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From forward plan to business plan: strategic planning in public libraries.

Abstract Planning in public libraries has been an evolutionary process. This case study follows the planning process in two Victorian regional library services, and the changes that have occurred over the past ten years. Forward plans are giving way to business plans, and public libraries are having to adapt to being business units that operate in an increasingly competitive environment. Edited version of a paper given at the 1997 PubRaiss Conference

Back in 1987, planning was not high on the agenda of most public libraries. In Victoria things were looking grim, with a $2 million cut to public libraries and what appeared to be a lack of commitment from the state government. Colin Watson, Regional Librarian at Dandenong Valley Regional Library Service (DVRLS), presented a report to the regional committee's(*) forward plan committee, articulating the need for a document which defined corporate aims and objectives. He said

The events of the last six months at the state

level point to a need to develop an

authoritative document from the regional

committee setting out the aims and objectives

of DVRLS, and the means to effect these


Both future development, and considerations of

scarce resource allocation for a wide range of

competing needs, indicate the desirability of a

document setting out the framework for

decision making.(1)

(*) Regional libraries in Victoria are governed by committees comprising councillors from member municipalities. The regional committee acts as a board of directors, and is the governing body for the regional library

In 1988 Watson appointed a corporate planning committee following discussion with the regional committee on the need to draw together planning decisions and issues and to produce a planning document which would set a future plan for regional library development. The terms of reference for the corporate planning committee were to formulate an official statement which would outline a three year plan for DVRLS, including reviewing the past, assessing the present and anticipating the future, with particular reference to the accountability requirements set out by the Ministry for the Arts. The library funding review working party's report in 1988 required libraries among other things

To undertake a regular planning process incorporating identification of priorities arid objective setting. The planning document should also indicate the library's plans to address the needs of disadvantaged community groups.(2)

The forward plan 1988/89 comprised a review of the achievements of 1987 and 1988 described in terms of output measures; a profile of the characteristics of the region's population in graph format; and a statistical summary of the library service. A mission and roles statement included goals and objectives for the coming year, and there was a timetable of future development of library services.

Four staff were involved in developing the plan. A lot of time and effort was put into something that was new for all of us. One of the members of the group was doing postgraduate study, and it was mainly due to her enthusiasm and knowledge that were able to produce something that at the time looked pretty good but now seems rather unsophisticated and simplistic. It was one of the first forward plans produced by a public library in Victoria, and we drew heavily on the work published by the American Library Association, Planning and role setting for public libraries: a manual of options and procedures. The purpose of the manual was to

... provide public librarians with a tool to improve library management, increase overall library effectiveness, and assess the quality of library services. It is based on the assumption that planning provides a powerful means to better allocate existing resources, identify service priorities, demonstrate accountability, and accomplish stated objectives -- regardless of library size, local community conditions, and funding levels.(3)

One of the most useful sections in the plan was the community profile. Using Australian Bureau of Statistics data from the 1986 Census, we graphed the characteristics of our community by each of the five municipalities and compared them with the Victorian average. While we were not surprised at what the analysis showed, it was very helpful to have the information in graph form, and to link it to the goals we had identified. For example, with the age of population data, we could clearly see that compared with the state average, the percentage of the age groups under 39 years was substantially higher in our region, and lower that average for 40 years and over. The number of 0-4 year olds in Cranbourne and Berwick was particularly high. We looked at the impact of this on the library's role and services -- that there would be a high demand for children's picture books and school project material. The library's response was to target library services and supply of materials to young people; and to continue provide appropriate library services and resources to users under 19 years, and to seek extended provision of inhouse study facilities.

