When considering what will guide a law library’s mission, goals, values, and everyday operations, no two things are more important than policy development and strategic planning. Both exercises provide a framework for law librarians to work within to ensure the success of its services within its organization and for its patrons.
While not often recognized as one of the most gratifying aspects of librarianship, policy development can be one of the most impactful exercises in the profession. Properly-executed, well-considered policy serves to guide everything related to library development and usage while mitigating areas of confusion and conflict for all stakeholders in a library. Strategic planning helps law librarians and other law library employees to understand the law library’s mission within its organization, how to provide value-added services that meet patron expectations and gives law librarians goals to work towards to ensure the law library’s success.
- Stated policy mitigates confusion among law library stakeholders and guides librarians in various situations.
- Librarians can develop good policies by leveraging existing policies at other libraries.
- A policy has the most impact when the right people have ready access to the needed policies.
- Plans should be based on key stakeholders, end goals, and budget considerations.
When wholly considered, policy development and strategic planning involve the entire library and its patronage, creating an inclusive effort and investment to make the law library the most it can be.
Policy Development How Policy Helps
Law library policies act as the instruction manuals to how a law library functions. Policy is collected information on how the library will act in various situations. Those situations can be varied to the point where policy can be collected and written for nearly any library-based context. In situations both routine and abnormal, the predictability gained from policy is a strength that can be relied on by the library’s staff and its patrons.
One of the first things that should come to mind in creating effective policy is thinking about what impact a policy document can have. It’s natural to question how impactful a written policy can be to solve problems that libraries face. Policy benefits a library by allowing librarians to focus on their individual roles and mitigating potential issues. Both benefits allow librarians to focus on more significant issues and projects rather than the minutia that often distracts from the work that directly impacts a library’s patrons.
Policy in Terms of Issue Mitigation
In its most useful sense, well-executed policy helps prevent issues that would cost a library anything from time, effort, money, or the goodwill of its patrons. But how does it perform this role, and what practical situations can a policy benefit its institution in preventing conflict and problems?
First, policy performs these roles by guiding actions and setting expectations. A clear guidance document allows librarians to act as a unified whole in representing the services a library can and will offer to its patrons. That guidance is also helpful for librarians when it comes to navigating the variety of services a library provides. It is unrealistic to expect to remember how to implement every policy as a librarian; a well-constructed collection of guidance documents allows us to convey correct information to patrons accurately. This is important as it lends librarians confidence that they are administering to their duties well, and it prevents frustrations from patrons who might not know what they can and cannot do at the library.
The practical situations where a policy benefits the library are many and impact a variety of stakeholders. Policy documents can help librarians guide public patrons, students, alumni, and professors to understand exactly how the library can help them get the resources they need. Good policy extends beyond the primary mission of the library, though. Policy can touch everything from advertising library-sponsored programs to soliciting or managing donors and donations to navigating the library’s place in the whole law school’s ecosystem. The critical factor that a good policy lends is clarity. That clarity allows the library to assert its identity and purpose through its organized staff.
CONCEPT IN ACTION: POLICY GUIDING ACTION
One morning a professor emeritus came into the library to ask about donating her law books. She has a few specialized law books that the library does not have in their collection, but mostly outdated textbooks she used for teaching. Knowing that gifts are costly to store and process for the library, the librarian at the reference desk was about to say he could not accept the donation. Before he did, he remembered there was a gifts section in their collection development policy. He checked and saw that the policy stated that the library accepts all donations from professors, including textbooks. The librarian accepted the professor’s donation, and the professor left feeling appreciated and happy to get rid of her old books.
Policy in Terms of Enabling Librarians
Properly administered policy allows librarians to dedicate themselves to fulfilling their library roles rather than helping each other administer decisions from the top down. Essentially, it allows library management to manage and non-managerial librarians to focus on helping patrons rather than worry about administering decided policy correctly.
A well-developed library policy and organized guidance documents about the policy also help in moments of transition. Rather than dedicating large amounts of supervisory time to helping new librarians learn the fine details of working in a specific library, a detailed guidance document of policies encourages new hires to learn the inner workings of a library on their own during onboarding. This allows the new librarian a sense of independence and frees up supervisor time to focus on getting a new librarian up to speed on aspects of the job that cannot be entailed in a general guidance document. That prioritized management also enables librarians in management roles to balance their responsibilities without short-changing themselves or the librarians they supervise.
Policy can also help in moments of chaos or crisis. If a patron has a health-related crisis in the library, having a guide to action can prevent a panicked paralysis of a librarian who does not know what action to take. Such a policy document has the potential to be lifesaving.
