April 24, 2018

Same Budget, New Branches | Library by Design, Fall 2013

Can your library afford new branches or even operate existing facilities? Many libraries still struggle to meet increasing demand with flat or falling budgets and outmoded facilities.

The situation of Emily Baker, director of the Olathe Public Library (OPL), KS, exemplifies the problem many libraries have faced over the last five years. In 2008, her library completed a 20-year master plan that recommended two new branches, relocating the main library, expanding the existing branch, and doubling the number of staff. Baker moved forward to accomplish the service improvements, but recession realities put the facilities portion of the plan on hold. Finally, in 2011, the Olathe City Council appointed a task force to reexamine the library’s ability to expand access but more affordably.

ENVISIONING THE WAY FORWARD Olathe Public Library’s (OPL) current branch (l.) and a look at how it might appear following future changes (inset). OPL’s Strategic Visioning Workshop (second row), a daylong event at which community leaders gathered to discuss how OPL could align its services and facilities planning to support a shared view for the future of the community. Participants were guided through a series of focused activities to develop ideas and encourage visionary thinking. Top right planning photo courtesy of the City of Olathe, KA; library photo and top left planning photo courtesy of Group 4 Architecture, Research, and Planning, Inc.; kiosk illustration this page ©SFS Architecture

Don’t leave your library in the dust

Every librarian knows that changes in the economy, technology, demographics, and user habits continue to impact libraries. These changes teach us that while our core values remain steadfast, we can’t look back to the way we used to provide services and there won’t be a steady state of service we can provide.

However, that is no reason to leave your library in the dust of the early 21st century. You can plan for the future, and, if your library is not severely underfunded, you might be able to expand access. Rethink the old adage that bigger buildings and more hours require bigger budgets.

In fact, it’s never been a better time to refresh your master plan and get going on its implementation. A fresh approach to the planning process might yield effective solutions to the increased demands on your library that are within the limits of your operating budget.

One architect and planner, David Schnee, principal with Group 4 Architecture, Research and Planning in South San Francisco, proves it. His work on the Otay Ranch branch—a heroic effort on the part of Betty Waznis, director of library and recreation in Chula Vista, CA, was included in an LJ piece on libraries in retail spaces. That effort built a new branch despite the heavy toll the recession took on the library budget. The result wasn’t the stand-alone facility specified in the prerecession scheme, but the mall-sited express branch filled a need and opened a new world of service opportunities.

I learned that Schnee’s firm steps went beyond the classic master planning goal of identifying the need for more space. Instead, Group 4 focuses on helping libraries maximize service and access within available resources, aka a sustainable library planning approach.

One customer, Paula Miller, executive director of Colorado’s Pikes Peak Library District (PPLD), sums up a common theme these days in her introduction to the library’s 2010 Sustainable Services and Facilities Study by saying, “Taxpayers want and deserve efficient, accountable agencies serving them.” PPLD faced a major reduction in funding, so a planning process that looked at how to move forward and improve services and staffing despite difficult funding scenarios was appropriate. The resulting plan fully integrated programming, staffing, and facilities by meshing the funding realities and an out-of-the-box perspective of 20 years ahead. It created a model 21st- century service design. Although the worst-case scenario didn’t happen, the planning framework guides PPLD’s work as the library continues to make service and facility upgrades.

Schnee says that planning and building sustainable libraries isn’t just about libraries, it’s about the library’s role in envisioning, leading, and facilitating sustainable communities. The planning process is really about identifying goals for the community’s future and building a network of partners that will work collaboratively with the library toward achieving those goals.

Classic master planning

In the classic master planning model, “more” is better—more space, more facilities, more staff. A typical classic planning process is directed by the library board and/or library director and in simple terms consists of seven steps:

  1. Gathering and summarizing community input, usually via focus groups and questionnaires
  2. Calculating population projections
  3. Analyzing and presenting benchmark and peer comparative data about service measures, square footage, collection size, reader seats, and hours open
  4. Assessing current facilities
  5. Recommending needed changes to existing facilities and additional square feet, often in the form of neighborhood branches6Identifying service improvements
  6. Identifying service improvements
  7. Estimating the cost of needed construction or renovation.

The outcome of classic master planning, i.e., more space and facilities, may produce great results in a good economy. Yet when the economy fails, hours are likely to be cut and branches may be closed. Therefore, we must learn how to plan sustainable library systems that can weather the natural ups and downs of the economy.

Sustainable master planning

In Group 4’s work, a community task force is established to oversee or play an active role in the planning process—this allows for more viewpoints, forges partnerships, and places the library’s planning more visibly in the context of the community’s future. Representing a broad cross-­section of the community, task force members ask the tough questions that their fellow community members might also have in mind.

