Out of the Box and into The Community
Transylvania County is a southern Appalachia community of a little over 30,000 people. We pride ourselves on having a rural mountain town feel while also having a diverse selection of education, arts and cultural opportunities. All of this is set against the backdrop of rich, natural resources that provide opportunities for recreation.
Jaime Laughter, AICP, County Manager, Transylvania County, North Carolina
In the 2000s, we saw local companies close as the tobacco industry declined and globalization impacted manufacturing in general throughout North Carolina. As the economy took these large and potentially devastating hits, the community had to start a new strategy for economic development and part of that included looking at the assets that our county hosts.
In 2015, we embarked on the development of the county’s first strategic plan. Commissioners contracted with an outside facilitator to work as my co-leader through the process. Our process included actively listening to community focus groups on six key issues: quality of life, public lands and environment, county organizations, economic development, transportation, and water resources.
The planning process resulted in six goals that make up Transylvania County’s strategic plan and, ultimately, the vision of what we want to achieve.
GOAL #1: The local economy has a more diversified tax base, an increase in living wage jobs and has more stability. The community has capitalized on the unique quality of life and environment unique to the area.
GOAL #2: The educational environment facilitates learning and students are being prepared for a successful future. There are more available resources for enhancing education for all ages.
GOAL #3: The community has vibrant nodes of economic and civic activity that create a draw for tourism as well as a platform for community engagement.
GOAL #4: The wealth of natural resources in Transylvania County have been well managed and maintained to support the local economy and quality of life with plans in place to assure sustainability.
GOAL #5: The community’s quality of life includes resources that promote health, transportation connectivity, a sense of place, cultural heritage and public safety.
GOAL #6: County government is service driven, transparent and performance based with more active and engaged citizens.
To keep the plan dynamic, each year departments prepare an annual work plan alongside the budget request that cites a connection to the strategic plan. This annual work plans will show, in each department, for each activity, for each budget year, how we’re using our public dollars to move the strategic plan forward. The intent – and this will be our first year doing this – is to have a report to citizens that helps to capture what we have accomplished in every department for any given year. Developing the strategic plan in this way with a results-based model set the stage for the development of the library’s strategic plan using the Aspen Institute’s Action Guide.
Anna Yount, Library Director, Transylvania County
As the county strategic planning process was wrapping up, I received and read the Aspen Institute report, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries. The report articulated ways that communities in general, and particularly our community, could leverage its investment in libraries to build strong civic ecologies and forge new partnerships for achieving local and national goals.
Of the four Strategies for Success identified in the report, the first one, Aligning Library Services in Support of Community Goals, really resonated with us. One reason for that was the new county strategic plan but also because we are very fortunate to be building from a position of strength.
Our community is changing rapidly and we wanted a plan that would be nimble and flexible to meet changing needs and priorities.
Our past strategic plans were heavily prescriptive with little involvement or buy-in from staff, boards and community. Like most plans, it consisted of long lists of output measures which were like a boat anchor, dragging us down. When each measure wasn’t met, the staff felt a sense of failure. We were ready for change!
Both the Aspen Institute resources and the county’s strategic plan describe “vibrant nodes of civic engagement.” That phrase became our mantra. We really wanted to be a “vibrant node”. All of us, staff and board members, we absolutely saw our library as being THE trusted community resource that is ideally suited to filling that role in Transylvania County.
Another key concept from the Aspen Institute report that spoke to us is that the primary goal of the public library is NOT large circulation numbers. It is the cultivation of an intelligent and informed community. That is a game changer for a lot of people because we have all been in the numbers race, and we do have to collect and provide data. But we must remember that the numbers are not the goal.
Early in our process, we created an exercise to develop a word cloud. Participants received 10 cards and were asked to contribute one word per card and, of course, the more times a word is repeated, the bigger it is in the word cloud. There are three words - connect, empower, cultivate – that stayed with us throughout the year-long planning process and ultimately became our mission statement. The word book appeared nowhere in the word cloud.
We received a 2016-2017 LSTA (Library Services and Technology Act) Planning Grant from the State Library of North Carolina that enabled us to engage Maureen Sullivan who is not only a nationally recognized library leader and facilitator but was a member of the original Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries Working Group. We worked through the Action Guide with leadership from a seven-member steering committee of library staff. We developed ad hoc teams of other staff and board members along the way. We did a good deal of local demographic research. We learned a lot and challenged some of our long-held assumptions. For example, 20-34-year-olds represent the smallest segment of the county population but 74% of them have library cards. Everyone thought the 60+ crowd would be the greatest percentage of library card holders. We sought input from the community through an initiative called “Letters to the Library.” We asked individuals to share their experience – good and bad – and to tell us what we could do that we weren’t doing. We used these comments as quotes throughout our strategic plan.
The prospect of the public dialogues loomed large for us. I have a staff full of over-achievers, and they felt that if every one of the 33,220 people in Transylvania County did not attend a public dialogue session then we would have failed. They got over that quickly, and we learned that we all had to be open to hearing anything and everything.
We had seven sessions, including our Community Leaders Forum. We had a great facilitator and asked only two questions: “What is your vision for Transylvania County?” and “How do you think the Library can contribute to making that vision a reality?” The discussions were fabulous. We had two scribes record the comments from each session, and now we have pages and pages of rich material that we will continue to refer to as we work our plan. And the listening never stops.
The Aspen Institute Framework
The Aspen Institute process is so flexible that there really is something here for every size and type of community.
We found that the Action Guide was completely adaptable. The questions within each section stimulated, not just great discussion, but also creative activities that we designed ourselves. For example, in the section on Library as Place, staff color-coded the library floor plan to create a map of areas that work well and are great public spaces, as well as those that are only so-so and not working as they were intended.
Using the Aspen Institute work as a framework for strategic planning felt very comfortable for us because it is not designed as a traditional library strategic planning process. It sparked new ideas and new ways of thinking and it did not tell us what the final product had to look like. It allowed us to be creative and develop what was best for us and for our community. In the end, we crafted something that we are all proud of. For the last 20 plus years, our strategic plans have felt like term papers. This does not. It feels alive and relevant.
Our goals directly reflect the feedback we received which clustered around five areas in each dialogue session:
- The Library Space
- Intergenerational Third Place/Convener
- Early Learning
- Get the Word Out/Information Hub
You will see that each of our goals is directly linked to one or more of the strategies from the county’s strategic plan. And, as part of the library’s internal operational process, we develop activities for each goal and strategy that are folded into our county work plan which, in turn, informs our budget requests each year. We are very fortunate to have a county manager who is right there with us, thinking outside the box.
Aligning the library’s work with community goals is vital. We went through the county strategic plan item by item and we brainstormed what the library could do in every area to help achieve those goals. Solid Waste. Emergency Services. Mental Health. We talked about every item in the plan. It was fun and fascinating. We don’t have all the answers yet but it is exciting to be watching things develop.
In summary, I would say that librarians across the country are eager to roll up our sleeves and help move the needle in each of our communities. Our process using the Aspen Institute tools led us to develop a plan that helps us do just that. We took its lessons to heart and it pushed us out of our box and into our community.
Anna L. Yount, MSLS
Transylvania County Library