Embedding Your Library in the Community: How to Overcome Obstacles and Lead Transformational Change

5 min read

By Steven V. Potter, Director and CEO at Mid-Continent Public Library

What happens when your strategic plan blocks attempts at innovative programs?
One of the most innovative and community-changing programs I have seen in several years is Career Online High School. The immediate impact of this program at the early-adopting libraries was stunning to me. Clearly, a program like Career Online High School provides a very meaningful answer to that tired old question, “Since everyone has a Kindle, do we still need libraries?”

When I saw Career Online High School, I was amazed but unhappy.I know our strategic plan. I know our key performance indicators. I know our demographics and needs. I know Career Online High School does not easily align into our strategic direction, but I also know we have a diverse population and there are people in our community who could use this program. So that’s the end of the story, right? Not so fast! A program like Career Online High School can be a great opportunity to create a partnership with another organization.

Mid-Continent Public Library and Kansas City Public Library like to cooperate and find ways to work together. In addition, both libraries also work very closely with Literacy Kansas City, a not-for-profit group focused on addressing adult literacy issues in our community. When I contacted the Executive Director at Literacy Kansas City to tell her about the program, she could not contain her excitement. I knew Kansas City Public Library was talking about becoming a provider, too. I started working with Literacy Kansas City and Kansas City Public Library to create a three-party partnership to provide this service in our community.

Your library has to be a major player in creating transformative change in your community. But if the people of your community are hungry, does that mean the library should become a food bank? I don’t believe so. Resources are tight, and we have to be strategic. Nevertheless, there are ways to provide broader opportunity for your community.

Consider these tips as you foster transformative change, even when those activities might be outside the library’s mission.

  • Think Beyond Your Library. Are there ways to collaborate with not-for-profits or other libraries to deliver the service your community needs? Think beyond your four walls if you want to make a real difference in your community.
  • Know Your Community. Because we monitor our communities, we know when trends are happening. When we identify an issue that is important but outside our scope, we identify a community partner to take the lead and then offer our help.
  • Share What You Know. Your library is a respected source of information that is free from bias—use the information gathered from monitoring trends and become the barometer for change in your community. Develop key performance indicators, be the scorekeeper, and put those metrics on your website.
  • Be Part of the Solution. Even when not directly providing or collaborating to address a community need, there are still ways to leverage what you do best to be a part of the solution. We use our collection to create discussion guides about significant issues and hold open public forums to help explain why community transformation is important in a particular area.

Positioning your library as an agent of transformational change can seem overwhelming. Know you are not alone. A number of strategies are available to help your library begin to put ideas into action—on any budget. Look for those who share your same purpose and mission and don’t be afraid to ask for help.


Steven PotterAbout the Author

Steven V. Potter is the library director and CEO at Mid-Continent Public Library in Missouri, an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri, and co-author of “The Purpose-Based Library: Finding Your Path to Survival, Success, and Growth.” In 2014, the Mid-Continent Public Library was awarded the prestigious National Medal for Museum and Library Service. The MCPL system serves more than 750,000 people, has one of the nation’s largest summer reading programs, and is known for its array of innovative services.
purposebasedFor more strategies and practical tips
Read The Purpose-Based Library: Finding Your Path to Survival, Success, and Growth, co-authored by John J. Huber and Steven V. Potter.

In the years since John Huber’s trailblazing Lean Library Management was published, budget pressures on libraries have only increased. Yet libraries who have adopted his strategies have turned conventional management thinking—that if budgets are reduced, customer service suffers—on its head. These libraries have proven that by streamlining and improving customer services, they can eliminate wasteful activities and bring down costs. In The Purpose-Based Library, Huber and seasoned public library administrator Potter build on insight gleaned from decades of experience to demonstrate how libraries can create real growth opportunities through concentrating on their true mission and purpose, and without spending a lot more money. With a focus on putting ideas into action, they point the way towards

  • New ways to think about metrics
  • Reexamining customer self-driven services
  • Effectively leveraging the considerable footprint of libraries
  • Identifying and assessing community needs and realigning library services accordingly
  • Actively encouraging community fundraising
  • Offering cutting-edge services and programs


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