The consultants focus more heavily on strategic visioning, patron use and transportation patterns, analysis of service trends, and service offerings of a range of library types. They combine new design strategies and analytical approaches to streamlining operations to recommend a system of destination libraries that can be built and sustainably operated long into the future.

Olathe abandoned its prerecession plan owing to cost issues. In 2012, the library hired Schnee, who came with library futurist Joan Frye Williams. The pair were focused less on new buildings and more on “what’s happening now and what we can afford to operate in the future,” according to OPL director Baker. She says it was a “much larger planning process—more aspects of planning, bigger picture with more elements.”

Many libraries are looking for a bottom line–based but expansive perspective on planning for a sustainable future. Sustainability has been a major focus in five of Group 4’s recent master plans. A move toward a more sustainable master planning process—based on a realistic budget picture, as well as efficient service models that maximize access—is a logical response to the painful realities of economic vicissitudes for many communities.

Shelly Holley, director of the Frisco Public Library, TX, says she’s read too many master plans where cost of operations aren’t mentioned. Her library’s plan will include the projected annual operating budget for recommended facility types. “If you put operating cost in the design process, you think about design differently. I don’t want a pie-in-the-sky master plan that looks fabulous but when it comes to action and affordability in the long run, it sits on the shelf. Facilities should follow a master plan, not be the master plan.”

A philosophy for planning libraries

Schnee speaks enthusiastically about his approach to planning 21st-century libraries that draw residents in but are more budget friendly, aka sustainable, to operate than those of the past. He readily shares his wisdom and approaches, as well as those of others that have influenced him.

Schnee says we must take a new system because there will always be another economic challenge, and cutting hours will not work in the long term: patrons will stop coming. He starts from the reality that libraries are busier than ever but asks why customers will come to the library in person when they meet all their transactional needs online. At least a partial answer is that libraries are rapidly evolving from a supermarket role to the kitchen role, i.e., from a place to get materials to a place to create content, collaborate, support learning, serve as a “hyperlocal archivist,” and engage workers. In future, he believes that one-third of libraries will evolve into 21st-century libraries, one-third will be so well funded and loved that the strength of the book will keep them at status quo, and one-third will disappear.

Among the goals he urges as part of the design process is to have library staff helping customers with valued added services, not spending time directing people to find things or executing routine tasks. As such, he says libraries should strive for 80 percent to 90 percent nonstaff-mediated transactions. This will allow libraries to pull money from within, redirecting cash from administration and materials flow to value-added impact services. He suggests libraries go for small locations if they offer an express service tailored to the needs of the immediate local area, running efficiently with a nontraditional staffing model for longer hours. For general service, he suggests fewer, larger facilities that create more vibrant destinations with more resources, better staffing, and more hours. Says Schnee, a small, poor-quality, minimally open branch is not worth the drive.

If the idea of sustainable planning is appealing, check out these ideas for your next master planning process:

1. Hire a great planning team. Think deeply about what your library needs from a master planning process and put it into the request for qualifications. Consider specifying a library futurist along with an architect planner with plenty of library experience. Some larger library systems are bringing IT, marketing, demographers, and economists into the planning process.

2. Establish a task force. Consider a task force or advisory group to oversee or be engaged in the planning process. This will ensure that the master plan meets community needs and can be implemented. Be sure it’s a broad mix of community leaders including government, business, education, arts, community, and social service entity leaders. They’ll likely become strong ambassadors for the plan’s implementation. The task force approach in Olathe was, according to Baker, a much better process because of the variety of people and viewpoints. “We unearthed so much more to make a good decision,” she comments, “and we built up good relationships among ourselves.”

3. Evaluate current services and facilities. The planning team looks for what needs to happen to your services and facilities to deliver an evolving library service model.

4. Collect data. Be sure to specify knowledge of GIS mapping as a requirement for the planning team (Olathe’s map at left). That’s important for successfully interfacing with city government, the library, and data firms like CivicTechnologies and OrangeBoy, Inc. These mapping and data analytical tools, plus customer surveys, are used to map customer use, identify transportation and circulation patterns, and assess community needs. Transportation patterns and branch use can be leveraged to provide services more efficiently.

Baker says sustainable planning [as opposed to classic master planning] means “digging deeper for data about your customers and community, questioning all former assumptions, and looking at the future as carefully as possible. Times have changed and much more thought and input are required to get closer to what is really warranted for your library and community.” For instance, the finding that Olathe residents have highly mobile lifestyles resulted in a recommendation for two destination libraries rather than one main and three branches, as in its previous master plan.