Another substantial section of the plan reported on the output measures that DVRLS had been conducting. The American Library Association's Output measures for public libraries described the methodology for gathering twelve output measures for public libraries that would measure quality of service. We had put a lot of time and effort into collecting data, especially the materials availability survey, which involved surveying patrons on whether or not they found what they were looking for when they came into the library. The work we had done in this area was very helpful in the planning process as it focused our attention on what we needed to do to improve our service. The forward plan was received favourably by the regional librarian and the regional committee. The corporate planning committee was pleased with itself, and quite proud of the document it had produced. We even sold copies of it to other libraries -- 33 copies at $20 each. There was only one problem -- the rest of the organisation knew nothing about it. The four members of the forward planning group were all senior staff members, and only one of them was working regularly with the public. So we had this document that outlined what our mission was, our goals and objectives for the coming year, and there was a capital improvement program listing the building of even more branch libraries. But it made probably not one bit of difference to the majority of the staff, who continued doing what they had always done. In no way could it have been described as a vehicle for change.

Refining the process

The document for 1989/90 looked a lot better, and we had learned one very valuable lesson -- we needed to get staff involved. Two half day seminars were held to evaluate and revise the plan, and over 80 staff participated. Small groups of 5 or 6 were given two goals from the plan to discuss. Group reports of the discussions provided extensive information, critical opinions, suggestions for improvements and passionate appeals on all sorts of concerns. Colin Watson wrote in the introduction to the 1989/90 document

The reaction to the plan and the subsequent actions and evaluation have contributed significantly to improved management of the service as well as a better appreciation by councillors and officers of each others' roles and contributions.(4)

The plan had much the same type of information in it as the first one -- priorities for the coming year, future directions, review of the past year, a profile of the library service and various standards to provide subtle hints to our funders that we were under resourced and fell short in a number of areas, most particularly in bookstock.

Baltimore County Public Library

The next steep curve in my learning about strategic planning occurred when I spent six months on a job exchange at Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL) in Maryland USA. By the time I was there in 1990, BCPL had produced three long range plans. Eleanor Jo Rodger says in her preface to the third plan

Long range planning is a serious, if not always solemn, activity at the Baltimore County Public Library. Two previous long range plans, To satisfy demand (1977-1982) and Growth without expansion (1983-1988), have both guided and reflected the library's decision making for ten years. The goals, objectives and priorities have been the framework for resource allocation, development of service, and evaluation. Commitment to renewal comes from the continuing vision of BCPL'S experienced and gifted staff and Board of Library Trustees, but is grounded in the same values and management principles articulated in earlier plans ... The steering committee and the task forces worked long and hard to gather information, share expertise and understand the implications of the many `what ifs' we encountered. The plan is rich because of their contributions, is possible because of their commitment, and is important because they will use it.(5)

And use it they did. The main impression I still carry of BCPL is the common set of values, goals and principles that all staff knew and worked to. They knew the long range plan, they understood the strategic direction of the organisation, and they assumed responsibility for its implementation. The planning process they followed was summarised as moving through four steps characterised by contribution, communication, consensus and commitment.(6)

Getting it right

I came back to DVRLS an evangelist! Molly Fein, the librarian I had exchanged with, had introduced the philosophy of many of BCPL'S ideas, and there was a good deal of interest shown by staff. By the time we completed the 1991/92 plan, I think we were starting to get it right. It was the fourth plan DVRLS had compiled, and an even greater effort was made to involve branch staff in the planning process. This was achieved by appointing four task forces which met to discuss ways in which we could implement just one goal -- to improve service delivery. The task forces had as their focus

* improving information delivery

* improving circulation functions

* improving service to our patrons

* improving document delivery

Each task force comprised five members of the library service representing all levels and branches. Their brief was to look at problems which the staff forward plan committee identified; devise strategies for improving performance; and devise methods for measuring progress and discuss ways of disseminating goals, objectives and strategies to all staff. The task forces met four or five times over a three month period. Members of the groups received feedback from other staff members at their branches. Each task force presented a report which listed ideas for overcoming problems, strategies, and an implementation plan. These reports were discussed by the forward plan committee and objectives prioritised. As the document was drawn together it became obvious how valuable the task force contribution had been. It confirms that staff involvement in the planning process is vital to implementation and also enriches the outcome. Colin Watson noted in his introduction

The enthusiasm generated by this planning process is very pleasing. A high level of staff involvement in the planning process is very helpful in communicating the library service's philosophy throughout the organisation.(7)

By this stage the regional committee had become more involved too, and regular meetings were scheduled before the normal regional library meetings with members of staff and the regional committee's forward plan committee. These forums were invaluable in breaking down barriers between councillors and officers, and engendering a sense of shared purpose. The one major stakeholder we did not include was the customer.

