Skip to main content

Masterclasses reports: longer-term, evidence-based sustainable planning and libraries benchmarking toolkits

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Libraries Deliver: how we'll achieve this, Taskforce

In late November, the Taskforce ran masterclasses (Canada Water library on 27 November; Leeds central library on 29 November) covering two substantial pieces of work it had recently published: a toolkit to support evidence-based sustainable planning, and a Benchmarking Framework. This blog post focuses on the evidence based planning parts of the sessions. I’ll follow up tomorrow with notes on the Benchmarking Framework.

Neil MacInnes introducing the session in Leeds Central library.
Neil MacInnes introducing the session in Leeds Central library. Photo credit: Sheila Bennett/Libraries Taskforce

Background: how the toolkits came about

In August and September, Ian Leete from the Local Government Association (LGA) blogged about the work the Taskforce had been doing on Actions 10 and 13 of the Libraries Deliver: Ambition document. This steered the design, testing and publication of an evidence-based strategic planning toolkit and a Benchmarking Framework that libraries can choose to use for self-assessment.

These toolkits are designed to help libraries assess the services they currently provide, and then think long-term as they plan and develop their library service, in consultation with their communities.

The strategic planning toolkit we’ll focus on in this post, emphasises how the library service can help meet wider corporate objectives, taking into account other local service provision both within the area and across council boundaries.


The masterclasses were created to help people explore how they could use these toolkits. We structured them to give those attending opportunities to get practical hands-on experience of using the toolkits. Both were well-attended, and the people that came gave us positive feedback about how useful they were.

Minister for Libraries, John Glen MP, wasn’t able to attend either of the sessions but has taken a keen interest in this work. He recorded a video message that introduced each masterclass. He emphasised how important he thought it was for councils to develop their strategic thinking about how libraries could contribute to achieving wider corporate objectives, and expressed his support for developing continuous improvement approaches for library services using the Benchmarking Framework.

Strategic planning of library services

The toolkit to support longer-term evidence based sustainable planning of library services was written with 2 audiences in mind: council strategy/policy teams and senior decision makers, as well as people leading within library services.

It includes:

  • an outline of what can go into a library strategy, and some key questions to address
  • signposting to tools and advice on engaging and consulting with the public (clarifying the difference between consultation and engagement)
  • sources of evidence and data that can be used to help councils understand and map community needs, and how library services can contribute to achieving local strategic outcomes

The masterclass looked at various different perspectives:

  • the statutory context - what legal requirements underpin any strategic thinking about planning library services
  • the corporate decision-maker’s view - what makes them value what libraries have to offer to overall local wellbeing
  • good practice in using community needs analysis to shape library strategies
  • the evidence sources that can be used to support sustainable thinking and planning

The statutory context

Simon Richardson, DCMS’s Head of Libraries, set the scene by talking about councils’ statutory responsibilities for library services, making reference to previous judicial reviews which had emphasised how councils should draw on sound evidence on community needs in making strategic decisions about their library services.

He talked about how using the toolkit could help library services to understand the sort of thinking and approaches that DCMS might look to for evidence of in considering any complaint made under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 that a library authority was in breach of its legal duties under the Act. These sort of insights could also be gained by looking at previous decision letters published on GOV.UK, which set out specific local examples of the factors DCMS had given consideration to when undertaking previous casework, and the guidance notes on Libraries as a statutory service.

Simon confirmed that his team were happy to talk to councils at an early stage in their consideration, to answer questions and provide help where possible, although it is not the role of DCMS to provide endorsement to council proposals. In the first instance, it was best to email the team on Councils were encouraged to inform the team about any proposals prior to public engagement. DCMS would be particularly interested in knowing about:

  • plans to consult with local communities alongside an assessment of their needs
  • how the council had considered a range of options (including alternative financing, governance and delivery models) to sustain library service provision in their area
  • how the council had analysed and assessed the potential impact of their proposals

The view from the Chief Executive’s/Director’s chair

These sessions were led in London by Kim Bromley-Derry, Chief Executive of Newham (and recently appointed Chair of the Libraries Taskforce), and in Leeds by Lee Hemsworth, the corporate Chief Officer responsible for customer access (and a previous corporate strategy lead for the council). Both talked about the difficult choices faced by councils in meeting statutory duties against a backdrop of constrained finances, and how library services need to position themselves to help decision-makers understand why they could play a critical part in achieving the council’s wider objectives.

