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Charting a Community Course with the BPL Compass

Boston Public Library
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Innovation Summary

The Boston Public Library’s Compass Strategic Plan was a community-based campaign to engage library stakeholders in the creation of principles and outcomes to guide the library. This was a two-year process during which the library hosted more than eighty online and in-person meetings to discuss the future of the library.

Problem Statement

The first phase of the Library’s strategic planning process began in the fall of 2009 and was initiated with the goal of creating a set of community-identified principles to guide the future of the institution. The library’s new president, Amy E. Ryan, was a year into her role and committed to turning to the community for input. The Trustees of the Library established a Compass Committee with members of the Board, Library management and community leaders. A series of community conversations were scheduled and both community and staff-only blogs were created to capture the comments of those who could not attend in-person sessions. Just three months into the strategic planning process, however, the library’s planning efforts collided with a particularly challenging annual budget for fiscal year 2011. Leaders of the library and the community turned their attention to the library’s fiscal crisis, the deliberations over which included several cost-saving options that involved potential branch closures. During the groundswell of community support for keeping all library branches open, a variety of stakeholders asked the Boston Public Library to put the strategic plan on hold while the FY11 budget process was discussed. The library agreed to do so. The fiscal crisis passed, libraries were not closed, and it was then time to re-engage and re-initiate the strategic planning process. Library leadership wanted to stay connected to and channel the enormous energy surrounding support for the library. A new, broader, and more inclusive plan for communicating about the Compass Strategic Plan was created. The goals were clear:

- expand the conversation to include more neighborhood stakeholders
- maintain momentum surrounding the importance of libraries in community life
- foster a single location for staff and public to follow the Compass process
- regularly share data about the library beyond circulation.


The BPL Compass process provided the Library with innovative ways to connect with its users. Since stopping the process to work on the budget, it had been six months since the community had seen draft principles. Given the larger audience now engaged with the library, the draft principles required additional vetting. The library launched an effort to bring the draft principles back out to the community for comment. New sections were created on the library website where community members could follow conversations of interest. In addition, the library engaged with its users online through social media, and provided users with a dedicated email address to contact Library leaders directly. Also during this time, the library hosted its first online community meetings. Many in-person meetings were held throughout Boston, but the library made a special effort to engage with its online community of users, many of who do not use the bricks-and-mortar locations. An important activity during this phase of the process was the library’s use of three, mutually-reinforcing tools to gather data about what library users - and potential users - thought about the library. The tools were a 3-minute online survey with questions about hours, locations, and resources as well as open-ended queries about future services; a two-question postcard survey, made available in all library branches which highlighted key questions on paper for those not interested in or comfortable with completing an online survey and; a postcard campaign to encourage non-users, or potential users, to share the reasons why they do not use the Library. This postcard campaign took place outside the library, with placement in more than 200 non-library locations across the Boston area by staff members and other City of Boston representatives. It was the first time in the library’s history that non-users were surveyed.


The Boston Public Library continually synthesized and published the information it gathered through community meetings; survey data; blogs; social media; and traditional calls, letters, and daily user interactions. One of the documents published was a 40-page summary of comments from strategic planning meetings. The principles that were tested with community members did, in fact, change. Once the principles were in final form and approved by the library’s Board of Trustees, a brochure was produced to share them more broadly. The brochure credited the people of Boston for their input and featured images from community meetings and strategic planning sessions. A bookmark with the www.bpl.org/compass web address was also produced as a quick guide to where information about the strategic plan could be found. The interactive nature of the second phase of the Compass was extended into a third phase which discussed the outcomes that would lead the library to the accomplishment of the principles. In evaluating the effectiveness of the communication around the Compass Strategic Plan, several measures come to the forefront as indicators of success:

- 80+ convenings
- 1,500 conversation participants
- Nearly 16,000 completed online surveys
- 1,000+ paper surveys
- Web traffic to www.bpl.org grew by 2 million visits, rising to above 7 million visits a year during the two year planning process. 

The statistics on the nonuser postcard campaign illustrate that it is possible to increase engagement at the grassroots level, even among those who do not use library services. Most importantly, the Boston Public Library now has a set of eight community-identified and validated principles in place. The interactive model of communicating and engaging with stakeholders not only improved the strategic plan, it also galvanized the library’s overall public relations efforts to be more timely and transparent, enabling the library to use data and messages that reflect its own communities of users.