There was much more emphasis placed on implementation and allocating responsibility for carrying out the objectives and the strategies in this plan. Staff were invited to nominate for particular subcommittees -- staff training day, signage, materials handling and staff induction. Ongoing committees that had input were the reference services group, the stock recovery committee and the VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education) subcommittee.

This was to be my last year of involvement with strategic planning at Dandenong Valley Regional Library Service, as I left the organisation in 1992. Looking back now over the four plans, their evolutionary nature and increasing sophistication is very obvious. We had started out as an enthusiastic, untrained and probably naive group. We learned a lot from experience, we were very open to new ideas and change, and we were constantly seeking to improve the process because we believed very strongly that it was important.

Peninsula Library Service

In October 1993 I was appointed Regional Librarian of Peninsula Library Service (PLS). PLS provided library services to the Shires of Mornington, Hastings and Flinders. The planning process at PLS was very different to that of DVRLS, and the corporate strategy plan included a lot of policy decisions, as well as strategic directions. The regional committee was much more involved in the process, and a detailed five year plan called New directions had been produced by a committee comprising members of the regional library committee and staff. Prior to my appointment a lengthy review of the library service had been conducted, and a number of recommendations indicated a desire to change direction.

We developed a short term plan as an interim measure. The purpose of the plan was to establish service priorities, help the library better allocate existing resources, foster better communication within the library and improve the extent to which the library service met community needs and expectations. The outline of the strategic plan had already been adopted by the library committee prior to my appointment. Remembering the first lesson I had learned about planning, we involved ten staff (from 29 FTE) who suggested objectives which would measure whether we had achieved the goals already set down. It was an interim one year plan because we needed to have a planning document in place, but there had not been much time available to develop the proper consultative process. The upcoming corporate day, which involved the library committee and senior staff, would provide the library service with the opportunity to begin a new three year cycle. Three key result areas were identified

To provide library services that are

focused on resource outlets which will

be responsive to each community's

needs and expectations, and ensure that

a visit to the library will be a rewarding


The library collections will primarily

include resources that assist all

individuals with their independent

living, personal growth and informed

decision making; and the pleasure of


The regional function of the library

service will focus on resourcing,

coordinating and managing activities to

enhance the primary function of

service delivery

Goals and objectives were devised to ensure that we improved our performance in all these areas. We scanned our environment and acknowledged that change was imminent.

.. the rate and nature of environmental change

has accelerated. That environmental change has

a direct linkage to the strategic planning

process has also been established. Perhaps

strategic planning has failed in some cases,

not because of inherent weaknesses but

because of inadequate scanning of

environmental changes.(8)

In 1993 the environment that Victorian public libraries were operating in was poised for its greatest change ever. Local government restructure, enterprise bargaining, compulsory competitive tendering and minimal tax increases meant that libraries were facing fundamental changes. It seemed very important to me that we should be in the best position possible to face these changes, and the two areas we focused on were improving our outputs, in particular, improving circulation figures, and engendering a greater feeling of unity within the organisation. By articulating these in goals and objectives that they had help formulate and that could be ticked off once completed, I hoped that staff would have ownership and pride in what they had achieved.