How To Develop Policy
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
How does a librarian begin to tackle the issue of creating policy that will impact an entire institution? The comfort here is that no librarian or even a group of librarians must go through this process alone. The field of law librarianship is a highly cooperative one, and librarians can always look towards their peer institutions for exemplars in policy. There is a clear advantage to looking to your peers for inspiration. By examining the policies that govern other libraries, the person developing the policy need not necessarily have years of experience in the policy area.
Being new to a field or the profession should not be the only reason you turn to policy written by your peers. Even after librarians have developed a feel for the profession’s challenges, they can benefit from their peers’ experiences. The best policy is informed by experience. By examining our colleagues’ policies, we might look to prevent any issues or take advantage of situations they had to learn by experience. Law librarianship should be viewed as a collective as well as an individual experience. In doing so, we benefit, and our patrons do as well.
All this does not mean that we should copy our policies blindly. Doing so would sell your library and its patrons short. The result would be a bloated policy, not tailored for a specific use. A proper policy document should be developed with your institution’s experiences in mind while keeping an open mind towards incorporating other policies for future situations.
Where to Find Policies
Knowing to look for other policies is only half the knowledge required to leverage collective experience for your library’s success. A librarian must also know where to look for these documents. Fortunately, these documents are often readily available. The most accessible documents are usually made available by individual libraries through professional organizations and, if not there, might be made available by individual libraries on their web pages.
Law librarians are fortunate in that we have an active and collaborative professional organization in the American Association of Law Librarians (AALL). Through the organization’s Special Interest Sections (SIS), there are active efforts to maintain collections of policy documents from various libraries. The advantage of utilizing the individual SIS pages to find policy is that you are more likely to find policy relevant to your efforts. For example, if you are tasked with working on refining a collection development policy as a government law librarian (which is very well represented on the various SIS pages), it would be more helpful to navigate the Government Law Libraries Special Interest Section’s (GLL-SIS) dedicated webpage as compared to the Academic Law Libraries Special Interest Section’s (ALL-SIS) page. It should be noted that these collections are built from individual libraries volunteering them. This collection method might make it challenging to get a comprehensive collection of libraries in a particular area or ranking, and these documents might not be entirely up to date.
Alternately, a librarian seeking to find poorly kept policies on various AALL pages can find success by going directly to the source. As discussed in the next and final section on policy, policy has little impact if no one can access or find the policy. For that reason, policy documents are often made available on library web pages. Since libraries maintain these sites themselves and the sites are one of the main ways they communicate to their patrons, it is a very good bet that the policy documents presented there are the library’s current policies. When searching, it is helpful to remember that each library website is unique to that library, and navigation might be difficult depending on how that website is structured. When searching for a policy document, do not be afraid to use tricks like using a search engine to search for the library webpage’s URL combined with search terms like “policy.”
Do not be afraid to think outside this box when looking for policies that you can adopt at your institution! Searching outside law librarianship, in particular, can yield beneficial results. Aside from the AALL, the American Library Association (ALA) is also a helpful resource for creating policy. They offer manuals, guidelines, and other resources to help librarians make their own policies.
CONCEPT IN ACTION: RESEARCHING POLICIES
Halle is a librarian who has been on the job for about three years. Her boss tasked her with developing some baseline policies for a revision of their library’s access policy. Halle knew that some policies were available on the web pages of other libraries. So, she gathered 15 examples of policies and broke them down into individual elements for access policies. Since Halle worked in a law library without public access, she discarded the elements that talked about public patrons and adapted the policies she liked into a cohesive access policy for her library.
Policy Access & Maintenance
As we mentioned earlier in this chapter, a policy is only so helpful on its own. People need to be able to access policies relevant to them for that policy to have an effect. In addition, making policy is not the end of the process for applying it in your library. Policy maintenance is an important factor in how to get the most out of your efforts. This section details more about both of these concepts.
Making policy available to stakeholders who need to access it is critical to getting the most out of that policy. It is also helpful to ensure that people who do not need access to certain policies are not cluttered by policy documents they do not need to see. Naturally, this means that the people who need access go beyond the librarians themselves and often include patrons, institutional administrators, and other stakeholders. Making access policies readily available, or even highlighted, for the public benefits patrons as much as it benefits the librarians who have to enforce that policy. At the same time, highlighting the library’s collection development policy or its employee-centered policies alongside its access policies might not prove as helpful to the public. These differing access needs mean that library policy should have a well-managed home for their policy documents. What form that home takes is something to be decided by individual libraries.
