Volume 14, No. 5 • July/August 2000
Cover Story •
Writing a Successful Long-Range Plan for a PL
by Andrea D. Lewis
Anne Arundel County Public Library (AACPL) completed its first long-range
plan under the guidance of a consultant more than 20 years ago. Since then,
there have been three more plans, with the most recent just completed in
March 2000. AACPL is a 15-branch, suburban public library system headquartered
in Annapolis, Maryland. Located in the Baltimore-Washington corridor along
the Chesapeake Bay, AACPL serves a diverse population of over 475,000.
We are the fifth-largest public library system in Maryland with an annual
circulation of over 5 million and holdings of more than 1 million items.
A History of Good Planning
Each of our long-range plans has been used to guide the operations of our system from circulation to materials selection to programming. While 20 years ago we may have been mostly discussing materials in print as opposed to the online resources and computer hardware needed today, the focus of our current long-range plan is in many ways similar to previous ones. Most importantly, we are still concerned with how we can best serve our public.
As Benjamin E. Mays, the former president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, once said: “The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach.” As much as we may want to provide excellent service to the public, no organization can move forward without having a goal. And you cannot reach your goal without a tool to navigate with. That tool is the long-range plan. With it, you can plot a course to accommodate the changing needs of your community and available resources, both monetary and otherwise, as well as the growth of the library profession.
We began the process of developing our current long-range plan in the fall of 1998. First, we gathered usage data. Then we had to form the committee. Finally, we scheduled a series of meetings during which we plotted out our mission, goals, and objectives. Although it’s time-consuming, when done properly, long-range planning can be a very rewarding process.
The long-range plan should be the foundation of the operations of your
organization. It is an opportunity to closely examine your library and
to determine the role you wish to assume within your community. Once your
plan is complete, it serves as a framework for how you conduct business
and helps you stay on course. While it is tempting to try to be all things
to all people, you cannot. A long-range plan provides focus and will help
you make some of the difficult choices easier for your organization. Perhaps
most importantly, a long-range plan can support and justify requests for
funding. With a plan in place you can show why funds are needed, what they
will support, and who will benefit.
The Best Way to Get Started
The first step is to gather information. You must know your library and the community you serve inside and out. While the variables are always changing, it is important that you’re not guessing about the needs of the people you are serving. You need factual data.
We began with an analysis of the community surrounding each branch. Branch managers were charged with doing a “drive-around” in their areas to determine things such as what new businesses had come into the area (and which ones had left), school enrollment, and residential development. We also looked at the population of the county (both current statistics as well as projected growth well into the 21st century), age, race, gender, and household income.
Next, we initiated public surveys in the fall of 1998 with the help of a consulting firm. Our objective was to find out how our customers were using our various services and materials. We found that our customers are mostly between the ages of 25 and 64, are more highly educated than the Anne Arundel County population as a whole, and are predominantly white. Half of our walk-in customers were seeking information, and a large proportion of these information seekers (55 to 60 percent) sought out information on their own. The Internet and our catalog were used most often, followed by reference and circulating materials. Interestingly enough, though most people who came into our branches were using the Internet to find information, very few used our Web site for the same purposes from their homes or offices.
Coupled with our annual statistics on circulation and usage, the community
analysis and surveys were critical pieces in the long-range planning equation.
After we gathered all the data, it was time to organize.
Forming the Plan with Our Own Staff
At the outset, we made the decision not to hire a consultant this time to create the plan, but to instead rely on the vast expertise of our staff members. Most had been through the long-range planning process with AACPL and other public libraries several times. Anyone interested in participating in the process was invited to submit his or her name, and a committee of 11, including members of our board of trustees, was selected by the administration.
Having representatives on the planning committee from all areas of your staff is invaluable for one reason—it gets people to buy in to the plan. You must bring everyone on board from the outset. When everyone understands and feels they are a part of the process, the plan will be well-supported at all levels of your organization. You will need the assistance of all members to implement the plan in the coming years.
Our long-range planning committee met almost every month over a period of about 18 months to create the document. We also decided that, due to the almost immeasurable pace at which technology is developing, we would create a plan that would encompass 3 years (2000–2002) rather than 5 years as we had done previously.
The first order of business was to review the various data that had been gathered, including the community analysis, survey information, and the Public Library Association (PLA) long-range planning support document, Planning for Results, used by many public library systems. Based on this information and our knowledge of our system, a discussion ensued about what roles we would assume within the community to best serve the public.
Although we had reached all the goals outlined in the previous plan regarding the areas of service we wanted to concentrate in (our roles), there was still much work to be done under those roles. The result was that the committee decided to continue with the same four roles over the next 3 years: education support center, information services, materials center, and preschoolers’ door to learning. Continuing with the same roles from a previous plan is not a common path. However, we felt this was the best decision, as it would allow our libraries to move forward and to have the most impact within the community. We planned to set new goals and objectives for these roles and to craft new strategies and tactics to carry out the plan.
