Strategic Planning in Academic Libraries: A Political Perspective

Douglas G. Birdsall

Although rarely linked, there are a number of similarities between strategic planning and organizational development. Both approaches are used by administrators to manage change in a systematic fashion. Strategic planning emphasizes environmental scanning and goal setting, whereas organizational development relies on intervention techniques, such as benchmarking and team building. The focus of this chapter is on organizational politics of strategic planning, an interdisciplinary subject that is often overlooked in both management and library literatures. Its thesis is that, by acknowledging the political basis of decision making in organizations, library administrators can build coalitions and alliances in their institutions at large.

Universities as Complex Organizations

Strategic planning for academic libraries has greater impact when administrators understand the political nature of the decentralized academic system and particularly how decisions are made in their institutions. Universities are “loosely coupled” systems in which actions undertaken in one area need not be integrated with other areas.1 Consequently, organizational development becomes an “accretion of hundreds of largely autonomous actions taken for different reasons, at different times, under different conditions, by different people.”2 Pervading this political model is a basic “dissension concerning preferences, criteria, and definitions on what the organization should be doing.”3 Library administrators, however, even when engaged in strategic planning, often skirt around anything deemed political in academe, preferring to place their faith in a “rational” order of organizational goals, objectives, and strategies. Such an approach will not have lasting success if it ignores the pluralistic character of modern universities, in which different campus groups use various forms of political power to pursue what each considers best for itself, as well as for the institution.

Strategic planning emerged after the Second World War when program development and budgeting began to be used for long-term planning activities, usually in increments of five-year forecasts. During this period, the Harvard Business School stressed the importance of designing an overall corporate strategy that included all facets of operations, including production, finance, and marketing. It was not until a series of funding crises starting in the late 1970s, however, that analysts applied strategic planning concepts in higher education to determine which programs should survive and the levels at which they would be funded.4

For many academic libraries, strategic planning is initiated by senior administrators who require all campus units to submit plans for the overall purpose of developing institutionwide planning cycles. The library director who understands that this system of planning is linked to the strategic allocation of resources is more likely to ensure that the library’s mission and goals are closely aligned with those of the university. Such understanding is an acknowledgment that the rational activity of planning coexists with the politics of academe.

Although librarians have become adept at strategic planning methodologies, and may become campus leaders in designing and implementing this process, libraries are typically given scant mention in the strategic plan of the institution. Given the political environment of the university, how can academic libraries best conduct strategic planning? There are three main political strategies for maximizing planning outcomes. These are to build upon the diversity of stakeholder interests, to form alliances and coalitions for the advancement of the library’s own interests, and to market a persuasive planning document.

Building Upon Diversity of Viewpoint

We begin with the ground assumption that there are multiple viewpoints on any campus about the proper goals of the library and the kinds of policies that should be undertaken to achieve them. Because library strategic planning centers on such major issues, it is unrealistic to expect strong or immediate consensus when so many people, both within the library and throughout the academic institution, have an interest in the future of the library. A few examples illustrate the diversity of stakeholders’ interests. First, increased access to information resources may appear to be an easily agreed-upon goal; however, there are significant numbers of librarians and faculty who question the wisdom of shifting more dollars each year from acquisitions and staffing budgets to access services, such as document delivery and a seemingly endless number of electronic databases. Second, individuals who staff the reference desk may represent a wide spectrum of opinions about which services are most important and what qualifications those who provide them should have. Next, the viewpoint of catalogers on the importance of database management may be quite different from those held in other library departments. Faculty members, for their part, remain polarized on the importance of high-priced journal subscriptions. Finally, library directors and university development officers may disagree on how fundraising efforts for the library should be coordinated.

Strategic planning works best when the richness of stakeholder diversity is recognized and techniques are used to encourage full participation in the planning process. In this way, differences can be recognized and conflicts mitigated, if not resolved; or, general policies can be formulated to stand, in effect, as treaties among interest groups. Although such policies may not reflect a true consensus, they should approach a reasonable level of agreement among the parties. At Harvard College Library, for example, strategic planning in 1990–1991 involved four task forces, with members chosen from a pool of more than three hundred volunteers at all employee levels. Nearly a hundred faculty members also participated in a series of interest group meetings, and a variety of student committees and associations were consulted. This “bottom-up” approach to strategic planning also featured the creation of fifteen staff focus groups. Susan Lee, in a case study of Harvard’s experience with this process, observes that it developed leadership skills among a broad spectrum of staff, raised commitment among task force members, and lowered resisting forces’ tensions. She concludes that Harvard College Library “became a more open organization, better prepared for future change, and better able to engage in organizational learning.”5

A feature of the Harvard model is its focus on long-term organizational development throughout the planning process. A task force was charged with defining a strategy to address organizational norms, management of change, communication channels, problem-solving processes, team building, resistance to change, and human relations.

