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At a glance:

Saint Paul Public Library (SPPL) is dedicated to welcoming all people into its space to connect, learn, discover and grow. The organization hoped to deepen that commitment through a nontraditional planning process that prioritized listening to people throughout St. Paul in order to design better services and develop a strategic direction for the next three years that put the community’s needs first.


Here’s how we elevated community voices and ideas to ensure they were a driving force behind the vision for SPPL’s future.

 

Challenge:

The Saint Paul Public Library not only wanted to develop a three-year strategic direction, but it wanted to use the planning process as an opportunity to strengthen relationships and learn directly from staff and community members. By doing so, it hoped to realign its programming and priorities based on those individuals’ needs and ideas. However, in most planning processes, strategy work like this never reaches the community. Instead, it’s often carried out by a handful of stakeholders and high-level executives. This top-down approach can create a disconnect between what an organization decides to do, and what users actually need. That’s why Imagine Deliver kicked off SPPL’s planning process by asking this question: “How can we plan for the future in a way that taps into the wisdom and experience of the communities SPPL serves?”

 
 
 

Insights:

Over an eight-month period, we worked with SPPL staff to identify the library’s key stakeholders and design a process that centered those individuals as co-creators in the design process.

Learn from the communities you want to serve

Most strategic plans come from the top down, but at Imagine Deliver we flip that traditional hierarchy on its head when we work with organizations to create a strategic plan. That means we seek out ideas from the community first, and the executive team last. We designed SPPL’s planning process to engage with two main groups of people: those who currently use the library, and those SPPL hopes to serve better in the future. To connect with a broad range of individuals from those groups, we used several strategies: We taught staff how to interview library patrons and fellow co-workers, we sent out an online survey, we hosted two public listening sessions and we partnered with youth at Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA) to host six pop-up events throughout St. Paul to connect with young people and those who don’t use the library. In all, more than 2,500 people shared their ideas for the future of SPPL.

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Make it an ongoing practice

Relationships don’t happen overnight, or even in one strategic planning cycle. Connecting with your customer is ongoing work organizations need to continually invest in over time. That’s why we trained 53 librarians and staff at SPPL in the art of ‘empathy interviewing,’ a technique that helps organizations learn as much as possible about a person’s experience, the choices they make and the rationale behind their decisions. Over three months, SPPL staff led the effort to interview more than 400 community members, and that commitment they made to learn from the community was a big step for the organization. “Libraries are a foundation for democracy because they provide a private and free place for people to acquire knowledge without monitoring,” says Kate Khaled, the founder and managing director at Imagine Deliver. “Because of that role, privacy is an intrinsic and important consideration in the ethics of library staff. Getting out of that mold and actually asking people personal questions about why they use the library was quite a big shift for SPPL, but a really important one so they can design their services better.”

While these 400 interviews were a great way for SPPL to collect data to inform its strategic direction, it was also a chance for staff to deeply listen to community members and build relationships with them—ones that could last years beyond the original planning process.

“Imagine Deliver introduced our staff to a variety of creative processes and thinking,” says Maureen Hartman, the deputy director of public services at SPPL. “I’ve already seen empathy interviews modeled in two additional smaller projects since staff members learned the tool last spring.”

 

Impact:

The three-year strategic direction we developed with SPPL gave the organization a road map to guide its daily decisions around programming and priorities while keeping community needs at the center of its work. “The community told us so clearly that young people are a priority. We had fallen into prioritizing this work, but it was helpful to hear this directly and make decisions accordingly,” says Maureen. “While some areas of feedback were things we had heard before, some were very new, such as a desire to bring more outdoor elements into the library to mirror the natural world and provide a healing atmosphere.”

 
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Out of the thousands of responses SPPL received from community members, one theme stood out consistently across all demographics: overdue fines and book fees prevented people from using and returning to the library. This wasn’t a surprise to SPPL. Over the past year, the organization had debated whether to eliminate fines from its work, but SPPL was still in the process of conducting a feasibility study to determine if the move was the right step forward. The strategic planning process sped that decision up, doubling as the community engagement piece in the feasibility study. Hearing so often during the planning process that fines were a barrier helped SPPL realize it had a huge opportunity to redesign ts work in a way that would better center the communities it wanted to serve. The consistent feedback also gave SPPL the ammunition it needed to convince the city council and the mayor’s office that this choice was a change people across St. Paul would enthusiastically support.

“Taking a user-centered approach made everything feel more solid and grounded in what our community really wanted,” says Maureen. “With a relatively new leadership team, this process gave us more credibility with staff. Beginning with our users helped us understand our community and helped staff members believe we understood SPPL’s priorities — patrons first.”

In 2019, SPPL decided to eliminate fees from its practice and forgive the outstanding fines of more than 51,000 residents in an effort to welcome people back to the 13 libraries throughout St. Paul.