New strategic plan for Reading Public Library, Pennsylvania

The new strategic plan for Reading Public Library, Pennsylvania has just been published.

I supported the Reading team through the early months of this year to devise a set of scenarios for the library’s future operating context, and use these scenarios to inform a new strategy. You can read about the process in my paper for the New Librarianship Symposium, “Mapping the Future: Scenario Planning for the Post-Pandemic Library“.

Reading is a fascinating library service which has a proud tradition of negotiating complex strategic circumstances; there’s a reason why the 1971 chronicle of its existence is called The Library That Would Not Die: The Turbulent History of the Reading Public Library. The challenges of COVID-19 and Pennsylvania’s hotly contested politics were only the latest to be faced in its 250-year history. It was my privilege to support the current team in planning for the next four years.

Reading Public Library’s Executive Director, Bronwen Gamble, writes:

“Creating a new strategic plan for RPL was overdue. Our 2013-2018 plan was modified for two years but the process for creating a new one met several obstacles. Enter the COVID-19 pandemic and virtual meetings. I attended the Pennsylvania Bureau of Library Development’s series of workshops facilitated by Matt Finch and was introduced to his Scenario & Foresight Planning process. Our Board of Trustees and library staff feel very fortunate we were able to engage Matt to lead us through our own library’s scenario and foresight planning with Matt in London and the library team in Reading, PA.

Using a mural app, and Zoom sessions, Matt facilitated our conversations around the collaborations, services, and transactions, which shape our work at every level. Matt acted as a guide, making suggestions and providing alternatives rather than telling us what to do or how to proceed. Our team members were enthusiastic and active participants. Imagination was encouraged and everyone had buy-in. Matt’s scenario & foresight planning process is much different than the usual SWOT analysis, and number crunching. We had fun and lively sessions!

Looking back, I believe it is a good thing our old strategic plan was allowed to languish.  The changes brought about by the pandemic would have made a strategic plan created in 2019 obsolete in 2020.  Our team has ownership of the Reading Public Library’s Scenario & Foresight Planning to Strategic Plan 2021-2025. We looked into the future, found three plausible outcomes, and crafted a plan that works for today and is flexible to accommodate whatever happens in the next five years. Thank you, Matt, for giving us the tools to move forward with confidence!”

Scripturient: Sanchita Balachandran on Conservation through Generations

In the latest instalment of Information Professional‘s ‘Scripturient‘ column, guest writer Sanchita Balachandran tells the story of meeting her late maternal grandfather for the first time among the collections of a colonial archive.

Born in Nagercoil, South India and trained in forest management at the University of Edinburgh in the early 1930s, her grandfather’s journey is part of a wider network of relationships spanning the generations, and stretching from the Indian state of Travancore to Baltimore and beyond.

In her column, Sanchita explores the resonances between her grandfather’s work as a conservator of forests and her own role as Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum; she reflects on the necessary, mundane, often invisible work of cultural heritage professionals; and she considers the complex emotions experienced when “harm and recovery, disconnection and reunion” are entangled in our experience of the colonial archive.

What do we owe to the families and loved ones of the long deceased? How do objects bear witness to our lives, and how is that act of witnessing complicated by questions of power, justice, and belonging?

You can read ‘Conservation through Generations’ (PDF download) here.

New Librarianship Symposium: Scenarios for the COVID-affected world?

On November 18th, I’ll be joining the fourth of the New Librarianship Symposia convened by leading information professionals to explore key issues and new agendas for the COVID-affected world.

The symposia mark ten years since the publication of R. David Lankes’ Atlas of New Librarianship, and offer an opportunity to reinvigorate institutions’ approach to the ever-changing information environment.

In the panel on “Re-imagining the future”, I’ll be presenting a paper on “Mapping the future: scenario planning for the post-pandemic library” (PDF download), drawing on a case study of public library planning in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and America’s widening political rifts.

The paper explores both the use of scenarios, and the benefits of attending to value co-creation, in devising library strategy.

My contribution will be in dialogue with thought provoking papers from Seattle Pacific University’s Michael Paulus and a team at the OCLC library cooperative. We’ll consider what might await for information institutions and the communities they serve; how best to move forward in times characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity; and what it means to practice strategy at different levels, from the global to the deeply local.

