A Board’s Approach to Re-Envisioning Their Public Library
East Hampton Library (EHL) is in the Town of East Hampton which is located in southeastern Suffolk County, New York. The population is about 21,000 and is largely comprised of a growing Hispanic community. It became clear that additional and more robust programs were needed to address the increasing minority population of the township served by EHL. For instance, we needed to keep in mind two important realities: first, that 80% of the 500 average daily EHL visitors came into the EHL to engage in an activity and not to source an item to take with them, and second, that the Latino population of the township now comprised over 50 % of its elementary, middle school, and high school student populations.
EHL Library Director Dennis Fabiszak began the process of responding to the Board’s request for a long-range plan to address these trends. Fabiszak’s goal was to enhance what the EHL currently offers and develop a long-term strategic plan. To begin this process he took under consideration the following initial steps:
- developing a long-range planning committee to ensure effective input;
- recommending background readings for each selected committee member (e.g. The Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries; and
- creating a list of present EHL programs, budget information, staffing resources, floor plans, area demographic data, and prior EHL surveys of public opinion.
Once formed, the Committee turned its attention to a variety of tasks including the following:
- drafting an updated Mission Statement to make clear EHL’s goals and values in serving the community;
- establishing concrete outcomes and measurements at the outset (i.e., How does EHL measure whether these initiatives are effective in helping EHL achieve its goals? Are increased traffic to EHL services, on-line visits to EHL sites, number of library cards, donations, and/or number of Advisory Board members adequate measures of effectiveness?);
- determining EHL’s strengths (excellent staff, head start on initiating community responsive programs) and weaknesses (phrased more politely as “opportunities” such as space, budget, and parking); and
- assessing the adequacy of current EHL programs and services in light of evolving community needs.
The Committee recognized that it was critical to the process to involve all appropriate constituencies for their input at this early stage, especially the EHL staff. Equally important was the need for a thorough discussion of the scope of services EHL envisioned it would make available and, then, determine the limits of its community service goals (i.e., under its mission statement, what obligations would EHL have to specific subgroups, such as the homeless, disadvantaged school children in need of tutoring, handicapped residents, etc.?). A discussion of the latter issue raised questions around practical constraints such as hours of operation, budget, access, services, etc. These issues of course are topics for discussion in a general context as well but are infused with a special complexity when examined in the context of balancing the library’s value system, civic responsibility and commitment to its primary community goals with its desire to be responsive to the needs of a variety of groups in the community.
The Committee members were then asked to make two or three written recommendations for each of the 15 Action Steps for Library Leaders from the Rising to the Challenge report and Action Guide. Library staff reviewed these recommendations and made comments. The committee finalized a comprehensive summary for submission to the EHL Board for review and final approval. We felt it was important to attach a time line to each recommended activity to prioritize implementation in view of perceived community needs and library budgetary constraints.
Things that we learned from using the Aspen Institute’s report and Action Guide:
- Be practical. The demographics of your target audiences most likely will reveal a need for the BASICS -- education, language skills, finding employment, child development, health care information, job training.
- Consider technology. How will you use technology in the library to accomplish your goals? How will you teach its importance and skills to your target audiences?
- Use a structured process. If you are a library just starting the re-envisioning journey or are otherwise so inclined, you may wish to supplement the Aspen Institute resources by reference to the consultant-assisted approach taken by the Chattanooga Public Library (See Chattanooga Public Library Strategic Plan FY17-FY19, available online at HERE.
Chairman, Planning Board
East Hampton, NY