Redefining public libraries

Two important things happened in 1994 that shaped our thinking and set us in a new direction. The national public libraries conference in Melbourne featured British cultural planner Charles Landry, who inspired and enthused us all over again about the important role that public libraries play in society. The Peninsula Library Service corporate day articulated vision and roles that had been sparked off by what Landry had said, and made them relevant to our library service. The two main themes we embraced were

The library is really the umbrella institution

for the learning society'(9) and

The key thing in terms of public cultural

institutions is

(*) to provide spaces that are flexible, adaptable, educational places or facilities where things like open learning can take place

(*) to provide access to strategic information which might ultimately be from home to give everybody. possibilities for self improvement

(*) to provide unique cultural places.(10)

The current corporate plan we developed was driven by these concepts. For this plan we assessed external factors such as the economy, the market, customers and competition, and internal factors such as current performance, internal organisation, technology and finance. We identified our four critical result areas

* Client satisfaction

* Impact of the library on the community,

the value it adds to the community

* Public awareness of results

* Staff performance and satisfaction

and identified service and financial strategies to ensure we succeeded in these areas. A number of performance targets are listed which we used to measure our success. The plan also outlined a financial strategy to achieve funding for critically needed capital works, and forecast recurrent expenditure needs, with an emphasis on improving the percentage of the budget spent on library materials.

Using technology

One very important section of the plan related to technology. Four major areas were identified -- the need to upgrade the library computer system, the introduction of patron self checkout, the introduction of CDRoms and the introduction of Vicnet and internet access to our libraries. Because the corporate plan had been developed with and endorsed by the library committee, there was a great deal of commitment, particularly from two very influential members of the committee, to actually achieving these goals. When a reasonably large sum of money was identified in reserves as being surplus to requirements, three of the four projects were funded.

Upgrading the computer system was seen as something that should be addressed when the new restructured organisation examined its IT requirements. A committee member commented `Well,it's in your corporate plan, you won't have any trouble getting it through'. If ever proof was needed of the value of planning, that was it. The introduction of this new technology helped change the perceptions of our staff, the public and our funders to the library service. Peter Senge11 talks about finding leverage, points, where the minimum effort exerts the maximum effect. While140,000 might sound like a lot of leverage, we effected a much greater cultural change by introducing the technology, rather than spending the money on books. The message we gave was that we are now an information service, we are not just book lenders. The patron self checkout allowed us to free up staff to provide an information service, the CDRoms and the internet connection showed that we were ready and able to become part of the information age.

Our current corporate plan is still guiding us, and basically our objectives and strategies have endured the massive change the library service has undergone since December 1994, when local government restructuring came into effect. But it is no longer enough.

The new world

The regional library service ceased to exist on 30 June 1995 and from 1 July we became part of the Operations Group of the Mornington Peninsula Shire Council (MPSC). The shire has been structured specifically to fulfill the requirements of compulsory competitive tendering. There are three groups, Service planning, Operations and Corporate. The Operations group comprises five principal inhouse providers of services. Physical services offers design, constructionand maintenance in engineering and parks; Personal care offers personal care services for mothers and infants through to the aged and those with disabilities; Recreation and culture operatesrecreational and cultural facilities with significant potential to earn income; Development advice and approvals offers advice and assistance to developers to facilitate good development, carry out building and health inspections and implement fire prevention strategies, and generally assist the community to share scarce resources and live in harmony; and Library and information access services offers traditional library services, and public access to wider sources of information to the general community. All these units will be subject to the competitive process, and will be required to form themselves into business units to prepare tenders to provide services to the client side (the service planning group).

The business plan Which brings us to the business plan. The business plan is not a strategic plan or a corporate plan with a new cover. It is a totally different way of thinking and planning for a service such as a public library. The reasons we need a business plan are to

* Introduce a disciplined and logical thought process into the operation of the business

* Enable goals and objectives to be set, monitored and re evaluated

* Have a written representation of where the business is going, how it will get there and what it will look like on arrival.

There is nothing warm and fuzzy about a business plan. In developing the mission and objectives, the following questions need to be answered

Why will the business unit exist?

What product / service will the business


What unique aspects of the business will

differentiate it from other similar


Who are the most important groups of

customers --internal and external? And

what factors will influence their

behaviour towards you? These are fairly fundamental questions, and have forced us to look critically at our services and our competitive edge. We have had to redefine our library service in business terms.