Forming Alliances and Coalitions

As we have seen, utilizing a broad base of library staff in the planning process helps to ensure that there will be a high level of internal acceptance of the strategic plan. A more difficult goal is to generate coalitions of support and advocacy among external campus groups. Nevertheless, this must be accomplished if adequate levels of funding are to be directed to library endeavors, and if campus partnerships are to be formed that will serve the long-term needs of all constituencies. Budgetary constraints in higher education generally, and access-versus-ownership issues in particular, are of great concern to faculty and administrators, who naturally want the best possible libraries for their institutions. With Oliver D. Hensley, I proposed a strategic planning model that emphasizes collaboration between the library and its campus constituencies in each of six phases of planning: deciding on the planning leaders, scanning the environment, analyzing strategic options, designing plans, setting the agenda of goals, and adopting the plan.6

Although most of the library literature on strategic planning concentrates on planning procedures internal to the library, some accounts describe the importance of involving others in the university community. Notably, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries initiated strategic planning in 1987, they set up communication channels with campus stakeholders. The library director kept the provost and the faculty–library committee apprised of developments during the eighteen-month process and, upon completion of the planning document, scheduled meetings with the dean of each school to discuss the plan and its implications for academic programs. Shirley K. Baker’s study of this process found that its reception on campus “was very positive and [that] funding for new initiatives was forthcoming.”7

Meredith Butler and Hiram Davis, in an insightful article on strategic planning at the University at Albany, SUNY, and at Michigan State University, go beyond the level of informing key campus officials about the library’s plan to that of establishing a dialogue with important campus groups on the issues. Butler’s and Davis’s respective experiences show that strategic planning can “set the stage for engaging university officials, faculty, and other major stakeholders in discussions about institutional policies and priorities for library resources and services.”8 At the beginning of the planning process at Albany, a “working dinner” was scheduled with university vice presidents and the director of university planning to discuss environmental trends in higher education and goals for the institution. That single event bred considerable interaction among the participants and was followed in succeeding weeks by a whole series of meetings with university deans, directors, and leading faculty. At Michigan State, “stakeholder luncheons” were held to provide a setting for dialogues about university and library plans. Butler and Davis note that in both institutions, those meetings were the first opportunity many faculty and librarians ever had to engage in substantive conversation about faculty needs and library services.

Coalitions of support for information technology have led, at some institutions, to an administrative merging of libraries with campus units such as computing services. Sheila D. Creth prefers a partnership relationship rather than a formal merging, as the “issue of administrative control pales in comparison to the more fundamental issue of what might be, and should be, accomplished with information technology if library and computing professionals were to combine their expertise in activities such as strategic planning.”9 A reengineered user services operation at Rice University combined several library units with several computing units, and one of the new department’s first tasks was to develop a shared mission and goals statement.10 Whether the result of administrative realignment or the creation of true partnerships, there is great potential for both mutual planning and political clout when coalitions form on an operational level.

The greatest potential for alliances occurs when library goals become a prominent part of the institution’s priorities. Patricia Senn Breivik poses three questions that campus planners need to ask about their libraries and computing services:11

  • “How can information resources and technologies best support institutional priorities?”
  • “How can we best organize our information resources and technologies to make the strongest contribution to the identified priorities?”
  • “How can we best deploy our limited human and fiscal information technology resources so that all graduates are information literate?”

Strategic planning in academic libraries can reach its full potential when the university community addresses such questions and then integrates solutions into institutionwide planning.

Marketing the Plan

A third political approach to strategic planning is to orchestrate the presentation of the plan to the academic community. This involves both designing a persuasive document and marketing it to anyone who would be an advocate for library objectives. Butler and Davis note that strategic planning “provides wonderful public relations opportunities and can serve as the vehicle for moving the library more dynamically into the university environment.”12 A poor planning document will not only be counterproductive but even harmful to the long-term credibility of the library.

Decisions involving the format of the planning document are important ones, as the written plan symbolizes the library’s future and the character of its leadership. An impressive strategic plan will convey the message that the library is in control of its future and worthy of fiscal support. Conversely, otherwise good goals and strategies may be overlooked in a plan that is ill conceived in parts or written in a pedantic style. In a recent study, I analyzed strategic plans currently in use among seventeen members of the ARL.13 From a campus political perspective, the most effective plans all have a clear sense of their potential readerships. Strategic directions should be consistently aligned with both institutional goals and particular interests of key stakeholders; otherwise, the plan will appear to be merely an internal statement intended for library managers. The planning documents of two ARL libraries in particular are successful in this regard.

