Helping Small and Rural Libraries Frame the Future | Backtalk

Despite the proven benefits, strategic planning services can be cost-prohibitive, particularly for small and rural libraries. The process itself can also feel daunting, making it easy to defer. Library Strategies, a consulting group of The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, in partnership with Montana State Library, has designed a program to address those barriers.

Kim Horton headshotEffective strategic planning is widely recognized by leadership across the national library community as essential to a sustainable library system. A good plan identifies community needs, particularly those of underserved members, and fosters inclusive services that welcome and are meaningful to residents. It can also help direct the efficient use of limited resources and support the achievement of outcomes that not only benefit the organization, but its constituents.

Despite the proven benefits, strategic planning services can be cost-prohibitive, particularly for small and rural libraries. The process itself can also feel daunting, making it easy to defer.

Library Strategies, a consulting group of The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, in partnership with Montana State Library, has designed a program to address those barriers. The project, already underway, will offer small and rural libraries across a multi-state region customized strategic planning services by training key library representatives to conduct the planning process themselves.

Funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the two-year program, Framing the Future: Advancing Strategic Planning for Small and Rural Libraries, will create a sustainable network of planning facilitators across six states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Arizona.



The partnership was sparked a few years ago while the organizations collaborated to create a library foundation for the state of Montana. Through that experience, Stu Wilson, principal consultant for Library Strategies, saw firsthand that many of the libraries in that state faced similar challenges to rural libraries with which he’d worked in the past. Having developed a strategic planning training institute for rural libraries in Georgia, South Carolina, and South Florida, he suspected the model could work well in Montana. Stu and Library Strategies Director Alayne Hopkins approached Tracy Cook, lead consulting and learning librarian for Montana State Library, about applying for a grant and scaling the project up to cover a multi-state region.

The result was Framing the Future. With the grant in place, Hopkins, Wilson, and Cook approached heads of state libraries from several states to gauge their interest. While they were met with initial interest from those leaders, they knew their first challenge would be to convince the broader group of participants that strategic planning, while intimidating for some, is worth the effort.

Brian Greene, library development manager with Wyoming State Library, joked about his lack of enthusiasm when he heard his organization was about to embark on a planning process. “Strategic planning…that’s exciting,” he recalled saying with more than a hint of sarcasm. He knew, however, that the process was important and was intrigued with the deep community engagement embedded in Library Strategies’ approach. To help the process resonate with his colleagues, he positioned it as “long-range planning.” “That’s really what this is about,” he says, “making long-lasting impact.”

The action-oriented training program is divided into three phases. Pre-planning workshops coach library staff on the value of planning and train them to recognize implicit bias and identify equity opportunities. The intensive second phase will focus on developing participants’ skills so they can become facilitators themselves. During the final phase, participants will conduct planning processes for four to six libraries in their state with support from Library Strategies. The scale and the scope of the Framing the Future project are uniquely adapted to serve small and rural libraries:

  • The process is collaborative. Framing the Future connects libraries across state lines and allows them the opportunity to share and learn from each other’s similarities. Workshops during the first phase welcomed over 240 people from 105 libraries across the six states. Victoria Silva, library director at Safford City-Graham County Library in Arizona, is feeling hopeful after the initial workshops. “I really like that they broke down the information and gave a framework for planning. It seems so much simpler now,” she said. Victoria will participate in the facilitator training phase this fall and looks forward to working with and learning from libraries with communities similar in size to her own. “Collaboration adds a richness to the project,” Tracy Cook explained. “The participants form relationships and rely on each other, which contributes to a much stronger process.”
  • The focus is on rural libraries. Small and rural libraries serve their communities in unique ways, typically without the resources or staff that larger systems enjoy. It is especially important to tailor the planning process itself to their size and capacity to ensure their plans reflect achievable goals.
  • The project is grounded in equity. Prior to the planning itself, participants receive training to recognize implicit bias and understand the importance of equity in library work so they can create plans that better serve all members of their communities. Brian Greene reflected on the first phase of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) training. “The EDI process helped us identify the communities that are currently underserved by the library. It gave us the foundation for the work we need to do to connect with them.” Victoria Silva had a similar experience, noting, “We try to cater to as many people as possible, but it was eye-opening to see what we’re not offering and to whom we’re not offering it.” Her team identified both the Hispanic community and older adults as groups that the library would like to serve better.
  • The planning model is proven to be effective. The deep focus on community engagement is the driving feature of the Rapid Results Planning (RRP) process, which blends local needs with national trends to create both realistic and forward-thinking plans. “From single county rural libraries to multi-county systems…RRP gives libraries a way to connect with community leaders, showcase their value, and get buy-in for the next steps,” said Wendy Cornelisen, Assistant State Librarian for Library Innovation and Collaboration in Georgia, who participated in the process a few years ago. “The final plan was direct, actionable and memorable.”
  • The “Train-the-Trainer” method is sustainable. By training library representatives from each state, the region will create a built-in network of experts to call on as their local libraries need services. This builds capacity for libraries across the region to continue planning on an ongoing basis.

Stu Wilson explained that the Rapid Results Planning method promotes a “culture of planning,” rather than a one-off approach. This means showing libraries the value of the planning and co-creating plans that are actionable and useful.

It also means that planning isn’t just about evaluating a library’s own operations, it’s about listening to, understanding, and planning for the needs of community members. Planning “is the beginning of a relationship with your community on an ongoing basis,” Wilson said.

To build relationships with people who are not currently using the library, Victoria Silva plans to host community dialogues during the planning process in spaces that are most comfortable and convenient for those they are trying to reach, rather than defaulting to the library space. She also plans to rely on partners throughout the community to help forge new connections with potential library users.

Jennie Stapp, Montana State Librarian, believes the Framing the Future project will result in stronger libraries in the state’s system. “Our goal is to equip libraries to successfully engage all members of their communities through planning so they can confidently invest in current and future library services that meet the changing needs of our patrons. In doing so, libraries reaffirm their status as vital centers of their communities.”

Tracy Cook hopes that, by the end of the project in 2022, 30–40 libraries will have strategic plans that address a currently underserved part of their population. She said, “the project will have been a success if those libraries see members of their communities using the library who might not have before—and feeling welcome.”

Brian Greene believes the first step right now is to embrace the project’s intent, which the name “Framing the Future” captures perfectly. “It’s not about facing whatever the future brings,” he explained. “It’s about identifying the future you want, framing it, and working to make it happen. For us, that door is now open.”

Kim Horton is Senior Director of Communications for The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library and its consulting group, Library Strategies. She has been crafting communications professionally for over 15 years.

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