May 11, 2018

Compass Reading: IMLS’s 2018–22 Strategic Plan Sets a New Tone | Editorial

With 2018 under way, the work to ensure key funding at the federal level steps up. On December 21, 2017, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), along with Susan Collins (R-ME), Thad Cochran (R-MS), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), introduced the bipartisan Museum and Library Services Act (MLSA) of 2017 (see LJ’s coverage). The bill, essentially a reauthorization of the programs administered by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), reasserts the value of libraries and museums in the cultural fabric and creates an opportunity for political leaders to put a stake in the ground for these vital institutions.

In January, IMLS released a new strategic plan, which spans 2018–22 and posits four goals. This pivotal document offers a glimpse into the institution’s priorities and approach in the near future.

Titled “Transforming Communities,” it leverages libraries and museums as trusted sources and places for engagement and dialog, with a focus on deeper inclusion, reducing barriers to access, and amplifying impact across the life span. It emphasizes cross-institutional collaboration and deepening local investment in projects though grant and award design. It also posits a new vision—“a nation where museums and libraries work together to transform the lives of individuals and communities.”

I reached out to IMLS director Kathryn K. Matthew to hear more about it. “We’ve placed much more emphasis on our vision and desired outcomes this time rather than the tactical aspects of the plan,” she says. “The vision and values of IMLS are like compass points and the plan is more of a map.”

That compass reading is complex and inspiring. “Building strong communities is foundational to us and infused throughout the strategic plan. We like to think of the work of museums and libraries making a difference at [various] levels—like concentric circles—beginning with the individual at the center, then to individual institutions, professional communities, larger nonprofit communities, and on to public communities,” she adds. “Organizations that can build those circles of connection thrive.”

I like that image. But this kind of collaboration is not always easy, especially on top of just keeping up. “Social changes are more unpredictable and new technologies are introduced at an accelerating pace, demanding more immediacy to strategic decision-making,” Matthew notes. “Since the last plan, we’ve seen the emergence of user-centered design and big data, for instance, providing new insights but also challenging the traditional approach.”

“We hope that by becoming a learning organization, we are able to keep up with the pace of change…. We sought to create a framework that is flexible enough for us to gather and synthesize information from a variety of sources and be able to course correct to respond to changing needs,” Matthew says. “It has been [both] humbling and exhilarating.”

Such self-awareness is invaluable for any leader. The planning process, Matthew notes, illustrated “that some focal areas remain constant, such as lifelong learning and collections stewardship. Other areas, such as information access and community engagement, are evolving quickly.” This requires libraries to be ever more nimble, and IMLS wants to embody that dynamism. “We hope the new plan reflects our aim as an agency to be flexible, responsive, deliberate, and willing to experiment with new approaches,” she tells me.

Matthew has high hopes for the plan and for libraries—and rightly so. “In this plan, we encourage a strengthening of the value of libraries…which they can do by engaging in effective partnerships; by encouraging other support for the sustainability of their programs and services; and by measuring and evaluating their efforts,” she says. This continues the IMLS concentration on articulating impact at both the institutional and collective level. Mastering this is critical to the work ahead.

For the many libraries spurred and supported by IMLS funding, this new strategic plan is essential reading. It calls for deeper “meaningful collaboration” and inherently requires increased flexibility. “Like IMLS, libraries should aim to be learning organizations, ready to change and evolve alongside with the[ir] communities,” Matthew urges. I think they are up to the task.

This article was published in Library Journal's February 1, 2018 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.



  1. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) has always gained from their intelligent strategic planning. I am sure that this plan will also make a major difference.

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