Do join us for the fourth of the New Librarianship Symposia on November 18th, 2021.

New strategic plan for National & State Libraries Australia

National and State Libraries Australia (NSLA), the peak body for Australia’s national, state, and territory libraries, has just published its new strategic plan.

I was pleased to work with the NSLA team on diagnosing the challenges and opportunities they face, then devising a guiding policy and coordinated actions to lead NSLA and its members into the future.

You can watch NSLA Chair Marie-Louise Ayres and Deputy Chair Vicki McDonald introduce the new plan in this video, and download the new plan here.

“NSLA represents the national, state and territory libraries of Australia – we’ve been running as a collaboration since the 1970s, but it’s always a challenge to strategise for nine different institutions.

We approached Matt to help us shape up a new strategic plan just as the outbreak of COVID-19 was reaching its crescendo around the world. Matt already has a strong reputation and following among our libraries, with deep knowledge of the Australian landscape. With face to face workshops no longer an option, we decided that he was the right person to help us clarify our thinking at a distance, in a context that was changing as quickly as we could verbalise it.

Matt worked one-on-one via Zoom with the NSLA Executive Officer in Melbourne, and facilitated online workshops with the NSLA Chair and Deputy Chair in Canberra and Brisbane. Despite the unfriendly time zone for London, he cheerfully and skilfully shepherded us to find consensus on a series of priorities that could resonate with nine libraries around Australia – all the while asking us why, how, and what if. Matt’s approach was refreshingly accessible and jargon-free. We were reminded through this process that a strategy is much more than a collection of unconnected aspirations, and that the whole is only as strong as its parts.

Matt has been delightful to work with. In a relatively short time, he left us well placed with a strong draft plan to present to our full committee of nine library CEOs, as well as a series of resources and ideas for measuring impact in libraries – all managed from the opposite side of the globe.”

– Dr. Barbara Lemon, Executive Officer, NSLA

After Frederic Laloux: Reinventing Information Organizations

“Something is broken in today’s organizations…The pain we feel is the pain of something old that is dying…while something new is waiting to be born.”

Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations

So much of organizational life is onerous and frustrating these days. For many of us, the day job is characterised by aggravation and a sense of soullessness: a “cold, mechanical approach” which trades agency and responsibility for box-checking accountability and loss of control.

Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations ...

That’s what Frederic Laloux argues in his 2014 book Reinventing Organizations, which explores alternative models for those institutions and businesses willing to dissolve hierarchies and pursue new management paradigms.

Laloux’s case studies include the Dutch healthcare organization Buurtzorg, which delivers community care in leaderless self-organizing teams of ten to twelve nurses, and FAVI, a French automotive supplier which has divided itself into self-managing “mini-factories” whose teams operate without executive management. These businesses and institutions, Laloux argues, resemble living systems more than the organisations of old. They are evolving beyond previous, rigid ways of bringing people together to achieve a goal: the army, the university, the corporation…even the organized crime syndicate.

Laloux presents a practical vision for a world where “no one is the boss of anyone else”, and our organizations begin to take on an organic character.

The approach is intended to work across many sectors, with examples including highly regulated industries such as the energy industry and food processing. I thought I’d spend some time thinking about what it would mean for information organisations – archives, libraries, and other entities which create, store, share, and manage information – to explore Laloux’s approach. What would it take for us to reinvent the Information Organization? Read more

Public Libraries, Police Abolition, and Serving Your Community in a Time of Change

If we abolish the police and reimagine the ways in which our societies cope with disorder, violence, and transgression, what else will have to shift? How radically could public libraries change, if we reimagined the institutions of information as profoundly as we might reimagine the institutions of justice?

I led strategy workshops last month with some very senior librarians in Australia, and at the beginning of these sessions, we gave an Acknowledgment of Country, acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land we were on and paying our respects to Elders past, present, and emerging.

We didn’t just speak these words as a formula and then move on. We talked about what it meant to acknowledge country in digital space, when each of us was in a different location, from Australia to the UK. We talked about acknowledging the histories which have led us to a world in which I could speak the traditional language used for generations in the place where I was born, and not make any effort to adapt the way I speak for audiences in Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, the US, Canada, or many other nations.