Stakeholders that need to access the most policy documents also benefit if those policies are made available in an organized format. Taking the time and effort to organize a guidance document that represents library policy is often very worthwhile. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, a guidance document can help librarians perform their duties well by offering easy access to all the policies they cannot immediately remember. It also serves as a useful training document for new librarians to get up to speed and be authoritative when offering reference service in a new environment.
Fully utilizing policy documents in your library requires that they be properly maintained and managed. Wholesale policy restructuring should not be a common occurrence, but regular review and revision should be. These revisions are best executed when the library’s relevant specialists perform this review and then bring their suggestions to management. This results in the employees most impacted by policy change having a say in the matter while still involving those most responsible for shepherding the library’s direction.
Policy should never be seen as set in stone. Revisions are natural as we learn from experience, and our field is ever-changing. Due to this, policy documents should be quickly available in a format that can track changes made over time. Shared drives, such as Google’s, offer advantages when dealing with policy documentation. Documents in shared drives are accessible to various people in the library and are more difficult to lose or delete. Some drives track each new version and revision of your document so that users can go back and see what decisions were previously made regarding a policy. While it seems small, that institutional memory is crucial to future editors and people who will hold your position in the library. To further build this institutional memory, a good general practice is to have each employee responsible for revising a policy document initial and date the revised document. That helps trace changes and who was responsible for certain policy administration over time.
Oftentimes, new law librarians believe that strategic planning is best left to administrators, but this is not the case. A good strategic plan gathers the viewpoints of all law library employees, key stakeholders in your organization, and patrons. Multiple perspectives help create a comprehensive and inclusive strategic plan of the different viewpoints and roles of the law library employees and patrons. When starting out as a law librarian, do not assume that your voice is not important enough to speak to a strategic plan. Instead, ask those drafting a strategic plan if you can share your perspective during the drafting phases. The more perspectives heard during the drafting phase, the more the strategic plan will represent the goals and mission of the law library and its organization. Further, take an active role in implementing the goals of the strategic plan. By showing your commitment to taking actions that align with the strategic plan’s goals, you can prove the value-add you provide to the law library and the organization.
What is Strategic Planning?
Strategic planning involves reviewing the law library’s mission, values, and goals to form an actionable plan that will guide the law library’s work and service for the years to come.
Purpose of Strategic Planning
Strategic planning may occur for various reasons. Perhaps it is because a new administration has come into the organization or law library, and they would like to realign the goals of the law library with those of the main organization. Or perhaps it is because the current administration decides that it is time to review and refocus the law library’s goals. Or it may simply be time to review and revise the existing strategic plan.
Whatever the reason for creating a strategic plan, it should be viewed as a way to create goals that further the mission of the law library as patron needs, technology, access to resources, and the environment of the legal field and the organization have evolved since the last time a strategic plan was created. It gives law library administration a “tool designed to answer three simple questions in a library: Where is the library today? Where does it want to be in the future? How does it plan to get there from here?”i Further, it should help law library employees see both the bigger picture of the mission and goals of the law library, as well as provide actionable items that they can work towards that align with the law library’s and organization’s core mission and values. A well-drafted strategic plan should provide the direction needed to move the law library forward to meet its stated goals.
Types of Analysis
It is important to consider the types of analysis that are often used when drafting a strategic plan. The two main types of analysis for strategic planning are SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) and SOAR (strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results). While other types of analysis may be used, these two types cover the large majority of the framework for drafting a strategic plan. While SWOT and SOAR are similar, they focus on different aspects of the law library and its services. SWOT analysis focuses on the following:
- Strengths – This part of the analysis focuses on what the law library does well. Questions that might be asked include: What collections, databases, resources, and services do patrons like? Has the law library been recognized for its services? If so, by whom? What do law library employees think are their strengths?
- Weaknesses – This part of the analysis focuses on what the law library may lack. Some questions that may come up in this part of the analysis include: Are there areas of the collection that do not meet the needs of patrons? What complaints have patrons or other stakeholders made about the law library? What areas of the law library could be better staffed, or are there important subject matters that lack expertise?
- Opportunities – This part of the analysis focuses on where there are opportunities to improve. Questions to ask may include: How can the law library work with patrons and administration to better meet their needs? Are there resources that can be canceled to free up budget funds for purchases that will be better utilized by its patrons?
- Threats – This part of the analysis focuses on what the law library should avoid now or observe for the future that may have an adverse impact on the law library’s ability to provide services. Questions for this analysis may include: Is the overall organization in a good financial position so that the law library’s budget will remain stable? Are there any technologies that may disrupt or change the way that the law library typically provides services?
By contrast, a SOAR analysis focuses less on weaknesses and threats and calls on those drafting the strategic plan to look more towards positive aspects of the law library and its organization.
