Home 9 Blog Posts 9 Post-Covid Futures Planning For Libraries: Part 2- From Ideas To Implementation

Post-Covid Futures Planning For Libraries: Part 2- From Ideas To Implementation

by | Feb 28, 2024 | 0 comments

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

COVID has clearly demonstrated that institutions of all types require new models for serious rethinking of our own assumptions, past experience that include constant monitoring/flexibility in planning – and looking beyond the traditional, the assumed roles/functions/needs of the past and present. In the first part of this series, we looked at how in 2021 the staff of Pennsylvania’s Reading Public Library (RPL) began to work over a four month period to develop a new strategic plan for the library service, one that they hoped would be able to look to the future after the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

WORKING ACROSS BORDERS FOR CHANGE & DIRECTION

The library decided to take an unusual and very unique method with the assistance of Matthew Finch, a strategy and foresight practitioner, whose specialty is working with “companies, communities, and institutions to surface new ideas and bring them to action.” He holds “a PhD in Modern Intellectual History from the University of London” and currently serves as Adjunct Associate, at the University of Oxford in England. 

At a virtual meeting are staff from across RPL, as well as “representation from the library board, the district consultant supporting library services in the county, and Matt Finch, Associate Fellow at University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School was brought in as facilitator. The group worked for over four months to develop – from the ground up – a new strategic plan for RPL, “one adapted to the exigencies of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” 

Finch has a history of helping organizations and their leaders better us strategy and foresight as a method to “surface new ideas and bring them to action.” He holds a doctorate in Modern Intellectual History from the University of London and has written on scenario planning for academic, specialist, and popular publications.

In a coauthored 2022 article, Finch and RPL executives wrote about their work, stating that “public libraries that use scenarios for strategic planning will have greater flexibility and adaptability to implement change, especially during uncertain times.” 

“Strategic planning requires analyzing not only the future goals and trajectory of an organization but also the contextual future world in which that organization will operate,” the authors explain.  “Without being able to travel in time to see what the world will be like in ten, twenty, or even fifty years, organizations often avoid exploring this vital component to strategic planning.” 

“Despite our best efforts to anticipate, forecast, foretell, and reckon with events which are yet to happen, there is simply no way to gather data or evidence from the future until it arrives.” Finch explains. The group met with staff from across Pennsylvania’s Reading Public Library (RPL), plus representation from the library board, the district consultant supporting library services in the county on these meetings and writing a detailed  final report on the project. 

Over four months, they developed a “new strategic plan for the library service, one adapted to the exigencies of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The results looked nothing like a traditional long-range planning document, but instead “a colourful diagram, like a spider web adorned with drops of morning dew, represents the set of relationships which RPL holds with its users, funders, partners, suppliers, and other stakeholders.”

The resulting chart includes multiple layers “using tools from big government and big business to strategically navigate a COVID-affected world” in a way that  brings “together different ways of understanding the environment to successfully reach an identified goal.” 

THINKING OUT OF THE BOX

Finch and his colleagues use of Tupaia’s Map as a way to get attendees to ‘think out of the box,’ was brilliant.  Tupaia’s Map was originally invented as a way to translate “between two very different wayfinding systems and their respective representational models” to bring new meaning and relationships between concepts as a way to ‘think outside the box’.”

One of the techniques Finch’s group used was to discuss overall goals/objectives/values and how to code them. The most popular values they identified were: service, privacy, equity of access, stewardship and intellectual freedom. The least popular value was rationalism, across all codes, which by itself is very interesting. There was also less agreement concerning the relationship between the profession and the state. One example of this might be how people see intellectual freedom or censorship.

Their tool was an interactive whiteboard which, according to the library, allowed for attendees to “think outside the box” and represent the activities and roles that “represented the set of relationships which RPL holds with its users, funders, partners, suppliers, and other stakeholders.” This resulting Strategic Map reflected what attendees saw as their aspirational goals focused on the goal “to reconcile current and diverse perceptions of the library’s environment with the uncertainties which might affect the environment in the future – taking this from a static ‘map’ or goals statement to better reflect the library, its work, its goals and public.” 

WORKING WITH BRITISH STRATEGIC SUPPORT

The resulting Strategic Map, Reading Public Library, 2021 is not easy to read online; however, it presents the wide variety of roles/needs/activities/support of the RPL currently as well as indications of how they relate to the various other key factors that were perceived as key for the coming years. 

