ERIC Identifier: ED479844
Publication Date: 2003-09-00
Author: Parry, Norm
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology
Stimulating Growth and Renewal of Public Libraries:
The Natural Life Cycle as Framework. ERIC Digest.
Libraries have a natural life cycle: birth, growth, maturity, and decline.
Each stage may be identified by its typical characteristics. Librarians
who recognize and understand the library life cycle can benefit by anticipating
and planning for change, diagnosing problems early, and having a framework
for charting library development. Movement from one stage to the next may
be directed and controlled by librarians using the life cycle model as
a guide. Knowing what stage the library is in will help the librarian take
appropriate action to stimulate growth, and re-energize and prolong the
library's service life.
This ERIC Digest explores the life cycle of public libraries and highlights
characteristics of each stage. The author provides specific advice on what
can be done in each stage to energize the library with "stage-appropriate"
A growing library, like an exuberant teenager, needs direction and a
strong managerial hand. A mature library, in its golden middle age, may
experience a period of restful self-satisfaction. Eventually, however,
a library will decline and pass away if it no longer serves perceived essential
community needs, depletes its resources, or fails to evolve to meet the
challenges of its competitors.
Libraries are entropic. As living systems, they tend from order to disorder.
Without a continuous infusion of new energy, any system will "run down"
from organization to disorganization. Buildings wear out and collapse.
Orderly shelves become, over time, less orderly. People naturally age.
Libraries naturally age.
But libraries may be vitalized, energized and reorganized as they move
from one life
stage to the next. If they are renovated, restored or rededicated they
can even repeat the life cycle. They can be reborn. An individual, or a
small group of individuals, can bring a failing library back to life with
an infusion of enthusiasm, capital and renewed purpose. Libraries can be
directed and structured to adjust to change, where change is understood
as natural. Like the librarians that attend them, libraries age and need
care and special treatment at all stages of their lives. Knowing what stage
a library is in--birth, growth, maturity, or decline--can be of considerable
value in evaluating its condition and prescribing action to keep it vital
and serving the needs of the community.
Each stage of library development is marked by a set of characteristics
typical of that stage. By knowing how libraries normally thrive and change,
mature and decline, professionals and supporters may identify their library's
current life-stage by recognizing the characteristics of that stage.
Effective management and response to "problems" may be informed by consideration
of life stage and what is expected for that stage. What may be good practice
for a young library may not be good for a mature library. What may be a
"problem" in one stage may not be a problem in another. Knowing what to
expect may allow librarians to exercise a kind of preventative library
The following examples illustrate situations in which the characteristic
features of a life stage were neglected: (1) A mature library has no policy
manual; a patron challenges a book the library owns, but there is no procedure
for response. (2) A library in growth stage has not yet applied for tax-exempt
status; the state asks for the sales tax the library failed to pay. (3)
A library in growth stage does not have a charter; a state grant is sought
to expand, but the grant cannot be considered without a charter.
Readers may agree or disagree with the placement of characteristics
for each stage,
the number of stages and their significance. Other characteristics
may be added to or subtracted from this schema. Indeed one goal of this
article is to encourage discussion of what characteristics may be considered
typical and where they might be placed in the life cycle outline. Longitudinal
study and examination of written library histories could result in a useful
evaluation instrument for library consultants and librarians.
Stages are measured in "maturity age," not "chronological age." A 60-year-old
library may be in a growth stage, whereas a library barely five years old
may be showing
marked signs of decline. A library may demonstrate a mix of cross stage
characteristics, making its assignment to any particular life stage more
difficult. For example, a library may be in decline, but still retain a
dedicated, enthusiastic staff. A library may have been in operation for
many years without the development of a mission statement.
This "life stages" model was derived in part by examining both member
libraries in a
large upstate New York regional library system and historical accounts
of libraries (such as Cary, Clearwater, and Jervis Public Libraries) available
on the Internet and
elsewhere. Further examination of libraries from the "life cycle" perspective
may yield a valuable non-numerical measure of library performance. Measures
such as the HAPLR rating system (Hennen, 2002), though useful, do not give
librarians a sense of living purpose for their libraries. Quantitative
analysis should not be the only significant measure of a library. The "life
cycle" view treats libraries as vital, living things.
USING THE MODEL
Using the life cycle framework, a plan for timely action can be developed.
critical needs can be addressed first. The librarian using the life
cycle model has an
understandable, clear and explicit framework with which to work. Because
the life cycle concept includes specific targets (characteristics) for
each stage, goals and strategies can be developed to hit those targets.
For example, a very young library (birth/infant stage) could choose the
characteristics of the next stage (growth stage) as explicit goals to shoot
for, which would drive the library along a natural and well-marked path
to the next level. Similarly, a library in the mature stage that does not
have a formal charter, mission statement and policy manual should plan
to revisit these characteristics of the growth stage.
The life cycle framework can be used as a checklist of things to do
as the library grows and develops. It can also be used to organize library
history, mark important
achievements for celebration and encourage long-range planning.
An individual or a few individuals conceive and create small public
libraries. Their efforts and contagious enthusiasm engage others willing
and able to sustain a library vision for the community. Obstacles are tenaciously
overcome. Ways and means are improvised.
Like all newborns, libraries need to be nurtured and given constant
characteristics that mark this stage include: driving enthusiasm and
effort of an
individual or a few individuals; little or no cash support; very limited
space; all volunteer effort; absence of structured supervision, management
or control; and lack of formal government recognition, charter, or tax-exempt
To stimulate growth in this stage:
(1) Expand the base of supporters to establish stability and protection
from loss of key people.