CONCEPT IN ACTION: SOAR ANALYSIS
Jillian was recently hired to be a reference librarian in an academic law library. The law school administration recently changed, and they are asking all departmental units to create a strategic plan to show their mission, values, and goals for the next five years. Jillian has asked to be a part of the strategic planning team even though she is new to law librarianship as a profession and to the academic institution where she was recently hired. The Director of the law library has asked Jillian to begin to conduct a SOAR analysis specifically related to the services that the law library provides to students, and Jillian created the following framework to get herself started:
The first two categories of SOAR – strengths and opportunities, focus on the same things and ask similar questions as these categories in the SWOT analysis, but the second two categories – aspirations and results, are where the two types of analysis really differ.
- Aspirations – This part of the analysis focuses on what the law library hopes to accomplish in the future. Questions for aspirations may include: What does the law library desire to be known for? What changes can the law library make that will reflect positively on the perception of the law library?
- Results – This part of the analysis focuses on how to measure whether or not it has achieved its goals. Questions can include: What metrics and assessments can be used to show how the law library has met its goals? What value add has the law library provided to its overall organization?
Whichever method is chosen, it is essential for everyone in the strategic planning process to keep the goals and mission of the law library in mind and ensure that they fit into the overall goals and mission of its organization in a meaningful way.
The Planning Process
Creating a strategic plan may sound like a daunting process, but it doesn’t have to be. Properly defining the purpose and scope of the plan, identifying key stakeholders, outlining end goals and actionable items, and considering the budget throughout the process will help make sure the process goes smoothly. More importantly, clearly defining a timeline with check-in points and action items along the way will help keep those working on the plan on track.
Define the Purpose & Scope of the Plan
Start the planning process by identifying the purpose for creating the strategic plan and defining the scope of the plan. As a new law librarian, you might not be involved in the initial stages of the planning process. However, it is still a good idea to review the purpose and scope of the plan throughout the process to make sure that any plans made are in line with the original purpose and scope. Some things to consider for the purpose of the plan are:
- Why is the strategic plan being created?
- What does the law library administration hope the outcome of creating the strategic plan will be?
- What does the organization hope the outcome of creating the strategic plan will be?
When defining the scope of the plan, keep in mind the following:
- Who is the audience for the final product? Is it just for internal law library purposes or overall organization purposes? Will the final product be public-facing, such as by being posted on the law library’s or organization’s website?
- What will the final product look like? Will it be a physical written document, or will it align with the law library goals to create a website or digital only copy of the final strategic plan?
- How long do you have to complete the strategic plan?
- What is the budget for creating the strategic plan?
- Is there long-range budget planning that needs to occur to meet action items in the final strategic plan?
While defining the purpose and scope of the plan, it is vital to keep in mind both the mission and values of the law library and the overall organization.
Identify Key Stakeholders
Identifying key stakeholders to be involved in the strategic planning process is vital to ensuring that the final plan addresses the needs of the employees, organization, law library patrons, and any external stakeholders involved with the law library. It is important to learn about the needs of all those involved in working and using the law library’s services to form a fully developed strategic plan. Ensuring the voices of the right stakeholders are heard is vital to creating a strategic plan.
The key stakeholders will likely come from the following groups:
- Law library administration
- Law librarians and law library staff
- Departmental administrators
- Organizational administrators
- External stakeholders
The strategic planning team should likely include one law library administrator and at least one other law library employee. The remaining members of the team should try to capture the other key stakeholder groups. If possible, try to include at least one patron on the team since they are the main beneficiaries of the law library’s services. Suppose all key stakeholder groups cannot be represented on the team. In that case, those on the team can learn key stakeholders’ needs by doing surveys, focus groups, and interviews to gather the information needed from each of these groups.
A commitment to carrying out the action items in the plan “can only be achieved if all library staff identify with the plan, and they are motivated to produce the projected results. As a result, strategic planning should not be carried out in isolation by specialists alone but rather in an inclusive manner in which the implementers and stakeholders are dynamically involved. If structured in a participatory manner, the formation of the strategic plan in itself turns into a learning experience. It forms a process of opening up communication and discourse, for stimulating understanding and ownership in what is being planned for and spreading a spirit of strategic thinking throughout the whole library.”ii In this way, getting the key stakeholders involved in the planning process is vital to creating end goals and action items.
Outline End Goals & Action Items
Once the plan’s purpose and scope are defined, and the key stakeholders are identified, the strategic planning team must outline the plan’s end goals and the action items. This should be an iterative process that considers the feedback gathered from the key stakeholders and keeps in mind the larger mission and values of the law library and its organization.