Matt Finch noted that the use of newer ways to approach planning was key in that his staff was available online but not in the same room as the RPL staff, trustees and other officials as they worked to discuss and brainstorm potential futures for the library system and what would be needed in terms of support and implementation.

“Prior to the pandemic, many organizations had been exploring new ways of collaborating in the networked world,” Finch explains.  “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,” he notes, “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 explains, “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.”

“Though only RPL staff were on-site, it still proved possible to build a rapport strong enough to allow for creativity, consensus, and even challenge — just as important as coming to agreement was the need to surface and embrace difference as a useful strategic resource. Our distinct perspectives and values helped us to see more of the strategic environment, its uncertainties, and their implications than if we had all suffered from the tunnel vision of ‘groupthink’.”

Finch’s group, themselves, used the experience to deepen their own knowledge about this type of sharing and group decision-making. “We knew we were doing really solid work and that the scenarios had truly arisen from the users, not the consultant, when we saw the name of this local river appear in one scenario title – not something we would ever have come up with otherwise. Beyond that, there was an increased sensitivity to the specific turbulence facing small to medium sized communities in the United States right now – encompassing the social, political, economic, and technological forces which are in play at every level from the federal to city and county.”

LIBRARY LEADERSHIP TRANSITION BRINGS FRESH ENERGY

The brainstorming and resulting chart provides a glimpse of the planning process.  A final PDF  provides more details on the various initiatives that have been undertaken.  A summary of the actions being taken by the library is also available as a webpage.

As these various ideas and potential goals were being developed, Reading Public Library’s director, Bronwen Gamble, retired and Melissa J. Adams became the current Executive Director at Reading Public Library, tasked with developing and implementing these goals and objectives. 

FACING THE COVID CRISIS WITH A NEW PLAN

NKH:  How has this helped in the library’s internal efforts/goals? That of presenting needs/values/etc. to the larger city community and lawmakers in order to generate the needed support during COVID.

MJA: The flexibility of the plan in part helps us to present our goals and efforts, because those goals and efforts can reshape as real world events interfere with business as usual. We received substantial ARPA funds (COVID relief funding) from the state and our local municipality because the tracks we identified from the possible scenarios already laid the ground work for requests that addressed the growing concerns. ARPA funds in particular were to address things like digital inequity, so when funds became available we already had several digital plans to explore in our requests for funding. 

It also helps inform what fundraising requests we make of donors and/or grant institutions. The digital literacy work that we’ve started because of the plan has been very big in helping to demonstrate our value to the public. Especially since we are in a city that is underserved with many household without internet or access to digital devices.

NKH: Often bureaucratic organizations and businesses create their goals/objectives/etc. in a top-down manner. This was decidedly not that type of process! What do you see as the advantages, value of this in depth type of effort?

MJA: One advantage is staff buy-in. By including staff at all levels of the organization in the process they are more invested in taking the action steps to achieve the plan. Additionally, staff who participated were able to provide a much broader and inclusive perspective into our planning. And often the ideas that come from staff are more connected to the general public than the board or executive administrations ideas. 

Another advantage was experienced during the transition between executive directors. The plan was decidedly not the prior executive director’s plan, it was the organization as a whole body’s plan. This made it easier for me, as the incoming executive director, to keep the plan moving forward. 

It really leaves room for creativity and the flexibility to adjust to the real world. We were able to change the title of the one track from Co-designed Programs to Community Responsive Programs to address growing concerns that as the world became more divisive with book challenges, ceding too much control over program to the public might create conflict. The altered track retains the core goal of the original track but speaks to the way the world/community around us is taking on more attributes of the scenario of Wild Frontier.

FLEXIBILITY TO CHANGE WITH THE TIMES

NKH: What is the larger public or professional reaction to your goals process? How did you link up to Matt Finch for this work?

MJA: I connected with Matt Finch regarding this via Bronwen Gamble, the prior director. But working with him on the article we co-authored has helped me really take ownership of this strategic plan. I haven’t seen a lot of reaction regarding working with scenarios overall. There has been a little interest but so far all are from outside of the USA. This makes me wonder if the US market is slower at embracing scenario planning. 

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.  She can be reached at herther@umn.edu

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