Insights that Kim shared with the masterclass attendees included:

  • Decision makers don’t start with the money; they start with the outcomes. Kim emphasised the need for library services to reframe the debate and how they were regarded in their council by expressing what they did in terms of the contribution they made to wider council priorities. For example, supporting individuals’ health and wellbeing, and enabling independent living; boosting language and literacy or digital skills leading to better educational attainment, employability and a thriving local economy; or widening cultural opportunities and life chances.
  • Newham had used the Ambition document and worked through each of the Outcomes to establish how libraries could be better positioned to contribute to each. Everything libraries did should be linked back to how, and whether, this improved residents’ lives. Kim made the stark point that, if library services are ‘stand-alone’, then they are more likely to be subject to resourcing reductions.
  • To make a library service meet local needs and appeal to a more diverse population, you may need to change how libraries are branded to attract people in initially; but once they come through the doors, you can help them to appreciate the more traditional core services. Newham has re-engineered libraries to play a wider community role, which in turn has meant that more traditional services (book lending, etc) are now seeing a marked upturn.
  • Newham was very active in seeking to promote and position libraries as the best way to help partners achieve their aims of reducing the number of buildings they had to retain, by offering well-positioned and trusted places for partner services to be delivered from.
  • Once you boost usage, then you have a stronger rationale for investing and enhancing provision, based on your track record of demonstrating community benefits. For example, Newham have a school which, despite having over 95% of students with English as a second language, has recently been rated as a national leader in attainment. Because their work has demonstrated benefit from close links to the local library, the service receives extra funding from the children and young people budget to extend this success. Similarly, proven links to success in community regeneration can mean that libraries have stronger claims to being allocated S106 funding.

Kim’s three top tips for library services’ future success were: having a clear strategic direction, aligned to corporate objectives; ensuring you are embedded in others’ service delivery; and to demonstrate a tangible impact on achieving wider council goals.

Concluding slide from Kim’s presentation
Concluding slide from Kim’s presentation

Lee had a similar story to tell in Leeds: libraries were part of a team that covered all frontline contact - and there was a one team approach, where libraries were seen as critical community hubs. We’ll be featuring more detail on what he told us in a guest blog soon - watch this space!

Prior to taking on operational responsibility for libraries, Lee had led on corporate strategic planning for Leeds, so he had seen things from both sides of the fence! Observations that he shared included:

  • The need for libraries to be clear about what they had to offer, and confident about projecting their Unique Selling Proposition - and he advised that this should be developed bottom up so that the vision was shared and articulated by all levels of staff. The team in Leeds had used their own libraries strategic planning to help frame those discussions. They had used the Ambition document and the 7 strategic Outcomes within it to guide their thinking, and he urged people to use the new toolkit as an invaluable resource to help them for the future.
  • It was important to back this up by gathering robust evidence of impact on the ground, and then using this to build relationships with other services and convince them that they should be working with libraries as they drew up their own strategies. Hard data measures were important to do this, but so were well thought through case studies showing a customer pathway to success via library services.
  • Decision makers generally thought that libraries were a good thing; the challenge was shifting libraries across in their thinking from being a ‘could have’ to a ‘must have’ part of their planning. In other words, moving away from being a ‘bridesmaid service’, to one that could position itself confidently as critical to the council’s success. Lee also suggested that libraries should ensure they weren’t being reactive to what was in a corporate plan, but should be aiming to influence it as it developed. The challenge was to get involved and demonstrate that what you do is relevant and business-critical.
  • Working in this strategic and joined up way with other services can help the core library service expand and thrive too. Lee talked about how pulling together a community centre and a library (previously next door to each other) in Dewsbury Road into a single community hub had boosted library usage, borrowing figures and attendance at library events. It opened its doors in September, and by the time of the official opening in November, children’s fiction book issues had doubled, children’s non-fiction issues were up 700% and computer usage was up 192%.

Case studies of successful strategies: Hampshire

Both masterclasses received presentations from library services which had adopted a strategic and evidence-based approach to planning for the future.

In London, Paula Crompton, Hampshire library service’s transformation lead, spoke about the analysis that had underpinned their current strategy. Their previous strategy had been largely ignored and hadn’t made any real difference, so they had approached the new one with a determination to build it on community needs, and on alignment with wider council objectives.

Learning points which Paula emphasised were:

  • Getting decision makers actively engaged throughout, not relying on a presentation late in the day. The library service had worked with a small cross-party group of councillors that met monthly, and whose views were sought as data and insights were gathered.
  • The need to get rigorous business analysis built into the process from the off - and understanding that this could take longer than expected. An example she gave was that joining up activity and cost analyses took nearly double the time expected, because of issues about getting the right information out of library management systems. This sort of barrier had previously prevented the library service being able to build an accurate picture of service needs and costs to help it take strategic decisions with any degree of confidence.
  • If you have compelling enough information, you can propose and achieve difficult changes. Her example was analysis of mobile library costs and usage, which demonstrated that it had far higher costs (and lower value for money) than the more specialist and targeted home library service. Basing the argument to close it down on clear analysis of value for money and impact data meant that a potentially controversial decision received little pushback from politicians or residents (even those who had previously been users of the mobile service)

She concluded that it was important to think about how the library service could better be understood by users. Previously Hampshire had a wide variety of models and service delivery standards, which the strategy had consolidated into 3 tiers of council-run provision, each with particular characteristics around opening hours, range of services offered, etc. An analogy was made with the different tiers of service defined by some supermarket chains - eg Tesco Extras, Superstores, Metros and Expresses. The changes had made it easier to manage local community expectations, and to brand and communicate the service in each locality.

