Every 5 years, federal government agencies create a roadmap for themselves, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is no exception. In December 2011, the agency unveiled its Strategic Plan, 2012-2016: Creating a Nation of Learners that places the nation’s 17,500 museums and 123,000 libraries at the heart of education enhancement opportunities for all Americans.
What Does IMLS Do?
According to its website, the institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums “that connect people to information and ideas.” The agency’s role is to inspire libraries and museums to innovate, partly through the use of technology and partly through the development of leaders within these two related communities, though it is clear from the list of types of institutions eligible for grant programs administered by IMLS that archives is the third community not highlighted in the agency’s title, but clearly included in its work, as evidenced by program grants.
In the immediate term, IMLS accomplishes its mission by supporting innovative delivery of services and preservation of evidence of the nation’s cultural heritage through funds distributed to state library administrative agencies (SLAA) and Library Services Technology Act (LSTA) grants. Additional funding is made available for specific projects conducted by museums and libraries around the nation in a number of categories, as well as the institutions that educate and train future museum/library workers.
Engaging the Public
This past summer, IMLS sought input from a range of stakeholders to help it craft a strategic plan that would serve the needs of the American public and bolster the efforts of libraries and museums around the nation. In an innovating move, IMLS crafted five strategic questions to help it envision future services to be offered by the agency, and invited comments at http://imls.ideascale.com.
- How can IMLS leverage its resources, position, reputation, and relationships to promote effective public access to physical and digital content?
- How can IMLS leverage its resources, position, reputation, and relationships to promote information services policy that sustains access to the American Public?
- How can IMLS leverage its resources, position, reputation, and relationships to support learners throughout their lifetime in order to produce a competitive workforce and an engaged public?
- How can IMLS leverage its resources, position, reputation, and relationships to help museums and libraries strengthen their roles as community anchor institutions to enhance the vibrancy and sustainability of their communities?
- How can IMLS achieve excellence in public management and effectively align and leverage its resources to maximize the value of taxpayer investments?
More than 1,400 comments were posted, though it is evident that some were by an unnamed “IMLS Administrator(s),” perhaps by way of seeding the discussion to encourage additional posts (or change the direction of a particular discussion thread to elaborate on an idea). This work led to a restatement of the agency’s Vision, Mission, and Value Statements that inform the new strategic plan. The Performance Improvement Model discussed at the beginning of the report speaks volumes about the agency’s approach to learning, sharing, and continuous improvement on all levels. It is an acknowledgment of the adaptive nature of work in the 21st century and that its expectations for itself are high.
What’s in Store, 2012 and Beyond
Input of stakeholders can be summarized in the agency’s five strategic goals for the next 5 years, during which its operating notions will be to do the following:
1: Place the learner at the center of engaging learning experiences resulting in empowered learners.
2: Promote museums and libraries as strong anchors within their communities, centers for people to gather and connect with community services.
3: Support exemplary stewardship of museum and library collections, facilitating discovery of knowledge and cultural heritage by the American public.
4: Advise the President and Congress on policies that sustain and increase public access to information and ideas.
5: Achieve excellence in public agency management.
The plan elaborates on a number of objectives for each of these strategic goals, with benchmarks (explicit tasks and products, such as reports) and measures (quantified metrics) so that all can monitor how successful their efforts are along the way. It also highlights activities underway with examples of model programs in-place. As in the past, digital efforts are featured prominently, both in terms of assuring access to resources and preserving them for future generations. However, the report also focuses on efforts by IMLS to determine how ready the workforce is to provide the necessary services in libraries and museums, and ways to assure that those responsible have the necessary skills and training available to them.
IMLS sees itself playing a role in helping to share the results of grant projects, helping to promote exemplary practices, working to build organizational capacity within the library and museum sector. This is particularly important as technology advances, tools change, and the needs, wants, and expectations of the public shift. The agency wants libraries and museums to be able to anticipate what will be valued by their communities and be prepared to deliver through organizational, leadership, and personal development opportunities.
The strategy outlined by IMLS has placed two aspects of the agency’s work front-and-center. First, it emphasizes the need for evidence-based research to assure the field is able to assess and recommend “what works.” A number of efforts underway to identify gaps (e.g., in the availability and use of library and museum services; workforce), encouraging eligible institutions to craft projects investigating potential solutions.
Partnerships have always been central to IMLS grant programs, with applicants encouraged collaborate with other libraries and museums. The value of partnerships is reinforced throughout this strategic plan that recognizes libraries and museums as part of continuing community development initiatives being taken by local governments, often with the support of civic organizations, chambers of commerce, and foundations, and makes efforts to remove barriers to funding projects with these entities.
In an effort to improve its performance as a grant maker, both internally as it evaluates prospective grantees and supports grantees through the life of the grant, communicating “what works” with other federal agencies, as well as emphasizing the importance of each grant project, providing opportunities to share “lessons learned” and “exemplary practices” so that other libraries and museums can benefit.
An often overlooked aspect of its work is the agency’s responsibility to guide the government concerning policies that sustain and increase public access to information and ideas. America has a unique place in the global information economy and its contribution to creating tools for the knowledge society. Our policies concerning equitable access to information “can have international impacts.”
What remains unstated in this report is that vast amount of information and artifacts are not maintained by professionals in formal, public settings. IMLS has a good deal on its plate already, but does the country really want these materials and resources to remain unmanaged, potentially decaying or destroyed? Whose responsibility is it to assure that these are not lost? Who better to help ensure permanent access to previously hidden treasures than IMLS?
What should you do next? Read the strategic plan, sign up for one of IMLS email announcements or its newsletters, RSS, and Twitter feeds. Take a look at the new blog UpNext and consider joining the wiki where you can discuss the future of museums and libraries centering around 10 discussion themes with your peers and other interested parties. Show IMLS that engaging the public works so that the agency will continue to be inventive in working with us to improve these valuable national assets.
Note: Barbie Keiser is one of a team evaluating IMLS Laura Bush 21st Century grants awarded 2003-2008.