BCLTA Governance Workbook: Establishing Strategic Direction

The board is responsible for ensuring that strategic direction has been established for the public library. The responsibility of the strategic direction often includes:

  • vision, mission, and values statements
  • a strategic plan or framework that describes the goals and objectives of the organization
  • assessment methods

Vision, Mission, and Value Statements

A vision statement is the big “why”. It may be similar to vision statements of other organizations that are not public libraries. Strong vision statements are about the community  and often imply or speak directly to quality of life.

An informed, engaged, and connected city – Vancouver Public Library

Knowledge changes lives – Creston Public Library

A mission statement is the big “what”.  It is about the unique role of the public library in your community and guides the board and staff in their work.

Your place in the community to explore, create, and share information and ideas – Castlegar & District Public Library

We offer the resources, expertise and inspiration to connect our community to the world of culture, knowledge and ideas – Gibsons & District Public Library

The mission of the Stewart public library is to enrich the life of every person in our community by providing access to the world’s ideas and information –  Stewart Public Library

Every public library has values, stated or not, that inform the work of the organization from strategic planning through to day-to-day operations. Many public libraries are now including value statements on their “About Us” page or as part of their strategic planning document.

Examples of BC public library value statements:

Service Excellence: Providing quality service by anticipating and acting on changing community needs.

Volunteerism: Training and supporting people who give freely of their time and skills is key to our future.

Community: Addressing expressed needs and committing to inclusiveness makes all welcome.

Collaboration: Working with individuals, groups and organizations to make a difference in the community.

Innovation: Embracing change and technology supports those seeking new ways to achieve their goals.

Communication: Improving connections can improve the sharing of learning and information.

—   Salt Spring Island Public Library

      • Learning and Innovation
      • Respect
      • Inclusiveness
      • Connections
      • Service Excellence
      • Sustainability

– Coquitlam Public Library

      • Service
      • Accessibility
      • Accountability
      • Responsiveness
      • Engaging
      • Respect
      • Integrity

– Invermere Public Library,  Guiding Principles

The vision, mission, and values require periodic review for relevance. This often takes place at the time that the strategic direction is reviewed and updated. Of specific concern is the need to ensure that the vision, mission, and value statements are in keeping with the ongoing development of public libraries in areas such as inclusion, equity, reconciliation and other emerging discussions or issues. As well, they should be concise, focused, and relevant. When reviewing check the vision, mission, and value statements for:

  • Do these statements still resonate with the community and the role of the public library?
  • Do these statements still hold true when checked by evidence of community needs and aspirations?
  • Do these statements in their language and tone reflect social change and progress?

In general, the vision statement tends to endure through a series of strategic plans due to it being at such a high level (the big “why”).

Value statements also tend to endure. Once articulated they become “sticky”, or internalized into the culture of an organization. Some public libraries have purposefully supported this “stickiness” by assessing the “how” of their work against their value statements, such as equitable access, intellectual freedom, or integrity.

The mission statement is slightly different. Often you will hear people talk about successful organizations being “mission focused”. This means that all the work of the organization, from governance through to execution and assessment, is aligned with the mission statement. In these organizations trustees, staff, and even community members know the “what” of the public library.

When boards enter strategic planning, particularly one where the desire is for change, the mission or “what” of the public library may need to be updated.

An effective mission statement is

  • relevant
  • current and appropriate for achieving the work of the strategic plan
  • memorable
  • concise
  • clear (no jargon or technical language)
  • about the business of the public library
  • understood by the community, elected representatives, funders, and staff
  • understood and championed by the board

A successful board aligns their work with an effective mission statement. This is what is  called being “mission focused” and is demonstrated by

  • board members being familiar with and championing the mission
  • board direction, policy, and oversight reflecting and aligning with the mission
  • board support of and governance work with the library director results in the day-to-day operational management of the library reflecting and aligning with the mission

Strategic Planning

The board has the responsibility to consider the evolving and future role of the public library and to work with the library director to establish a strategic direction for the work of the organization.

An emerging trend that some public library boards have adopted is to have a strategic framework, rather than a plan. A strategic frameworks provides general direction for annual planning without committing the organization to a detailed multi-year business plan that risks irrelevancy or stagnation before the end of the planning cycle. For example, see West Vancouver Memorial Library’s 2021 Strategic Framework.

The key thing is that the board’s strategic planning should be focused on outcomes or impact for the public library and the community.

Strategic planning, whether it is expressed as a plan with a specific duration and set of goals or as a future-focused framework, varies in length of time covered, depth of change desired, and level of detail, depending on the needs of the public library and the community, resources available, and the culture of the organization.

The library director develops the operational plan to achieve the outcomes of the board’s strategic framework or plan.