We talked about what it would mean for the institutions represented in the workshop not just to acknowledge these histories, or to carry out the work of recognising and remedying them through diversity and inclusion efforts, acts of reconciliation and decolonisation, and so on. We talked about what it would mean for these institutions to become explicitly antiracist.

It was important to talk about this, because for some public institutions, it proves hard to take a stand against injustice. The political environment in which public library services and other organisations operate is shaped by the elected governments which determine their funding and policies, and this can make it challenging for institutions to do the right thing. Read more

Looking ahead: Circulating Ideas / Public Libraries News

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Steve Thomas of the American library podcast Circulating Ideas and Ian Anstice of the UK’s Public Libraries News. Both conversations were released online this week.

Ian asked me some questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, libraries’ response to it, and what might be on the horizon for our societies and the institutions that serve them.

Like any good foresight practitioner, I sought to offer questions of my own, and provocations more than prophecy. We discussed resilience, anticipation, and both the dangers and opportunities that organisations face during a prolonged, indefinite season of turbulence and uncertainty. I think the points will be useful for people outside of the library and information sector. You can read our conversation at the Public Libraries News site.

Meanwhile, over at Circulating Ideas, Steve and I talked about what it would mean to bring scenario planning and other foresight methodologies into a public library setting, building on my recent presentation to America’s Engaging Local Government Leaders network and a previous academic article co-authored with Rafael Ramírez.

You can listen to my chat with Steve, and many other excellent episodes of Circulating Ideas, at the podcast’s website, and the episode is also available over at Apple Podcasts.

“New adventures in disasterology”: Learning from crisis with Christchurch Libraries

Katherine Moody is a librarian in Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand. She and I submitted a piece for the US Public Libraries Magazine at the end of March 2019, and it appears in the current (April/May 2020) issue. 

You can read that text, “Even In The Worst-Case Scenario”, as a PDF download here – but it would be an understatement to say that a lot has changed in the world since we wrote it! 

Worst Case Scenario

To keep the conversation moving forward, Katherine and I had a short discussion about libraries’ experience of crisis over the past year.

Matt:
In terms of our interest in coping with crises and turbulent situations, in understanding the part libraries have to play in these huge upsets: what has been learned?

Katherine:
So much has happened, both personally and professionally, and is continuing to happen, and taking a breath to look back is almost overwhelming.

I think we need to have the mindset – and the strategy – that we need to be prepared to face anything. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about some Crowded House lyrics recently: ‘I’ve been locked out / I’ve been locked in / but I always seem to come back again’. Read more

Debate: Las bibliotecas durante y tras el confinamiento

The fiction of normality has just been exposed by the coronavirus pandemic, so why are we constantly talking of a New Normal?

Normality was only ever a comfort blanket, and one which didn’t even stretch to cover all of those in our society who needed it.

How will we change through, and allow ourselves to be changed by, the crises of 2020 – and those future crises that surely await?

I’m so grateful to Spain’s Ministry of Culture and Sport, and the “Laboratorios Bibliotecarios” team, for hosting this discussion, and tolerating my imperfect Spanish in a really lively debate with Laia Sánchez Casals, Alicia Sellés Carot, Diego Gracia Sancho, and Javier Perez Iglesias.

You can watch the recording, in Spanish, here.

In the Library of Last Resort

I wrote a little while back about the need for escapism in these trying times, and to help with that I’ve released a short “choose-your-own” text game.

There’s songs and robots, plenty to read, a world to explore and a mystery to be solved when you visit The Library of Last Resort.

Photograph of a long corridor of bookshelve apparently stretching off endlessly into a white light at the vanishing point
Picture by Flickr user Rich Grundy – CC BY 2.0

I got the idea a couple of years back, when I was exploring the idea of interactive nonfiction and games where there was the opportunity for the player to surprise the author.

In an earlier incarnation, The Library of Last Resort benefited from the editing of the brilliant Adalya Nash Hussein, and advice from Gersande La Flèche & Rob Sherman. It uses Gersande’s code to create the in-game inventory.

It’s not polished, and I welcome feedback, but hopefully it will provide you with an escape when you need one. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a way to surprise me with my own game…

You can play The Library of Last Resort here, or check out my previous interactive piece, A Tear in Flatland.