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Planning to Thrive: Sustainable Public Libraries

by Lyn Hopper on June 20, 2013

Public libraries are at a critical juncture; usage is up while funding is down. Library leaders cannot afford to be complacent; we must adapt traditional tools and employ fresh thinking, new skills, discipline, and hard work. Ensuring the sustainability of public libraries should include attention to strategic planning, community building, and advocacy. It has become clear that neither public goodwill toward libraries nor libraries delivering excellent services will guarantee adequate support and funding—we need to find new ways to ensure that public libraries will survive and thrive in the future.

Sustainability can be defined as “meeting current needs without compromising the opportunities of future generations.”1 “Sustainable is the new strategic,” according to library consultants Joan Frye Williams and George Needham:

It’s time to move from an emphasis on strategic planning to an emphasis on sustainability planning. . . . The true test of sustainability is whether your plan is still viable when conditions change.

Sustainability is not about securing stable funding for what we’ve always done. We‘re facing a perfect storm of changing circumstances, a storm that has caused us to question every aspect of public library practice today. The dearth of funding available from local government makes it natural to talk about this topic now, but that’s only a proximate cause. Sustainability should be on our radar screens in good times as well as in bad.2

When I became director of the Chestatee Regional Library System (CRLS) in Dawsonville, Georgia, in 1997, it never occurred to me to wonder whether public libraries would exist in the future. Of course they would! Public libraries are the people’s university. They help Americans with the information they need to participate responsibly in our democracy. They level the playing field by providing equitable access to information and technology. The public library may be the only neutral gathering space in the community. All are welcome, regardless of age, viewpoint, or socioeconomic status. Public libraries contribute in important ways to the social, cultural, educational, recreational, economic, and civic life of our communities.

But today, public libraries across the country are facing significant challenges to sustained funding and support. The 2012 State of America’s Libraries, a report published by the American Library Association (ALA), called 2011 a “year of grim headlines.”3 In many communities, library access is abridged because of reduced hours and, in the worst cases, library closings. Mainstream media has also reflected this gloomy picture. The Huffington Post began a series of articles in late 2011 called “Libraries in Crisis.”4

Usage is Up

Statistics show that public library use continues to increase. The most recent statistics reported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) show that “visitation and circulation per capita have both increased in public libraries over the past 10 years. Per capita visitation increased 5 percent from the prior year.” The IMLS also found that “the role of public libraries in providing Internet resources to the public continues to increase. The availability of Internet-ready computer terminals in public libraries has doubled over the past 10 years. Internet PC use has also increased.”5 Employees of public libraries expect library use to continue to rise. According to a recent study, 85 percent expect an increase in the use of online library services while 55 percent expect use of physical facilities to increase over the next two years.6

People do value libraries. According to the 2011 Harris Poll National Quorum, 31 percent of respondents ranked the benefits of the public library at the top of the list compared to the benefits of other tax‐supported services, such as schools, parks, and roads. More than half (57 percent) ranked libraries in the middle of the list, and only 11 percent placed them at the bottom of the list of government services. A full 79 percent agreed: “My public library deserves more funding.”7 We might think that this higher use and the value placed on library services translate into greater and more widespread support. However, this is not the case, in part because many of our users are not politically empowered or are disenfranchised. In addition, we have not done an adequate job of engaging and training our supporters to speak up for libraries. The state of the economy and lack of political will to tax citizens for services certainly contribute to this situation as well.

Funding is Down

Despite the fact that people are using libraries more than ever, funding for libraries is in decline nationwide. The Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study found that “a majority (56.7 percent) of public libraries reported flat or decreased operating budgets in FY2012.”8 In a report on Library Journal’s 2012 Library Budgets Survey, Michael Kelley called the downward trend in funding “the new normal” and noted a national average decrease in public library open hours of more than ten hours a week from 2008 to 2011.9 The cumulative effect of annual budget reductions in recent years has been devastating for some libraries. Donna Howell is director of Mountain Regional Library System, my library system’s neighbor to the north covering Georgia’s counties of Fannin, Towns, and Union. She says that with the most recent cuts in state and local funding, she feels as though she is “presiding over hospice care for the library.” In the last few years positions have been eliminated, staff have been taking mandatory unpaid furlough days (some as many as twenty-four per year), open hours have been cut at all branches, and there are no funds for materials except those generated through donations and Friends of the Library efforts. Yet library use during that period has increased by 500 percent. “We’re not dying for lack of interest or use,” she said, “we’re dying from the benign neglect from those who can fund us, but choose not to do so.”10 Lamar Paris is the sole county commissioner of Union County, Georgia, one of the counties served by the Mountain Regional Library System. He loves the library, is proud of the new library in his county, and has done his best to keep the funding up for the library despite the fact that his 2012 county budget is less than it was in 2007. The library is, in his words, “one important piece of the quality-of-life puzzle.” When asked what libraries need to do to sustain funding, he emphasized establishing good relationships with elected officials: “You can’t overdo complimenting elected officials when you think they’re doing a good job or in the hopes that they’ll do a better job in the future. They’ll listen a little bit better if you start with a compliment.”

Paris said the secret to public library sustainability is “good leadership, good readership, and community support.” He wants to know that the library is being used and that people care about it. He suggests more contact with elected officials; even having a designated member of the Friends of the Library send one email a month would reap benefits.11

Library leaders cannot afford to be complacent, assuming that good times for libraries will return as the economic outlook improves. We must adapt traditional tools and employ fresh thinking, new skills, discipline, and hard work. Specifically, we must develop agility to respond to a rapidly changing environment, new demands, emerging technologies, and shifting populations. Strategic planning is one means at our disposal to help us do that. Secondly, library leaders must leverage their community-building potential, staying close to customers and bringing people together in new ways. In addition, we must understand the significance of our libraries to our communities, and learn to effectively communicate that value to others.