A standard approach to operational planning is for the library director to establish a set of goals that are

  • Specific (simple, sensible, significant)
  • Measurable (meaningful, motivating)
  • Achievable (agreed, attainable)
  • Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results based)
  • Time bound (time based, time limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive)

The library director provides timely, accurate reports with an appropriate level of detail for governance oversight on what the library is doing to achieve the board’s strategic direction.

The following are  indicators of effective board performance in strategic planning and oversight:

  • a process inclusive of community and stakeholder input
  • a board focus on big picture social and economic issues with long-term impact, such as reconciliation, demographic trends, climate crisis, access to information and technology, welcoming newcomers, providing services to those who have been underserved, and local economic development
  • a shared understanding with the library director of how the organization should
  • evolve over the near and far future
  • a process and time frame for strategic planning
  • a library board–library director working partnership based on trust, role clarity and defined responsibilities and expectations

Please see the BCLTA resource Preparing for Strategic Planning.


Strategic Planning Process

1.   Plan to Plan

One of the most important considerations for planning is to identify who will be participating in the process and their roles and responsibilities. There should be a process plan that includes details about roles and responsibilities, timelines, and the expected deliverables. Key to the success of the process is to ensure that there is complete board understanding, support and commitment for their work in strategic planning.

2.     Conduct an Environmental Scan

An environmental scan is important for providing the context for strategic planning. For this context the board needs accurate and current information about the public library and the community it serves. This information might come from local government (the Official Community Plan), library reports, the Provincial Strategic Plan for Public Library Service 2020 trade journals, census data, surveys, focus groups, or other community-based research.

The environmental scan will also help identify key stakeholder groups and decision makers (such as government funders and local First Nations) that the board will want to consider for participating in the planning process. In this process staff, board  members, and volunteers are also stakeholders in the public library.

3.     Develop a Focus

The focus for strategic planning will come from the public library’s vision mission , and values.

With these in mind and with what has been learned from the environmental scan the board, with support and guidance from the library director, should then focus on three to five areas for impact or outcomes . These focus areas will provide direction to staff on what to prioritize for the organization to be mission focused and successful.

The Burnaby Public Library has the following high -level goals in their 2019 to 2022 Strategic Plan  :

  • Connect with Community
  • Encourage Curiousity and Exploration
  • Create Welcoming and Innovative Spaces
  • Invigorate People and Culture

The North Vancouver City Library has four priorities in their Strategic Plan 2018- 2021. The are

  • Inspire learning, discovery and creation
  • Create vibrant spaces
  • Honour Indigenous perspectives
  • Enhance access and inclusion

4.      Draft the Plan or Framework

Some boards will have a board committee draft the plan or framework, or the board will work  with an outside consultant for their strategic-planning process. Another common practice

in public libraries is for the board to give direction to the library director to bring the board a draft plan or framework that reflects their desired format and outcomes, and is based on the collected data, trends, community input, and other strategic-planning information and  evidence.

5.     Approve the Plan or Framework

The board approves the strategic plan or framework when the final iteration meets their intention for strategic direction.

Strategic plans and frameworks can become marketing and communication tools. Most public libraries post a public planning document to their website as an act of accountability and transparency, and some public libraries have purpose-designed or multimedia strategic  plans. Regardless of the style or design of the document, it is a public commitment to the community and to funders.  All public library boards should be prepared to champion their strategic plan to the community, local government and other elected officials, and funders.

6.      Provide Strategic Oversight and Assessment

It is the board’s responsibility to receive progress reports from the library director. It is the library director’s responsibility to manage the operational implementation of the plan and to regularly provide the board with accurate and timely progress reports.

The board needs to know what is working and what may be a risk to their high-level strategic focus. The criteria or what the board requires for reporting are often referred to as key performance indicators (KPIs). It is up to the board to decide on an assessment method or tool, but whatever they choose should be:

  • About the high-level focus of the strategic direction and outcomes and not the operational day-to-day of staff. Staff activities, such as a successful storytime or a resumé workshop, are useful to include in reports to support the board’s understanding of what their strategic focus and priorities look like in the  library or the community. The library director manages and evaluates individual staff activities.
  • Regular. Most goals are best assessed quarterly or annually, not monthly.
  • Accurate and comparable from report to report. The board should be able to measure the progress that is being made to achieve their desired strategic
  • Evidence based and outcomes focused. The board should know what it expects to see if staff work is aligned with their strategic focus; this includes statistics, social or economic impact, and community success indicators.
  • Aligned with vision, mission, and values of the organization. Assess what matters to the work of the board and the future of the public library.
  • Assessing results to keep the strategic direction or focus up to date. There may be a change in resources, staff capacity, or in the broader community that might require a change in the board’s direction and expectations.

7.    Review Annually

It is important that the board annually review their strategic plan or framework to affirm the aspirations for each strategic priority or focus and to identify significant emerging political, social, economic, and environmental factors that have implications for the library’s vision, mission, values, and overall strategic direction.