5. Understand the operating budget. Schnee is a firm believer that more services can be provided by streamlining the workflow. He invites library staff to watch a video of the Brooklyn Public Library’s 2011 quest to expand hours despite years of cutbacks and a three-year hiring freeze. The effort, called the Open Library Initiative, carried out an exhaustive study of work tasks, undertook needed efficiencies, and resulted in an increase of service hours of about one extra day per week per branch. BPL, according to its director and chief librarian, Richard Reyes-Gavilan, “was largely successful in eliminating labor-intensive back-end processes that didn’t have tremendous public value. Now that we’re not sitting in back rooms counting change for the cash register, or sorting books to be sent back to their home branch, or a host of other activities about which our public doesn’t care much, our frontline staff now spend most of their time involved in activities that provide some value to our users—that could mean delivering a program, offering a book recommendation, or something similar.”

Schnee then asks library managers to break out the amount of time employees spend staffing a desk, delivering programs, and working in materials flow and administrative or nondirect service work. The result is that they will see how little of the budget goes to direct service, as well as notice opportunities to fix existing inefficiencies and reallocate resources to direct services, e.g., more hours, more outlets. Schnee says that automated materials handling systems make return on investment sense for high or growing circulation situations, but where they don’t, there are still plenty of opportunities to achieve efficiencies in the manual equivalents.

6. Hold a daylong visioning session with community, educational, industrial, and political leaders, along with artists, social service groups (i.e., potential partners), and Millennials. The goal is to get a lot of different people thinking differently, using techniques like metaphor games, taking on avatars, mock blogging, and backcasting to imagine a library in a future community.

7. Create a robust system design of different library types that fit your community’s needs. Destination libraries are full service, conveniently located, optimally sized to deliver most of the place-based service. They can be flagship-sized or large or medium-sized because they are sized according to the number of people likely to visit them. They have more resources and seating, better staffing, and longer hours to provide an engaging quality experience. The destination library model is built on the concept that fewer, larger libraries can be operated less expensively than a larger number of smaller facilities, even if they comprise roughly the same amount of space. Express libraries are smaller facilities that provide convenient options tailored to the specific location. They extend the reach and convenience of the destination libraries. Express libraries can be variations of:

  • Small outposts providing access to library resources.
  • Materials vending or lockers for picking up items placed on hold.
  • Embedded service collocated with a community or retail partner.
  • Mobile service such as a bookmobile, library fleet, farmer’s market table/tent.

Special purpose libraries are repurposed to focus on specific needs like job training, homework place, or literacy—all with a targeted staffing model and hours.

8. Create design strategies for efficient operations. Two buildings with the same square footage and hours are likely to require different staffing levels. That’s because floor plans, number of service points and levels, and services offered determine staffing requirements. To maximize efficiencies, Schnee recommends:

  • Easy and intuitive wayfinding
  • Flexible zoning to allow independently operating areas of the library. Most libraries have one open zone or perhaps two. Schnee’s four operating zones at Contra Costa County Library’s Walnut Creek Library offer ultimate flexibility for efficient functionality (shown in the diagram below). At this library, meeting rooms, catering kitchen, and tech area can open independently as a conference center. A “marketplace” zone can open for a late Friday night or a Sunday morning at a low cost per hour for access to popular collections, technology, and the café.
  • A single point of service with flexible and ergonomically adjustable service desks or “perches,” to provide for a more Apple Store–type customer interaction. Aid communication with hands-free, voice-controlled wireless voice communication systems, e.g., Vocera, for staff.
  • Maximize self-check at 80 percent or higher by effective design strategies and customer training. Kiosks must be prominent, visible, and accessible. The technology must be easy and quick to use.
  • Good sight lines to minimize staff needs and extend staff effectiveness.
  • Commissioning or fine-tuning your building systems. Building green is nearly the norm now, but to ensure the building delivers on its promise, Systems like heating, cooling, lighting, irrigation, and plumbing must be operating efficiently and that takes a concerted effort.

Schnee also advises librarians to plan for a “wow” experience. Nothing, he says, is more important than a beautiful, well-lit space where you can see outdoors. Space, comfortable noise levels, and light are essential to creating a destination where people feel comfortable gathering.

Give more without paying more?

Can you give your community more without additional operating funds? It’s possible. With the current economic situation reverberating into the future, it’s not likely you’ll find entirely smooth sailing ahead. Skidding into the future is an option, but sustainable master planning is a better one. Its bottom line approach to creating great library experiences may help your library survive and thrive now, as well as in the next worst-case scenario. With a sustainable master plan in hand, Olathe Public Library now knows it can afford to operate the recommended expanded facilities. All Director Baker needs now is capital funding for the construction.

Louise Levy Schaper, retired Executive Director, Fayetteville Public Library, AR, is a library consultant and freelance writer


This article was published in Library Journal's September 15, 2013 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Louise Schaper About Louise Schaper

Louise Schaper (lschaper@me.com), retired Executive Director of Fayetteville Public Library, AR, is a Library Consultant and LJ's New Landmark Libraries project lead.

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  1. R. Bibbins says:

    Great article Louise!