Wayne State University Library System’s “Strategic Plan to the Year 2000" is a forty-eight page booklet that provides mission and vision statements, a four-tier arrangement of goal areas and objectives, an evaluation process, and links to the university’s strategic plan.14 What is distinctive about this document is that it is presented as a professionally designed publication. An attractive layout, color photographs, drawings, and sidebars work together with the document’s textual content to convey a very positive impression about the Wayne State University Library System—that library initiatives are important and the organization is doing the kind of planning that would best serve its constituencies. The attractive format allows for wide distribution of the publication to campus officials, key legislators, potential donors, and others who would be advocates for the library.

Harvard College Library’s plan, “Commitment to Renewal,” has a different appearance but one that is also successful in conveying a positive message.15 This twenty-page publication is simple, but elegant. It has no photographs or graphics. Instead, its authors chose a narrative style that cogently presents major issues facing the library with specific goals and objectives for the 1990s. Its effectiveness lies in the care taken to craft an articulate essay on the library’s readiness to face the future.


Like other organizations, libraries engage in strategic planning in order to learn about environmental challenges and to set goals for overcoming them. This chapter argues that for strategic plans to be more than internal writing exercises, library administrators must understand the politics of influence in their institutions and then develop specific strategies that will garner support for their organizations.

Three general strategies may be useful. First, acknowledge that plans, programs, and policies are politically rational only when they can be accepted by affected constituencies. This requires the kind of library leader who understands that multiple interests exist among various stakeholders and who is committed to developing processes for resolving important issues of conflict. Second, form alliances and coalitions among key library stakeholders. Finally, create persuasive and attractive planning documents that can be widely distributed to external constituencies. Specific strategies used by Harvard, MIT, the University at Albany, Michigan State, and Wayne State are described here. (More examples of such publications would be a useful addition to library science literature.)

Although a knowledge of the political nature of the university does not ensure success in strategic planning endeavors, library leaders who do understand such things, and thus are able to build coalitions with external constituencies, will be in a far better position to achieve their goals. The most effective leaders will be those who forge connections between strategic planning, organizational development, and technological change. This is a salient new area for research and analysis, and our progress will be marked by the improvements made in organizational development and the influence we gain in the university community.


  1. Karl E. Weick, “Educational Organizations as Loosely Coupled Systems,” Administrative Science Quarterly 21 (Mar. 1976): 1–19.
  2. Michael D. Cohen and James G. March, Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), 104.
  3. Jeffrey Pfeffer, “Power and Resource Allocation in Organizations,” in New Directions in Organizational Behavior, ed. Barry M. Staw and Gerald R. Salancik (Chicago: St. Clair Pr., 1977), 239.
  4. George Keller, Academic Strategy: The Management Revolution in American Higher Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Pr., 1983) was the most influential forerunner of this literature.
  5. Susan Lee, “Organizational Change in the Harvard College Library: A Continued Struggle for Redefinition and Renewal,” Journal of Academic Librarianship 19 (Sept. 1993): 228.
  6. Douglas G. Birdsall and Oliver D. Hensley, “A New Strategic Planning Model for Academic Libraries,” C&RL 55 (Mar. 1994): 149–59.
  7. Shirley K. Baker, “Strategic Planning for Libraries in the Electronic Age,” Iatul Quarterly 3 (Dec. 1989): 205–6.
  8. Meredith Butler and Hiram Davis, “Strategic Planning as a Catalyst for Change in the 1990s,” C&RL 53 (Sept. 1992): 398.
  9. Sheila D. Creth, “Creating a Virtual Information Organization: Collaborative Relationships between Libraries and Computing Centers,” in Building Partnerships: Computing and Library Professionals, ed. Ann G. Lipow and Sheila D. Creth (Berkeley, Calif.: Library Solutions Pr., 1995), 86.
  10. Beth J. Shapiro and Kevin Brook Long, “Just Say Yes: Reengineering Library User Services for the 21st Century,” Journal of Academic Librarianship 20 (Nov. 1994): 288.
  11. Patricia Senn Breivik, “Investing Wisely in Information Technology: Asking the Right Questions,” Educational Record 74 (summer 1993): 47–52.
  12. Butler and Davis, “Strategic Planning as a Catalyst for Change in the 1990s,” ??.
  13. Douglas G. Birdsall, “Strategic Planning Models in Academic Libraries,” Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, 59/suppl. 22 (New York: Marcel Dekker, 1997), 292–315.
  14. Wayne State University Library System Strategic Plan to the Year 2000 (Detroit: Wayne State Univ., 1994).
  15. “Commitment to Renewal: A Strategic Plan for the Harvard College Library,” Harvard Library Bulletin, n.s. 3 (spring 1992): 27–46.