Strategic Planning

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Charting a Course for Your Library’s Future

Especially in today’s volatile political and financial environment, no library can risk operating without a strategic plan. In fact, one of the single most important responsibilities of library trustees is oversight of strategic planning. The State Library has mandated that any library returning unused funds to its municipality must first demonstrate it has a research-based plan before the return is approved.

Regardless of any mandate, strategic planning is a best practice for all libraries. A strategic plan is a means of establishing benchmarks and measuring progress, asking tough questions about the library’s priorities and the community’s needs, and initiating productive conversations with key supporters and community leaders. Strategic planning also demonstrates:

  • The library is being proactively managed and is adaptable to changing conditions.
  • Programs and services are aligned with what the community believes is important.
  • Quality service to customers is important.
  • The library is a leading community institution.

The five phases of strategic planning are organization and delegation; information gathering; data analysis, plan drafting and editing; and plan distribution and promotion. A well-executed planning process has clearly defined roles for all participants as well as trustees, director and staff who are receptive to change. Solid plans are research-based and solicit widespread community input—including both library users and non-users.  Both qualitative and quantitative methodologies are used.  Qualitative tools include executive interviews, focus groups, and community forums.  Frequently used quantitative tools include online and telephone surveys, benchmarking and market segmentation analysis. Most of all, planning must proceed at a healthy clip—six months on average time for the completion of all research and, at most, nine months to the publication of the plan.

Strategic planning works best when trustees are fully invested in the process. Trustees offer responsible oversight: what planning process will be used, how the work will be delegated, and if a consultant is needed.  Trustees determine the time span the plan will cover, the facility assessment needs, and the planning budget.  Trustee representatives serve on the strategic planning team, evaluate progress, help facilitate the community assessment, and determine objectives and priorities. In collaboration with members of the planning team and the director, they draft the plan or review the consultant’s draft plan.

Directors should be integral to the planning process and serve on the planning team, but developing a plan is not solely their responsibility. Directors educate trustees about how planning works and show them examples of well-thought out plans. They identify potential vendors, assist with research, and contribute to the draft plan. Directors suggest action items to achieve plan goals and ultimately manage the plan’s implementation.

What’s in a library strategic plan?

  • State of the library overview
  • National and local trends
  • Community demographics
  • Review of research
  • SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis
  • Prioritized goals with related strategies
  • Timeline
  • Measures of success
  • Associated cost and staffing implications
  • Recommendations for implementation

Possible areas of strategic focus

  • Board and staff development
  • Advocacy
  • Financial management
  • Fundraising
  • Facilities planning
  • Technology planning
  • Collection development
  • Program development
  • Customer service
  • Branding and marketing
  • Cultural diversity
  • Administration and management


  • Develop a plan that is realistic.  
  • Eliminate library jargon: make sure it’s interesting, readable and compelling.
  • Check that strategic priorities respond to what the research shows the community needs.
  • After approval, condense the plan to a one-page document of highlights to distribute at public presentations.
  • Discuss the plan at a staff meeting or retreat before it is made public.
  • Host a breakfast to preview the plan with community leaders and the press.
  • Post the full plan on the library website.


Giesecke, Joan.  Scenario Planning for Libraries.  Chicago, American Library Association, 1998.

Nelson, Sandra.  Implementing for Results:  Your Strategic Plan in Action.  Chicago, American Library Association, 2009.

Nelson, Sandra.   Strategic Planning for Results.  Chicago, American Library Association, 2008.

Singer, Paula and Gail Griffith.  Succession Planning in the Library:  Developing Library Leaders, Managing Change.  Chicago, American Library Association, 2010.