Strategic Planning

Most public librarians and trustees understand the importance of strategic planning. Planning not only helps the library make the most appropriate use of its limited resources, it communicates stewardship to funders and other stakeholders. The best strategic planning is ongoing, an integral part of the way we do business. Effective strategic planning is one tool in your sustainability toolkit.

However, we have an imperative in today’s environment to do more than the traditional strategic planning. We must reinvent the library, and the first step is understanding the library at a fundamental level. Jim Collins, in his seminal work Good to Great, says that leaders should understand the timeless purpose of their organizations.12 What did the library do a century ago that will still be important to do a century from now? Lending bound paper books is not likely to be a timeless purpose, whereas helping people learn might be.

Collins also encourages the clarification of core values for the organization. For the Anythink Libraries of Adams County, Colorado, these values include “compassion for our customers and each other, passion for our product, eagerness to learn, and optimistic attitude—we believe that anything is possible.”13 Once we understand our purpose and values, strategic planning and the implementation of a plan can flow from that foundation.

Building Community

Where there are high levels of community involvement with the library, support is more robust. The library as storehouse of information and resources, welcoming those who seek us out, will no longer suffice. We must increasingly be outside the library building, where the people are, and actively engaging our communities for the library to be seen as integral to the community infrastructure.

According to Ron Carlee, former chief operating officer of the International City/County Management Association, “One of the critical leadership skills today, in order to build a successful and sustainable organization, is building partnerships.” He cautions that “you may think you have the luxury not to worry about your local government; you do not if you want your organization to be effective in establishing its mission.” Carlee encourages librarians to get out of the library, and says they need to understand that they can’t wait to be asked: “They have to take the initiative to understand their community, what the power structure is, what the needs are, and to go out and market how the library is able and willing to help the community achieve its goals.”14

Sara Jones, director of the Carson City (Nev.) Library has been actively involved in building community. “We’re concerned about the future and vitality of this community and are at the table every place we can be,” she said.15 Because of a successful collaboration with the city, the Carson City Office of Community Development, which issues all business licenses, is managed by a library employee trained in small-business  development counseling.


Understanding your library’s value to the community will help you create an effective program of advocacy. When I served as library director of CRLS, I asked the local funders, in my case county commissioners, how they would like to receive information about the library. One said I should be able to answer the question, “So what?” (So what if more people are visiting? So what if they are attending more programs or checking out more materials?) We need to be able to tell our funding agencies and others what impact the library has on individuals and the community. To do that, we need to evaluate the outcomes of our programs and services and choose language that speaks to others clearly about our value.

We need to craft our advocacy messages in the context of community possibilities. Blogger R. David Lankes encourages us to

give up a deficit model and embrace the aspirations of the community. Rather than talking about how the community can’t read, or research, or access the Internet, we need to talk about how reading, researching, and accessing the Internet can help our communities unleash their potential. We should be asking how libraries help our communities thrive. If we can put together that vision in a compelling way, people will support libraries out of self-interest, not out of pity, charity, or a
sense of obligation.16

Molly Raphael, past ALA president, focused on transforming libraries during her presidential term, and current president Maureen Sullivan continues the theme. “We have used approaches that help libraries identify the different populations of their communities, figure out how to engage with the varied groups to understand their priorities, adjust library services to serve those groups, and then motivate those communities to speak out about the value of the libraries,” Raphael said.17

We need our public libraries. Our children and our grandchildren deserve them. The sustainable public library can be realized through reinvention and planning, building community, and effective advocacy. Best wishes on your journey to create a community-centered, cherished, and thriving public library!


  1. James W. Marcum, “Partnering for Innovation and Sustainability,” The Bottom Line: Managing Library Finances 21, no. 3 (2008): 82.
  2. Joan Frye Williams and George Needham, email to the author, May 31, 2012.
  3. Executive summary to “The 2012 State of America’s Libraries,” special issue, American Libraries: 1, accessed Aug. 10, 2012.
  4. Libraries in Crisis,” The Huffington Post, accessed May 22, 2013.
  5. Kim A. Miller et al., Public Libraries Survey Fiscal Year 2009 (Washington, D.C.: IMLS, October 2011), accessed Aug.10, 2012.
  6. “A Snapshot of Priorities and Perspectives: U. S. Public Libraries” infographic, Online Computer Library Center, 2012, accessed Aug. 10, 2012.
  7. Harris Interactive, “January 2011 Harris Poll Quorum,” Jan. 26, 2011, accessed Aug. 10, 2012.
  8. Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2011–2012,” digital supplement, American Libraries (summer 2012): 6, accessed Aug. 10, 2012.
  9. Michael Kelley, “The New Normal: Annual Library Budget Survey 2012,” Library Journal 62 (Jan. 16, 2012), accessed Aug. 10, 2012.
  10. Donna Howell, email to the author, June 18, 2012.
  11. Lamar Paris, telephone interview with the author, July 10, 2012.
  12. Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don’t (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).
  13. 2012–2014 Strategic Plan,” Anythink Libraries, accessed Aug.10, 2012.
  14. Ron Carlee, telephone interview with the author, July 9, 2012.
  15. Sara Jones, telephone interview with the author, July 6, 2012.
  16. R. David Lankes, “Beyond the Bullet Points: It is Time to Stop Trying to Save Libraries,” Virtual Dave . . . Real Blog, Aug. 1, 2012, accessed Aug. 10, 2012.
  17. Transforming Libraries . . . Continued,” American Libraries 43, no. 5–6 (May/June 2012): 44–45, accessed Aug. 10, 2012.