The most interesting and useful process so far has been looking at the activities we perform on inputs to produce outputs. We are looking at how technology can be employed to maximise productivity and are deciding which business processes have most influence on the success of the business. The first thing we did was list all the activities we perform to provide our library service. Then we answered the following questions for each process.

How is this process completed?

Who is responsible?

What is the frequency -- daily, weekly


What labour hours are required for this


What are the machinery and plant


What are the materials required?

Does this activity add value to the


What alternative processes are possible?

While very time consuming, and a rather daunting task, it has caused us to look critically at what we do and why. An example is telephone renewals. Working through answering these questions highlighted just how time consuming, labour intensive and also how necessary the service is. The application of new technology (possible with our new computer system) which will give us a competitive edge is touch phone renewals. We will be able to quantify savings in staff time and improved service very easily after working through this process. Another example is a public laminating service we offer to the public. After actually analysing the staff time and effort required to obtain a very small return, we have decided that this activity is offering no value to our business, and we have opted to discontinue the service.


The next step after the activities have been scrutinised is to look at ways of improving the business. This is done by benchmarking. Victorian public libraries are fortunate to have quite good data to use in benchmarking against the industry. Brian Haratsis has produced Measuring performance: a guide to the use of benchmarking for public libraries. In the introduction he describes benchmarking

Benchmarking is part of a process of continuous service improvement which sets operating parameters and helps set the basis for business plans and contracts specifications where services are to be contracted out. The benchmarking process

* involves looking outside your organisation and across your industry to compare how you do something with how others do it

* identifies specific levels of performance which indicate where improvements can be made

* sets performance parameters.12

There are internal ie library service compared to library service benchmarks and external eg library service compared to supermarket benchmarks. External benchmarking presents problems with compatibility. Even comparing different library services is not, always useful. For instance if the demographics are very different between two services, the outputs can also be very different even if the inputs are similar.

Haratsis goes on to say that the most important part of the benchmarking process is the identification of appropriate performance indicators. The indicators need to reflect the corporate objectives and the strategic service goals and objectives that a library service has identified. He examines a number of key performance indicators in the following categories -- input measures, output measures and customer satisfaction.

An example of a key performance indicator under input is collection size and productivity. At Mornington Peninsula Libraries, we will benchmark ourselves against similar sized libraries. If one of the benchmarks we used was library materials as a percentage of total expenditure, the measure is the proportion of resources devoted to new materials. The limitations of this measure are that high levels of expenditure on materials does not necessarily mean high expenditure, and a low percentage may merely reflect a generally inadequate level of funding. There is also no indication of purchasing efficiency. However, the level and quality of library materials is an important determinant of library usage, and indicates the relative weight given to product vis a vis administration.(13) And so if our library service spends 12% of its budget on library materials and our neighbour spends 20%, and we both have a similar quantum of funding, we would have to look seriously at why such a disparity exists.

An example of an output benchmark is turnover rates. This measures the total number of items loaned divided by the total number of items. The limitation is that it gives no indication of the size of the stock, and in our service one of the reasons we have a high turnover rate is because of the low item per capita figure. However, generally, higher levels of turnover of materials indicate collection development policies that are well focused on the customer base.

Customers have been the neglected stakeholder in the planning process in public libraries. The realisation that we must be more customer focused is changing this however. We are currently conducting a very comprehensive community survey which will provide us with solid data to improve our service. Port Phillip Library Service has held focus group sessions to ascertain its customers' needs. There is an increasing recognition that customers, too, must be included in the planning process.

What is our business?

The next step after benchmarking is to describe the business. The location of the business forms part of the marketing plan. The premises we conduct our business in is another factor, and if the true cost of running a library service is to be assessed, then the capital value of the buildings must be taken into account. Capital equipment needs to be audited, and an asset register listing equipment and depreciation rates gives the written down value necessary for accounting purposes, and also offers the opportunity to decide whether certain items of equipment are necessary.