Next it was time to develop a vision and mission to carry our organization into the 21st century. Both should be concise statements of the ideal expression of what you do. A vision is broader in scope, while a mission provides focus. Members of the planning committee were charged with coming up with their own visions and missions and bringing them to a meeting for discussion. These were the end results:
The Vision: All citizens shall benefit from the highest-quality resources for learning and enjoyment.
The Mission: The library will provide resources in all formats and excellent staff services to all citizens.
Now that we had a vision, mission, and roles, it was time to do more detailed planning. For each role, a subcommittee was formed to further discuss the role and to determine new goals and objectives as well as strategies to carry them out. The subcommittees held several meetings to complete these tasks.
When tackling goals, objectives, and strategies, it is important to keep in mind the purpose of each. Goals are usually broad and general statements that describe a desired condition or the future your organization will be striving toward during the life of the long-range plan. Objectives are shorter in range, describe your desired results, and should be time-specific. For example, “By December 31, 2002, Homework Center usage will increase by 10 percent systemwide.” Strategies are simply the steps you take to complete your objectives.
The completed goals, objectives, and strategies were brought back to
the planning committee for review. Then it was time to draft the actual
Pulling All the Pieces Together
After months of committee meetings, it was my job to pull all the information together into the actual planning document. I needed to start by providing a context for the plan, as all readers of the document would not possess the same intimate knowledge of the library. I pulled together information on the county, the library, our customers, surveys, and outside research to create the introduction and background.
Next, I needed to bring in the vision, mission, roles, goals, and objectives our committees had created. I tied these sections together with transitional information. Finally, I added a conclusion, which talked about the climate we hoped to create with the implementation of this document, and a few appendixes that expanded on some of the statistical information in the plan.
Sounds easy, right? Don’t be deceived. The point at which you begin to pull everything together can be very difficult. Many voices have joined in the creation of the document, and it is important to set the right tone. I tried to be very mindful of all that we did in our committees during the months leading up to writing the plan. I also tried to be careful to present an image that was in agreement with the ideal way in which we would like to be perceived by the public. My final task was to think of a title. My first suggestion was “Balancing Books and Technology.” That was rejected, but we ended up with a very similar title—“Balancing Books and Bytes.”
After the document was drafted, the planning committee had one last
review before sending it to our board of trustees. We asked our board to
review the document and vote on it; the board gave its final approval by
a unanimous vote in January 2000. Now it was time to design and print copies
of the plan.
Now to Spread the Word ...
After so much hard work, I felt it was important to present the document in an appropriate fashion. My graphic designer proposed a simple two-color design with a spacious layout and large section headings for easy reading. We ended up with an eye-catching design, and we chose to have the document spiral bound. The total cost was approximately $1,000 for 500 copies. Our ability to create the design in-house was a great money saver.
Once we had the completed long-range plan in hand, it was time to distribute it to our stakeholders. We placed copies in the collections of each of our branches for the public to review, and we put special copies into three-ring binders for staff reference. Each member of the board of trustees, planning committee, subcommittees, and all departments and managers at our headquarters location received copies as well.
After sharing the plan with our internal constituents, we began mailing it to our external stakeholders. These included colleagues at each of the 23 other library systems in the state of Maryland, our senators and representatives, and members of county government from the county executive on down to individual department heads. It is important to keep everyone who will be impacted by your long-range plan informed of your intentions. Without the support of all the stakeholders involved with your organization, moving forward can become a more difficult task.
Our final step in disseminating the plan was to make it available on
our Web site. Any visitor to our home page who clicks on the “About the
Library” link can access the complete planning document.
The Plan Finally Goes into Action
We have now begun to implement our 3-year long-range plan. The subcommittees we formed to create the goals, objectives, and strategies for each of our roles will remain active to facilitate the completion of our objectives. These subcommittees meet regularly throughout the year to work out the finer details of our strategies and to be sure they are carried out. Each year, the long-range plan review committee, which consists of seven staff members and includes the four subcommittee chairs, meets to review our progress. A special report on the status of the long-range plan is then submitted to our board of trustees.
For AACPL, the long-range planning process has always been rewarding.
It offers focus and helps guide us down a path that is often littered with
distractions. We are looking forward to once again reaching and even exceeding
the goals we have set on our road to the best possible public service.
Andrea Lewis has been the public relations and marketing manager
for the Anne Arundel County Public Library for the past 5 years. She has
an M.A. in public communication from American University in Washington,
DC, and has worked for a variety of nonprofit organizations. Her e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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