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Reflections on strategic plans that are neither strategic nor plans

It’s Christmas morning and I have some quality blogging time for the first time since returning to California late October and starting my new job. I pick up Sandy in four hours, and between now and then, I will drink hot chocolate, go for a nice walk, and write about strategic plans.

I have been giving a lot of thought to some issues Steven Bell raised in his comment to my last post about the challenges of directing small, private, tuition-driven university libraries.  One of the first things I did in my new job at Peanut U (as I think of it, and I mean that fondly, being a bit of a peanut myself) was read through previous “strategic plans” and related documents; I continue to consume as many internal documents as possible, not just library-related. (When people ask me what books I’ve read lately, I get a little vague.)  I did this for my own library but also for other libraries that fall in our range (easy enough to find these docs, given how comfortable we “lesser libraries” are with Google).

One of my conclusions — and it may be a no-brainer to many of you, but I cheerfully admit I haven’t thought about it quite this way before — is that particularly for smaller libraries, funding (good or bad) is often labeled a cause, when it is at least partially (and sometimes overwhelmingly) an outcome of leadership. I specifically target smaller libraries because larger libraries with bad leadership may have the momentum of size, reputation, and legacy services to carry them along, sometimes even for decades, whereas smaller institutions live closer to the bone.

Over and over, my head in hand (when it was not sinking to my desk), I read “plans” that instead of projecting a vision of where the library should be, let alone explain what the library currently does quite well, began with stating that the libraries do not have enough staff or funding, and then proceeded in page after stultifying page (written in ghastly Biblish) to compare the library to “peers” that are better-funded.

This is not to criticize peer comparisons, which can be extremely useful. I had an unexpectedly wonderful moment two weeks ago when in the middle of a presentation about the library’s short-range strategy I displayed a photo of Dominican‘s lovely popular-reading room.  This image completely bowled over the room in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

It’s one thing to show a photo of Georgia Tech’s gorgeous East Commons (which I did). I know it wasn’t a straight shot to creating that commons, not by far, but from the perspective of Peanut U, it might as well have been handed to them on a silver platter. Ho-hum.

But showing what a peer library did–a peer library known to have been, as several put it, “dumpy”–was a spectacular success. It took five minutes to get to the next slide, and not for anything I was saying. I have an expression, “I made money today,” that means I had some kind of strategic “win.” I came back from that presentation and those were the first words out of my mouth.

Note that the change-making image from Dominican wasn’t a comparison of what money can do. That photo was a comparison of what leadership can do. These so-called “strategic plans” that fail to project either a strategy or a plan are extremely frustrating to read, as a professional who wants all libraries to be wonderful, but they do end up being useful for understanding where leadership has failed in the past. It is  diagnostic that these “plans” rarely compare services or outcomes, but instead fixate on comparing raw resources — without clearly demonstrating what they would do if their resources were increased. Most of these plans don’t even pause at the beginning to explain how the library fits within the university’s mission and goals.

And I repeat, for emphasis, that these plans rarely explain what the library currently does quite well, perhaps even uniquely among peer institutions, beyond the occasional reference to “key indicators”–including those things that aren’t necessarily funding-related.

In one of the conversations I had with a peer director last week, we agreed that even with very spartan funding, we can focus on providing the best possible customer service. Improving the sheer quality of service by student workers is one of our spring goals at Peanut U; we are spending the break developing training materials, and I plan to personally meet with every student worker to share our library’s customer service philosophy and our expectations for their role in delivering customer service (aka the “Fear of God” talk, delivered pleasantly, of course).  They are very good kids (Peanut U seems to spray its students with Niceness when they matriculate), and having worked with 18-year-olds who were responsible for ensuring airplanes were fit to fly, I am confident this group of student workers is perfectly capable of learning just enough LC to get by, where the remote-access instructions are for the library portal, and what the phone number for the circ desk is.

To train our student workforce  to a fare-thee-well is part of our strategic vision, simple as it might seem (just as changing the database pages so they now open to basic search, instead of advanced search, took a modicum of effort and is also part of our strategy to improve customer service). There’s a slide for it in my talk. But customer service rarely comes up in the dead-on-arrival non-plans I have been reading.

It takes a village to improve a university library’s funding. As a department within a larger institution, the university library has to continually make a case for its relevance and value within the context of what are, quite frankly, worthy competitors.  Right now it’s evident, from our key indicators, that many at Peanut U have adjusted to the idea that the library has minimal relevance to their personal success.  I need to change this perception, and this will happen more slowly than I like and with more setbacks than I want, and of course, in a framework of very limited resources. But if I fail at this endeavor, asking for more funding won’t work, and why should it?

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