Working Hand in Hand

How to conduct community-led planning

March 1, 2024

Audrey Barbakoff and Noah Lenstra

When coauthor Audrey talked with librarians about community-led planning in the late 2010s, one of the most frequent comments she heard was that they just do not know how to do it. They said that if they knew the steps, they would start using community-led methods right away. But Audrey’s research paints a different picture of how people ought to begin.

Community-led planning is a method for making decisions that puts power in the hands of the community rather than the library. They have real responsibility, authority to make decisions, and accountability for the outcomes. Librarians serve as conveners and facilitators, providing access to library resources and support. The library cannot and should not try to impose a rigid set of steps or schedule, because the community determines how the process will progress. Libraries must be flexible and grounded enough to adapt to changing circumstances, and they must be committed enough to dive in and persist despite ambiguity, all without losing sight of their true goals and principles. To accomplish this, librarians should understand the importance and purpose of community-led work.

One of the clearest models for how to conduct community-led planning in libraries comes from the Working Together Project, an initiative that created the Community-Led Libraries Toolkit. The model has five broad stages: (1) systematically build knowledge about community through community assessment; (2) identify community goals and needs; (3) plan services; (4) deliver services; and (5) evaluate results. The stages themselves are similar to traditional library-led planning, but the way each stage unfolds is very different.

A community-led perspective reshapes evaluation. Traditional library-led planning relies heavily on standard output statistics like attendance, circulation, and door count. It tends to take place at the conclusion. In a community-led model, the library works with locals to identify what success means to them and to determine how to evaluate progress toward that goal. Ideally, these evaluation conversations would happen at the beginning of a process. This is because understanding what the community truly wants is essential to achieving it. Developing a shared vision of what success looks like early on helps prevent missteps.

In traditional planning, libraries treat community assessment and identifying community priorities as a largely internal, point-in-time process. For example, a librarian might look at school district or census statistics to analyze trends or populations. Then they might solicit input through a survey. In community-led planning, understanding the community and its priorities comes from building ongoing relationships with the public, especially minoritized communities. Librarians get involved in communities by joining organizations, contributing to local celebrations, or spending time in spaces created by the community for itself.

Another key difference appears in planning and delivery. In traditional planning, the library makes all the decisions and manages the execution. Staffers generate their own service ideas from professional and community news, by requesting specific input from their peers, or from patrons’ feedback. Then they plan the programs, write the policies, set the strategic goals, and so on. In a community-led model, the community takes the helm through coalitions or action groups. Because the people who will use the service or be impacted by the decision are the ones who plan and implement it, the result is deeply rooted in the community.

Community-led planning values the process and the relationships it builds as much as it values the product. It treats human relationships as a valid way of knowing and doing. The timeline, the communication strategies, what tasks take place, and who is responsible for them—these will all vary. What stays constant is our understanding of why we are doing this work and a commitment to contributing to a more equitable community.

Adapted from The 12 Steps to a Community-Led Library by Audrey Barbakoff and Noah Lenstra (ALA Editions, 2023).


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