Case studies of successful strategies: Manchester

The audience in Leeds heard from Neil MacInnes, Strategic Lead for Libraries, Galleries and Culture in Manchester, about the approach they have taken. Over the last 10 years, they have achieved (and sustained) significant investment in libraries, based on positioning the library service strongly alongside partners, and communicating its abilities and benefits convincingly to councillors. Things he emphasised strongly about succeeding in this included:

  • Few organisations have so much valuable user data as libraries - or use it so little! Neil talked about how important it was to find out not only how people used library services, but how they wanted to use them, to help inform the service about ways it should be adapting its offer.
  • Don’t only talk to decision makers at a budget time, or when there’s a problem - get them engaged upfront so they will be champions for you at crunch points. Manchester libraries made a point of involving people like the director of finance and other corporate directors in their planning processes - both drawing on their knowledge of upcoming opportunities in others’ strategies, and also building their knowledge about what libraries could offer. At councillor level, the Executive Member does a monthly newsletter to councillors, the service provides themed updates to scrutiny committees to ensure there is an ongoing conversation, and the service uses ward data to engage councillors in thinking about what libraries offered to their constituents as library users (whether or not a library building sat in the area or not).
  • Visibility translates into public awareness - literally! Manchester libraries has developed design standards for new or refurbished libraries that lays an emphasis on creating glazed frontages, so people can see other people engaged and benefitting from libraries.
  • Partnerships have been key throughout - to enable investment that staying as a ‘stand-alone’ service would never have attracted, and for the future to share services. For example, Neil’s service had a Memorandum of Understanding with other library services in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority area; this had made it possible to appoint a joint digital development officer, not only enabling them to share costs, but also to achieve greater integration and seamless working between neighbouring councils.
  • The service had always had a strong emphasis on continuous improvement, and Neil intended to use the Benchmarking Framework to work further on this with his staff and with partners

And his concluding point? The process never finishes. Manchester has always been conscious of the need to think longer term about investment into libraries - for example, building a strategy that allows sufficient money to refresh things like IT or buildings, rather than settling for ‘once and done’ actions that don’t think forward about keeping customer offers fresh, relevant and attractive.

Gathering and using evidence effectively

Ian Leete from the LGA introduced this session. Much of the information needed by libraries is already in existence and agreed by local decision-makers and partners. A trawl through sources like Joint Strategic Needs Assessments (JSNAs), Corporate Plans and Local Plans should provide much of the content libraries need to develop their strategies and make the case for investment to corporate leaders and to partners and commissioners. The toolkit identifies a wide range of datasets which are linked to the strategic Outcomes in the Ambition document, to cut down the chore of trying to hunt down what might be relevant to particular strategic work.

The toolkit promotes some basic principles for using evidence to help library service planning:

  • identifying and using data relevant to the decisions you need to make (including data gathered at a very local level by the library services on activity take-up, etc)
  • understanding which data was likely to be locally relevant (being rigorous about assessing whether findings or research from elsewhere was really applicable or useful to solving your own community’s issues)
  • using up to date data wherever possible, and understanding the limitations of infrequently collected datasets
  • pinpointing which data or measures were already available and pertinent to the decisions you were looking at, rather than reinventing the wheel
  • seizing opportunities to gather more data that could be used to demonstrate impact or reach (for example, looking for ways to scan library cards to capture data on patterns of use that might otherwise not be collected, or collected inefficiently)

LG Inform

Representatives from the LGA ran a session at each masterclass showing the range of data and mapping available on LG Inform (and, for the 130+ councils with a corporate subscription, LG Inform Plus) and ways that local data for a library service could be pulled together. They introduced delegates to the 8 example reports that had been developed using the libraries evidence base, and which provide services with core information about their area on:

  • health and wellbeing
  • literacy and skills
  • greater prosperity
  • achieving full potential

The session also showed delegates the steps to creating their own bespoke reports. A click by click guide to doing this is also available:

Delegates were also introduced to the opportunities offered by the ‘natural neighbourhoods’ features in LG Inform Plus, which allow the creation of defined local areas, such as library catchment areas. Many datasets can then be plotted onto that local geography, giving a detailed look at the local context of each branch. The LGA is keen to encourage use of this aspect of LG Inform Plus by library services, and is willing to work with services wishing to develop their own catchment areas.

If anyone trying to use LG Inform has any problems or questions, they should contact the LGA using the different routes listed on this page.

What do you think?

We’ve launched both the longer term evidence based strategic planning toolkit and the Benchmarking Framework in beta - that’s so we can continue to update them with your feedback. We’d welcome your comments on how you are using the strategic planning toolkit and/or Benchmarking Framework, particularly where you think we could add material or amend the content, or how we could present it differently to make the toolkits more useful to you.

If you’ve got feedback or ideas about either of these tools, please let us know by emailing us on

Sharing and comments

Share this page