I don’t love buzzwords but I do love strategic planning. Actually, I love plans in general. Strategy is whole other beast. Strategy forces us to choose specific decisions that explicitly cut off possibilities and options. As someone who has never beaten anyone at a game of checkers in her life, perhaps my love of strategy is a bit…incongruous.

Planning allows for the clarity of vision so often denied us in the heat of the moment. There is a difference between project planning and strategic plans. How do we differentiate between work that will move a program forward (strategic) and work that prioritizes regular ongoing projects (project)? There is also a question of scope: projects can be quite massive and involve other stakeholders.

Ultimately, what sets strategic planning apart is the quest to understand the work of different functional areas within Special Collections, within the library, and within the community. How can we anticipate shared goals and meet the expectations collaboratively?

Strategic plans tend to take a specific format. They’ll include a vision or mission statement that sets out aspirational goals. They’ll include a list of initiatives and projects that are often quite expansive, perhaps limited only by financial constraints. This means that a significant portion of strategic planning is dedicated to financials. This aspect often falls seamlessly in line with the annual budget…which may not be the best thing given that annual budgets are, by definition, annual. In contrast, strategic plans are generally thought to have a lifespan of about two to five years.

When presented with challenges – whether in the form of staff allocation or the arrival of 136 records cartons full of who-knows-what – the natural reaction is to create a plan which will solve a problem with tried and tested tools. This isn’t a great way to be strategic. It’s a coping mechanism for sure but it’s on par with downloading different kinds of calendar apps from iTunes with the promise to get you organized.

Fear and discomfort are an essential part of strategy making and you knowing this gives you an advantage. Honestly, if you are completely in your comfort zone, your strategy probably isn’t very good. Strategy is about placing bets and making hard choices. It’s about thinking through what it would take to achieve what you want then assessing whether it’s feasible to try.

Strategic planning is a reflective process, almost like a mindfulness exercise. Why am I here? What are my values? What are my hopes and ambitions for my collections, for my profession? Where are the stumbling blocks? How do I kick them out of my way?


  • Raise awareness of what we do, why we do it and its value within the library, academic community, and the wider general public.
  • Develop work plans and evaluate our progress.
  • Assess projects. Will this project really move us forward? Does it have to happen now?
  • Advocate for staff and fiscal resources at every level within our communities.

As Special Collections prepares to undergo a massive collection survey during the summer of 2015 (the first since the big reorganization – whoa!) we’ve been wondering: exactly what kind of instrument do we want which will satisfy the descriptive needs of a very large, very diverse collection? There are many factors that go into surveying a collection, and strategic planning is a must. But lest we forget, allow me to remind you: ultimately it’ll all boil down to a pair of old leggings, some sneaks and blasting iHeartRADIO while we close shop for a few weeks.

I often perform small collection surveys that are either for workflow assessment or just straight-up fact-finding. Although these surveys are designed to be quick and relatively superficial, the information still needs thought and attention. A few months back I conducted a very light survey of the materials which comprise the School for Social Work. With a history that dates back 100 years and over 600 linear feet of materials, we wanted to be able to say “Hey, look at what we’ve got!” with numbers on our side. It’s very hard to do that, either passionately or rationally, if you are relying upon legacy descriptions that are only a few words long. So, I created an informal survey instrument and went to work.

What is a survey instrument?

This informal instrument allowed me to perform a box-level survey which assessed the quantities, types, and condition of all containers and all formats specific to the collection. Data collected in the survey was used to determine priorities for preservation actions, records management, and future projects. Retroactively, I was able to clean and normalize the data imported into the spreadsheet. From there, I imported specific data into our content management system, thereby updating and elaborating upon the existing legacy data. The collection survey also allowed me an opportunity to fully ensure that all holdings were represented in the content management system – as it turns out, 27 separate accessions dating to before 1990 were not accounted for within our database.

 So how did I do this?

First, I determined the technology I would use. I have a handheld smartphone and a tablet. At Smith we use Google products, so I synced my devices to Google Drive. Then, I devised a very simple form that would import data directly into a spreadsheet. I actually was able to create controlled vocabulary lists through the multiple choice option, thereby semi-automating my responses via a drop-down option.

Which came first, the spreadsheet or the form?

In this instance, I chose to create a spreadsheet first and then determine which fields I wanted to have populate the form. Ultimately, I wanted to be able to conclusively determine:

  • the extent of the boxes
  • the extent in linear feet
  • the physical location of the materials
  • average preservation needs
  • average housing condition needs
  • compliance with records management policies and retention outlines
  • candidates deemed of “historical value”

This seems pretty easy, right? [Sigh]. Wrong.

I now needed to outline the types of analog formats surveyed.

  • containers
  • loose paper
  • bound materials
  • photographic materials
  • A/V materials

And then for each format I needed to assign genre vocabulary to describe content.

  • black-and-white photographs
  • Case studies
  • school transcripts
  • Correspondence
  • etc.

Lastly, the condition of the materials needed to be assessed and rated for priority. For each format I created a rubric of sorts that allowed me to assign priority to specific treatment needs:

  • container issues
    • acidic
    • damaged
    • overstuffed
    • understuffed
    • illegible
    • inappropriate housing
  • folder issues:
    • acidic
    • damaged
    • overstuffed
    • slumping
    • inappropriate size
  • loose paper:
    • folded material
    • dirt/environmental factors
    • acidic
    • adhesives
    • rusty fasteners
    • mixed media
    • rips or tears
    • brittle
    • rolled
  • bound volumes:
    • dust
    • acid
    • adhesives
    • red rot
    • binding/joint damage
    • missing pages
    • mold/environmental factors
  • photographic materials:
    • staining
    • flaking
    • dirt
    • water damage
    • physical damage
    • mold/environmental factors
    • deterioration
  • A/V
    • warping or flaking
    • vinegar syndrome
    • physical damages
    • acid
    • color shift

Et voila! A solid utility survey instrument using basic free tools and a smartphone. Google provides a number of really great features; I also discovered that I could take a photograph of a specific box that could do with a little relabeling and it would get sent to the spreadsheet as as a digital object. It was an unexpected way for me to keep track of side to-do projects not directly related to the survey.


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