybe longer . . . the kind of thing that happens in a war, everybody would have said you are crazy […] There was no imagination to see where something like this could come from.” 

If there has been any lesson to be learned from the past nearly five years, economists, academics and others in this era of dramatic, global change, say future planning is a weak indicator in any sector of the economy, education or daily life.

And it isn’t over yet. The CDC timeline on Covid begins at December 2019 and still lingers in the U.S., and works to track the ongoing variations in the disease. Despite this, the CDC officially declared the “End of the Federal COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) Declaration” on September 12, 2023; while at the same time, the Financial Times noting that “the Covid-19 pandemic that is ravaging lives and livelihoods around the world has also claimed a more subtle victim: conventional taboos in economic policy thinking are swiftly being swept away.”  If ever there was a time for clear future forecasting, this is it.

UNCERTAINTY IS OPPORTUNITY

“Prediction is concerned with future certainty; forecasting looks at how hidden currents in the present signal possible changes in direction for companies, societies, or the world at large,” notes Paul Saffo in a 2007 Harvard Business Review article.  “Above all, the forecaster’s task is to map uncertainty, for in a world where our actions in the present influence the future, uncertainty is opportunity.”

In a 2021 Public Library Quarterly article Marie Palmer, a Canadian library consultant, stressed that “perhaps the biggest challenge moving forward will be managing and prioritizing all the exciting and innovative ideas that public libraries and their communities will generate. But sorting and spreading information is what libraries are good at, so bring on the future.”

“What has become especially clear in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is that libraries need to know as much as possible about their environments and communities so that informed decisions can be made in a timely and efficient manner, even quickly when necessary,” notes Myka Kennedy Stephens, author of ACRL Publications’ Integrated Library Planning, She cautions that “over the course of my career, I’ve learned that leadership in libraries and education is all about change: not only adapting and responding to change in our communities, technologies, and environment, it is also embodying the change we’d like to see in our world. An effective leader approaches change with an open mind and shrewd curiosity, ready to envision and innovate new paths.”

PLANNING FOR UNEXPECTED CHANGE

Reading Public Library

Browen Gamble, Pennsylvania’s Reading Public Library Executive Director was not only the first female director in the library’s history, but under her leadership  she initiated “significant growth in community partnerships, including the funding of joint initiatives that take library programming and services far beyond the physical walls of RPL’s four branches…These projects often focused on neighborhoods considered “book deserts” and address our community’s stark literacy inequities.”

 “In my experience,” Gamble notes, “there is tension between cutting edge and advancing so fast that you may not be able to stuff the genie back in the bottle. My predecessor was a very cautious man and if tech advances were made, it was well behind the curve. When I became Executive Director in January 2016, Reading Public Library had no digital streaming media, no presence on YouTube or IGTV and no app. Within three months, all of those were in place and growing.” This is the attitude Gamble and her staff had in dealing with the growing pandemic.

“I don’t believe we can ‘future-proof.’ Politics and climate change and local, national, and world events may interrupt the best-laid plans,” Gamble believes. “Be prepared for change and have the tools and staff on board that will help your organization to meet a variety of future challenges.”

WORKING TO CREATE A NEW, BETTER FUTURE

“I think we all now realize how quickly “normal” can be interrupted and shut down,” Gamble explains. “How can institutions such as libraries future-proof their services? We learned there’s not time for careful analysis, trial runs, and a lengthy review process. We need to be nimble and have the staff and resources to move quickly and decisively. The RPL scenario planning began as COVID lockdowns ended. By looking forty years into the future, and with our experience during COVID, our final plan embraces the ability to be nimble. I don’t believe we can ‘future-proof.’ Politics and climate change and local, national, and world events may interrupt the best-laid plans. Be prepared for change and have the tools and staff on board that will help your organization to meet a variety of future challenges.”

Matt Finch

As a [part of this process, RPL consulted with British consultant Matthew Finch Associate Fellow at Saïd Business School at University of Oxford, who worked from Europe in the process. Finch notes that “prior to the pandemic, many organisations had been exploring new ways of collaborating in the networked world; during the pandemic, even more communities and institutions found ways to work together online – some temporary, some more lasting. Although distance presents different challenges and opportunities to in-person work, it’s amazing what a strong human connection can be built via live video and collaborative whiteboard platforms.”

“In this case, the challenge of distance also created an opportunity to coach the RPL team from afar over a sustained period, something that might not have been possible if we’d factored in accommodation and travel costs. At the same time,” Finch reported, “RPL staff facilitated their own in-house strategy sessions based on the scenarios. Scenario planning is about finding an approach that works for the user or “scenario learner”. Rather than a consultant inflicting one rigid methodology on their clients, we work together to discover what will serve the learner best, and no two engagements are ever quite the same. In this case, RPL’s existing institutional appetite for learning, experimentation, and audacious play helped us to work together in productive and rewarding ways.”

“WE HAD FUN”

“We had fun during the scenario planning process! I have endured years of traditional strategic planning and scenario planning is inventive, imaginative, and engaging,” Gamble revels. “The ten of us on the team came from different departments and were of all ages. We had staff from youth services, outreach, fundraising, the board of trustees, administration, IT, etc. This was important to me and Matt Finch to get the widest view possible of RPL and its role in our community as well as the wider world.”

“At the end of our scenario planning with Matt Finch, I turned the results into a written strategic plan as an internal document for the Board of Trustees and library administration and staff,” Gamble cautions. “But, let’s be honest, our community partners aren’t interested in reading it. I find infographics to be a clear, concise, and visual tool so I hired a local graphic artist who was a presenter at our annual Comic-Con. We refined his idea together and the result is what we used for public distribution.” 

Nancy K. Herther is a consultant and former academic librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries covering topics related to technology, libraries and information policy. 

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

LATEST NEWS

Tea Time With Katina And Leah

4-12-24 The wonderful Ramune Kubilius sends us this astonishing news!   Garbage collectors in Ankara, Turkey, started noticing an increasing number of books being thrown away. Rather than let them end up in landfills, they began rescuing the books....

Tea Time With Katina And Leah

4-12-24 The wonderful Ramune Kubilius sends us this astonishing news!   Garbage collectors in Ankara, Turkey, started noticing an increasing number of books being thrown away. Rather than let them end up in landfills, they began rescuing the books....

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR PODCAST

Share This