Building Relationships: That’s the Secret

Posted by Elinor Barrett on January 09, 2018 at 11:00 AM

The Daniel Boone Regional Library (DBRL) is a two-county regional public library system located in central Missouri. DBRL has a 1,200-square-mile service area consisting of rural areas and communities centered around independent public school districts. Callaway County Public Library, the Columbia Pubic Library and the Southern Boone County Public Library provide full-service library facilities and are augmented by a book mobile that brings services to 10 additional locations throughout the county. There is also a system of library-to-go lockers and book drops throughout the service area.

In creating the 2018-2020 Strategic Plan, we developed a strategic planning process using the Aspen Institute Action Guide and working with Maureen Sullivan, our planning consultant. Our planning process began in November 2016, and the board adopted our new strategic plan in July 2017.


Using the Action Guide was especially helpful as a means of engaging the library board and staff in the planning process. The prestige and name recognition of the Aspen Institute was beneficial to establishing credibility for our process. We distributed relevant sections of the Action Guide to members of our planning committees so that they could read and refer back to the guide. Committee members developed a good understanding of the various activities of our process and the purpose for doing them. As the board and staff would hold primary responsibility for designing, funding and implementing the strategic plan, it was critical to have them buy into the process and the resulting strategic plan.

Community Conversations

A particular priority in our strategic planning process was scheduling and conducting community conversations. We committed to holding 55 community conversations so that we scheduled at least one in every community.  In addition to the 55, we also scheduled conversations with target user groups, other service organizations, and community leaders and had several one-on-one appointments with key people in our service area. To further staff leadership development and capacity within our organization, we asked every DBRL librarian to participate in facilitating and recording notes from the conversations. Board members also committed to participating and scheduled themselves so that a board member attended each conversation. 

We scheduled all of the Community Conversations in February 2017 and began by identifying ways to reach people of all ages, socio-economic backgrounds and interests. We considered the unique character of the individual communities in our service area and how to tap into those local networks and resources. We identified locations that would be easily accessible to residents throughout our service area and scheduled events on evenings, weekends and in conjunction with local events.

Community Engagement 

Putting ourselves “out there” in the community was a significant time commitment but generated the most impactful results. We learned how different each of our communities are and that they have very different needs. We learned that having scheduled bookmobile services in the rural communities is not enough to “know” those communities and their needs. We learned that we need to have a relationship with each community and to customize our services to best serve them rather than relying on a cookie cutter approach to serving our rural residents. 

As a result, the focus of our strategic plan is to take our services out beyond our walls.  This is a mindset that is broader than our traditional outreach services and staff is proactively watching for and seeking opportunities to increase our efforts out in the communities. We articulated this in our plan through new strategic initiatives, objectives, and tactics; consequently, I think our staff feels empowered to act on and propose new approaches to serving our communities. New service plans are already incorporated in our budget recommendations for 2018.  

One example of our strategies is to have each librarian serve as a community liaison to a designated rural area. In this role, they will be responsible for representing the library at community functions and getting to know the community’s needs and goals. This responsibility will range from introducing themselves to community and school officials to participating in community meetings and events. The librarians also will be responsible for leading others on our staff in the development of programs of unique or particular interest to residents in their community. 

Since the new strategic plan was adopted by the board, we have already found ourselves in a position to improve services to our residents.  Earlier this fall we discovered an announcement from a librarian of one of the rural school districts that the district is opening its school libraries to the general public one afternoon per week. Included in the announcement was mention that this would be an alternative for people not wanting to make the drive to the public library branch located in that county. We immediately contacted the librarian, learned more about their vision for this service and the needs of residents of that school district. We offered to provide the school district with a small circulating collection of materials custom selected for the interests of their anticipated audience in addition to programming and training classes, and a staff member to assist with library cards, holds and lending hotspots for families without internet access. We have already provided a genealogy class at one of the schools and STEM/STEAM programs will be provided at their sites on a regular basis. 

Another example of engaging with our community and developing relationships came about through a discussion during one of our scheduled conversations with a key community leader. In the City of Columbia’s relatively new strategic plan, city staff identified three neighborhoods where increased social and economic opportunities are needed to reduce poverty and unemployment. We wanted to meet with the City’s consultant who is facilitating discussions with residents of these neighborhoods to gain an understanding of the needs. As she talked, we immediately saw opportunities for the library to contribute to this process and offered to help. She was somewhat flustered that she had not thought of including the library in these discussions and was delighted by the potential of the library’s participation. Since then, library staff members have attended the city-sponsored meetings to discuss the creation of a community center room in conjunction with a police substation. DBRL would love to offer library programs and have the bookmobile visit this site. 

Inside Out 

How to best meet the needs and goals of our communities?  Engagement and building relationships—that’s the secret! 

Elinor Barrett

Associate Director

Daniel Boone Regional Library

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