Swot (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analyses identify how the service is superior to the competition, what the differentiating aspects are quality, timeliness, expertise, efficiency, local knowledge, location), staff qualifications, experience and expertise, and any bottlenecks that may be constraining the business. Each of these questions should be evaluated in a positive and negative light to identify strengths and weaknesses and so identify opportunities that may arise and threats to the ongoing viability of the business. An example of an opportunity we have identified is offering training on the internet to produce income. One of our weaknesses however is a lack of space and inadequate buildings. If we do decide to set ourselves up as internet trainers, then we will need to produce a separate business plan for that venture (to ensure it does not end up like the laminating service.)

Other steps that need to be undertaken in the business plan are determining the future trends of the industry, preparing a marketing strategy, deciding on the most appropriate means of promotion, a sales strategy, developing a promotional time table, identifying and finding out about the competition, and developing a sound financial plan. Managers need to use the enterprise bargain agreement to maximise staff flexibility, and ensure competitiveness, specifically through developing Local area work agreements (Lawa's). In our library the Lawa concentrates on rostering issues around evening and weekend work, for instance. There is a rigorous financial planning exercise to undertake, in order to identify overheads and cost out functions such as how much is it to shelve a book, or answer a reference query or catalogue a video. Budgets, profit and loss projections, balance sheets and cashflow statements for the next five years comprise the financial part of the business plan.

The paradigm shift that both I and our library service need to make is that this is for real. We are going to be subject to competition and we really need to run ourselves as a business, conducting ourselves in a business like way, and making sound business decisions. Accountability, continuous improvement, innovation and responsibility are the new catch words of public librarianship and public service.

Planning is absolutely crucial to ensure survival, and a well conceived business plan goes a long way to demonstrate that a business unit is providing a quality, cost effective and responsive public library service.


Public libraries and strategic planning have come a long way since 1987. While I believe that public and government commitment to public libraries is probably stronger that ever, there is certainly no room for complacency. We need to continually redefine our services in relation to our customers, and remain innovative and user friendly providers of information, education and recreation. We need to be able to identify the opportunities that exist the threats to universal access to information and knowledge, and seize the opportunities that come our way.


[1.] Dandenong Valley Regional Library Service Forward plan 1988/89 Springvale, DVRLS 1988 p1

[2.] Library Funding Review Working Party Library performance measurement and accountability Melbourne, Ministry for the Arts 1988

[3.] McClure, C et al Planning and role setting for public libraries: a manual of options and procedures Chicago, American Library Association 1987 pxix

[4.] Dandenong Valley Regional Library Service Forward plan 1989/90 Springvale, DVRLS 1989 p2

[5.] Rodger, E Commitment to renewal Baltimore, BCPL 1988 pvi

[6.] ibid p23

[7.] Dandenong Valley Regional Library Service Forward plan 1991/92 Springvale, DVRLS 1991 p1

[8.] Murphy, J Identifying strategic issues Long range planning 22(2) 1989 p101

[9.] Landry, C Public library futures in Public libraries : trading in futures ed by A L Bundy Adelaide, Auslib Press 1994 p120

[10.] ibid p54

[11.] Senge, P The fifth discipline London, Century Business 1990 p114

[12.] Haratsis, B Measuring performance: a guide to the use of benchmarking for public libraries North Melbourne, Urban Spatial & Economic Consultants 1995 pl

[13.] ibid p10 Christine Mackenzie has recently been appointed Manager Library and Information Services Brisbane City Council and was formerly Manager - Library and Information Access Services, Mornington Peninsula Shire Council, Victoria. She has held positions in the state libraries of Victoria and Western Australia, and in various public libraries in Victoria as well as undertaking a job exchange to Baltimore County Public Library, Maryland USA. Christine has been president of Alia Public Libraries Section (Victorian Group) vice president of Alia Victorian Branch, President of Viclink (Victoria's public library network), vice president of the Aima Board and a member of the Library Board of Victoria's library network committee and the networking for all Victorians working group. Address: Brisbane Library and Information Service 76-86 Commercial Road Fortitude Valley Qld 4006
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Author:Mackenzie, Christine
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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