Grouping goals into like categories can make it easier to define goals that relate to the values of the law library. For example, the categories may be related to collection development, new technologies, public services, technical services. These categories must make sense for the particular organization. Within these overarching categories, goals should be defined that are reasonable and attainable.
Be careful not to set too many goals. “[T]he number of goals that any library can realistically implement in a three- or five-year period is limited. The planning team members should reach a consensus on the top five to ten goals for each category and prioritize them accordingly.”iii Keep in mind law library staffing and the time frame set out in the plan to complete these goals. Working on ten goals over five years with a larger staff might be feasible, but it would be much harder to work on ten goals over three years with a leaner law library staff. Do not set yourself up for failure by setting out too many goals.
Further define each goal with some specific action items that will provide a jumping-off point for the law library employees who will need to implement the plan. Ensure that the action items are discussed with the employees who will be responsible for them to ensure that they are a reasonable starting point. As always, keep the law library’s mission and values and the organization in mind while creating goals and action items.
Consider your Budget
Two potential budget factors come into play when drafting a strategic plan. One is related to creating the strategic plan itself, and the other relates to the overall budget of the law library and its organization.
First, is there a budget available to undertake the strategic plan process? If so, this can change the way that the strategic plan is created. Perhaps consultants will be brought in to help define the purpose and scope of the plan and conduct the SWOT or SOAR analysis. A consultant may also be hired to come on at the end of the project to review and help with the plan’s presentation. There may also be a need for a budget to market the new strategic plan to patrons and external stakeholders. Smaller budget needs may include printing the plan in color and on high-quality paper. These budget considerations will depend on your law library, organization, and the purpose and scope of the plan. If there is no budget for creating the strategic plan or the budget is small, that is ok. The strategic plan team will create a strategic plan with the resources available to them.
Second, and even more important, is to keep the overall law library and organization budget in mind throughout the strategic planning process. It is important not to create goals that will be unattainable because the law library does not have the budget funds to realize them. This could include purchasing new databases, collections, seating or furniture, technology equipment, hardware, and software, among other things. For example, committing in the strategic plan to upgrade the law library technology could be a large financial undertaking. If the law library does not have this in its budget, then this goal will be unattainable from the start. Even if the law library has budget challenges, it is still possible to create attainable goals in the strategic plan that can be met without undertaking large purchases as long as the budget limitations are considered throughout the drafting process.
Implementing the Strategic Plan
The final step is to implement the strategic plan. In many ways, this is the hardest part of the strategic plan. While working on the everyday minutia of running a law library, it can be difficult to keep the mission and goals of the strategic plan in mind. However, a strategic plan is only as good as its implementation, and working on action items within the plan is critical to the plan’s success.
As a first step, build action items into the strategic plan that will help those implementing the plan’s goals to have a starting off point. Further, once the plan is completed, make the first post-plan meeting a time to assign goals and action items to a person or team to complete them and set an initial round of timelines.
While working on action items, individuals and teams should be collecting data that can help with assessing the success of the plan. “Assessment refers to methods or tools that educators use to evaluate, measure, and document the academic readiness, learning progress, skill acquisition, or educational needs of students. In law libraries, it refers to evaluating, measuring, and documenting progress made toward meeting stated program, space, collection, and other goals. Assessment requires data.”iv It may seem daunting to collect data, but it is very likely that the law library is already collecting most, if not all, of the data needed to assess whether it is meeting its goals. Circulation statistics, usage stats for databases and equipment, gate counts, and other information is already being collected. The law library can also periodically collect additional data through patron surveys, focus groups, and feedback from organizational administration and external stakeholders. Assessing the success of the strategic plan is important to ensure that you’re meeting the plan’s goals.
A strategic plan helps formulate the law library’s mission and goals for many years. Spending the time to create a well-thought-out plan will serve the law library and its employees by providing a set of goals to work towards and action times that lead the services that the law library offers. A strategic plan is a valuable tool for all levels of law librarians to both get involved in the creation process and to use the plan to guide the law library to meet its goals and align it within its organization.
- ALA – Library Policy Development: General
- AALL – Policy Pages
- OCLC – WebJunction: Policies
- Caroline Young, et al., “Strategic Planning” in Legal Research and Law Library Management. Law Journal Press: 2020.
- Michelle Cosby, “Strategic Planning: Using SWOT or SOAR Analysis to Improve Your Organization, AALL Spectrum 23, no. 2 (November/December 2018): 20-23
- Roberta F. Studwell, “The Strategic Academic Law Library Director in the Twenty-First Century,” Law Library Journal 109, no. 4 (Fall 2017): 649-672