Challenges in assessing community needs (or, what does the community need, anyway?)

by Rebecca Teasdale, Principal, Rebecca Teasdale & Associates

Excellent library programs are grounded in a deep understanding of community needs. I’ve seen this firsthand in nearly two decades of working in and with libraries—and I’ve also seen how programming staff can struggle to determine what, exactly, those needs are.

In fall 2017, the NILPPA team surveyed 1,249 programming staff nationwide from all types of libraries to identify the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully run public programs. Community-related knowledge and skills was a common theme, with 28% of respondents mentioning “community” in their answers. This included knowledge of the community, investment in the community, partnerships in the community, and analysis of the community.

To learn more, the NILPPA team conducted discussion forums and interviews in January 2018 with 41 staff members who worked in public, school, academic, and tribal libraries. Across all library types, participants discussed the importance of assessing community needs to understand how programming could be most valuable.

Responses also shed light on the challenges library workers face in determining those needs. For example, participants described a wide diversity of needs within the communities they served; simply defining “community” can be tricky—respondents voiced differing perspectives on which segments of the “public” the library’s programming should address.

Participants also expressed varying ideas about what constituted community needs. Do communities need information on certain topics, such as information literacy? Do needs include broader social issues, such as the need for safe places for youth? Are needs related to issues of accessibility (e.g., wheelchair seating) and/or alignment with community characteristics (e.g. language preferences)? Responses reflected all of these categories. Also, while participants agreed it was important to assess community needs, many struggled to articulate specific methods they used to do so.

In an earlier post, we noted that knowledge of the community is one of the top nine skills for programming identified by respondents to a 2017 NILPPA survey. Some of this knowledge is likely to come through direct engagement with the community. As one discussion participant noted, “I think you find out a lot by being informally involved in the community — going to events, talking to people, making friendships, going to the football games.”

Yet it seems likely that a more formal needs assessment process is required to identify community needs comprehensively and systematically. That may be why a few survey respondents identified the topics of needs assessment and community assessment as ideas for future NILPPA research.

So how can library programming staff get started with community needs assessment? Reading up on needs assessment strategies can be a great place to begin. Programming staff might dig into a community needs assessment primer for an overview of the process or focus on a particular method such as asset mapping. Staff can also review examples of needs assessments conducted by/for other libraries (for example, a needs assessment focusing on a special library, a public library, or an entire state) or sign up for training through the Research Institute for Public Libraries.

Taken together, these resources can help library programmers (and other staff members) to define what is meant by “community needs”, assess needs and interests within their local communities, and, ultimately, develop meaningful and effective library programs to address those needs.

What do you think?

  • How do you assess community needs and wants?
  • What knowledge and skills are necessary to assess community needs comprehensively and systematically?
  • What resources could help you develop your skills in community needs assessment?
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