Change the Scene | Backtalk

How do you plan for the future when your focus is on “getting back to normal”? A series of workshops on strategic foresight with Oxford University’s Matt Finch, hosted by Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Library Development, introduced our team to the practice of scenario planning.

Reading Public Library strategic plan infographic
Reading Public Library strategic plan infographic by Craig Shaffer

How do you plan for the future when your focus is on “getting back to normal”? After all, there is no going back—only forward into the unknown. The thought of devising a new strategic plan for Reading Public Library, PA, at the end of 2019 was daunting.

It was clear we should not wait out COVID-19. We needed a vision for where our library services were headed, even if we couldn’t fully see what lay in store. A series of workshops on strategic foresight with Oxford University’s Matt Finch, hosted by Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Library Development, introduced our team to the practice of scenario planning.



Scenarios are plausible future visions of the context for an organization, community, or issue. Constructed to help inform strategy, they challenge assumptions, generate new insights, and provide decision makers with a way to explore their changing place in the world even when situations are unprecedented and unclear. Scenarios are not predictions or forecasts; their value lies not in whether they come true or how likely they are, but whether they usefully expand our understanding of what is going on around us.

The approach originated during the Cold War, when government planners recognised that they faced a high-stakes geopolitical landscape unlike any seen before. Unable to draw on past precedent, they used contrasting imagined futures to sharpen leaders’ thinking and highlight potential missed indicators. Scenario planning subsequently made its way into the toolkit of strategic decision makers in big government and big business, with a proliferation of methodologies and applications. In Reading, we made use of the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, which focuses on helping users to see beyond their assumptions through a process of re-perception and reframing.

Scenario planning in this mode enables us to reflect on the different future contexts which a library may have to inhabit. Thinking about the future is essential to strategy: Not only do our decisions and their consequences play out in times yet to come, but changing future circumstances may also impact our choices today. When times are uncertain and unpredictable, scenarios can convene useful conversations about what is going on around us and what lies ahead. While they are often set many years hence, that far future is used as a vantage point to better highlight the issues we face today.



Reading is the county seat for Berks County, PA, located on the banks of the Schuylkill River. As the district library, we provide resources for 19 public libraries serving a range of communities from rural areas to wealthy suburbs. Our four city branches provide countless resources for residents struggling with poverty and low education levels. In 2010, Reading was named the poorest small city in the nation, but we’ve come a long way in the last 10 years. The library is a catalyst for change, receiving the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Medal for Museum and Library Service in 2018. Our aim for the scenario project was to maintain this momentum amid the chaos and confusion of COVID. Understanding a wider range of futures than those we hoped for or expected would give us a fresh vantage point on the here and now.

At Reading, a committee of library staff and board members began by thoroughly mapping the library’s relationships under Finch’s guidance. This grounded our scenarios in a clear understanding of the present and helped us understand the extensive web of collaboration, service, and transaction which shapes our work at every level from individual patrons to state and national mandates.

Our scenarios envisioned Berks County in the year 2040—far enough out to stretch our imaginations and see beyond the typical three-to-five-year plan. Looking two decades hence meant that even weak signals of change today would be amplified, clear and manifest in each scenario. We developed the scenarios by mapping the uncertainties and driving forces which shaped the decisions of the other actors we had relationships with—from IMLS and local government to the media, community organizations, and residents.

Combining those uncertainties to devise challenging futures, we settled on three scenarios characterized by varying degrees of political fragmentation and appetite for face-to-face contact post-lockdown. Are we seeing a shift to a fully digital world? Could our politically riven society find common ground in the years ahead?

The Life in the Clouds scenario imagined a future in which social and economic life migrated almost entirely online. Privacy gave way to Big Data, but there were also new forms of digital democracy, and recognition that American society could not survive without cooperation. The library evolved into a “Public Informatics Commission,” regulating digital equity and helping residents participate fully in life online.

The second scenario, Wild Frontier, saw a dramatic fragmentation of civic life, in which the basis for trust and dialogue had all but disintegrated. Residents retreated, both online and offline, into “bunkers” defined by shared common values and the exclusion of outsiders. This scenario offered a future in which any notion of library neutrality, already questioned in 2021, was long dead and even the American Library Association’s proposed alternative of radical empathy faced the challenges of deep partisanship. It also highlighted vulnerabilities around our dependence on local, county, and state tax income.

The final scenario, Paris on the Schuylkill, imagined a new flowering of civil society. In this world, people pulled together for the sake of their children’s futures. Universal Basic Income and growth in higher education turned Reading into a city of artists and scholars, a sought-after destination for arts and culture. The library of this world was an integral partner with local universities and served as an incubator of the arts and innovation.



Our committee used this work to examine our situation in 2021. What signs were there that any of these scenarios might emerge? If they were coming to pass, what would play out in the immediate future? What other possibilities had this work exposed? How would people in any of these scenarios look back at the choices we make today?

Each person on the committee took our work to the community partners we’d identified on the original map for their perspective on Berks County’s future. The process forced us to look up from the day-to-day and question our own assumptions.

With the scenarios finalized, we now needed to work backward from the far future to the concerns of the here-and-now. To do this, we returned to our map of the library’s relationships in 2021. Where, we asked our planning committee, did we need to intervene on this web of connections? Where might we ease off in our efforts? Did the scenarios highlight the need for new partnerships, or changes to existing relationships? We asked team members to consider where the key priorities were: What should we stop, start, and continue doing in order to achieve the impacts we desired?

We gradually moved from the imagined context of the scenarios to the situation we faced in 2021, reflecting on the options we could generate today in the light of those future vantage points, and finally moving to strategy—the decisive choice about the direction Reading Public Library would move in over the next few years.

The scenarios had stretched our sense of what was going on around us and alerted us to particular issues, including the uncertainties of long-term demographic change and the nature of partnership between the library and other Berks County players. In our strategy, we sought to address these challenges by taking steps which were applicable across all scenarios, as well as identifying the strategic moves which would keep us agile and relevant as the future played out for real.

Our city is known as the birthplace of the Reading Railroad, so we presented our strategic priorities as four “railroad tracks.” We knew where we wanted to get to, but understood that the act of surveying the future and constructing our strategy might mean we had to allow for a few curves in the line. We wanted to be resilient and flexible in the face of uncertainty, rather than reliant on one set of projections about the future. COVID had reminded us, in the words of scenario planner Ged Davis, that “a trend is a trend until it bends”...or breaks!

The four finished tracks of the strategy are:

  • Co-Designed Programs
  • Intentional Partnerships
  • Staff Reflects the Community
  • Create Digital Opportunities

These reflect our insight that across all scenarios, Reading Public Library needs to adapt to community needs, doing things with our residents rather than to them. That includes striving for our staff demographic to more closely reflect the diversity of our city, and understanding that digital life isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. These strategic choices have implications for the way we recruit and train staff, the way we proactively partner with other institutions to meet community needs, and the attention we pay to diversifying our digital offerings. Our tracks can flex, in case we need to adjust our strategy as the future unfolds, but moving to a more proactive and engaged approach will ensure resilient library services that provide value in a changing world.

Whatever future lies on the horizon, we feel confident we’re ready for the journey.

Bronwen Gamble is the Executive Director of Reading Public Library, the sixth oldest library in the United States and an IMLS Gold Medal winner. Matt Finch is an Associate Fellow of the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, UK, who consults on strategy with communities, companies, and institutions at

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