(2) Form a fundraising committee to ask for donations of money and materials
local businesses and individuals.
(3). Store books off-site and rotate them through the available space.
(4). Appoint a coordinator of volunteers.
(5). Visit other libraries to observe.
(6). Establish and advertise regular hours.
(7). Begin the process of formal organization by asking a few people
to serve on a board of trustees, who will be responsible for taking the
young library into the growth stage.
Structure and organization are needed to accommodate growth in services,
acquisitions and facilities management. As the value and complexity of
the enterprise grow, responsibility for the protection and fair use of
public property is assigned. Circulation grows rapidly as the library services
become available to unserved and underserved members of the community.
Other factors that move libraries into the growth stage are programs, media
coverage and curiosity. This stage is marked by the following characteristics:
a governing body of trustees or board members; a mission statement; charter
and legal requirements of non-profit status; volunteer effort that is led
by a volunteer coordinator or a paraprofessional; funding raised by special
events and contributions; increased donations and some purchases of materials;
some bibliographic control and implementation of a materials circulation
system; relocation of library to larger low cost or donated space.
In this stage:
(1) Pick the busiest people you can find for your board. They will be
dependable and dedicated, just as they are with the other organizations
for which they serve.
(2) Select a president, treasurer and secretary.
(3) Write a mission statement.
(4) Assign one person the responsibility of applying for a charter and
requirements of local, state and federal agencies.
(5) Treat volunteers like royalty. They are the library's most valuable
(6) Send a thank you note when you receive a donation.
(7) Visit a library in your area and get some advice on how to organize
Keep it simple; keep it consistent.
(8) Appoint an acting "library director."
(9) Aggressively lobby for more space, a larger facility or an addition.
(10) Promote the library through press releases and other publicity.
The key features of this stage are the hiring of paid staff and sharing
of resources with other libraries. With the right management, a mature
library may be both efficient and effective through vigorous middle age
and beyond, if it can change and adapt to changing community expectations.
Natural demand is satisfied. This is the stage of library development that
is most likely to be sustainable, manageable and predictable.
The characteristics of this stage may include: some or mostly, paid
library professionals), with some volunteer involvement; membership
in a library
consortium or regional library system; traditional bibliographic control
systems in place; sustainable public funding; steady or stable levels
of circulation, visits and program attendance; shelf and storage space
full; weeding is routine.
In this stage:
(1) Continue publicity. Keep the library visible in the community.
(2) Stay in close contact with public officials and community leaders.
(3) Apply for building or program grants.
(4) Survey library user needs and opinions.
(5) Continue maintenance and repair.
(6) Plan for expected major expenditures such as replacing the roof.
(7) Follow and revise long range plans.
A library in decline may have outlived its usefulness to the community.
infusion of new dedication and enthusiasm (the hallmark of the birth/infant
stage) it may pass on, quietly or in a shout of (belated) neighborhood
protest. If a library no longer serves its charter, mission or purpose,
it is a prime target for budget cuts, downsizing and consolidation. Characteristics
in this stage include the following: operations dominated by rules and
routines, rather than customer service; unmotivated, burned-out staff;
reduced public support and donations; election or appointment of "one issue"
trustees; negative publicity; retirement or resignation of key staff; personnel
problems; a library facility that is in disrepair; declining circulation,
attendance and volunteerism; reduced hours or service.
In this stage:
(1) Review rules, polices and procedures. Update or eliminate inefficient
or ineffective practices.
(2) Send staff to seminars, workshops and professional development classes.
(3) Demonstrate the value of library services to the community.
(4) Appoint trustees and staff eager to reenergize the library.
(5) Renovate and redecorate building.
(6) Make customer service your primary focus.
LIBRARIES IN NATURE
Your library is bound to live out its natural life, decline and turn
to dust, unless those
responsible for supporting and managing it intervene with new resources
enthusiasm at the appropriate stages of development. In its wild natural
state, the library is subject to the same forces that erode everything
valuable: apathy, neglect and entropy. The librarian who sees the library
as a vital, natural entity rather than a bricks and mortar institution,
will be prepared to take action to reverse, or at least retard library
aging and decline.
Executive Director of the New York Library Association, Susan Keitel,
suggests that libraries "deserve to be nurtured ...but libraries cannot
live on love alone" (Keitel, 2003).
She is right. Viewed as living entities, libraries behave like the people
who manage and support them. To thrive they need care and love. But young
or old, libraries need the sustained attention, fiscal support and life
giving energies we all need and deserve.
Cary Public Library. (n.d.). "Cary Library: A brief history." Retrieved
May 27, 2003, http://220.127.116.11/history.html
Clearwater Public Library. (n.d.). "History of the Clearwater Public
Library." Retrieved June 3, 2003, from http://www.clearwater-fl.com/cpl/cplhist.html
Hennen, T. (2002). Great American public libraries: The 2002 HAPLR rankings.
"American Libraries," 33(9), 64-68.
Jervis Public Library. (n.d.). "Jervis Public Library: The first hundred
years." Retrieved May 28, 2003, from http://www.jervislibrary.org/jpl_history.html
Keitel, S. (2003, March 16). Libraries deserve to be nurtured. "Times
Union [Albany]," Three Star edition: Perspective, E2.