Creating winning library programs and services: Part I

Librarians are a distinctly creative bunch. Over the past few years, we’ve started all kinds of amazing new programs and services. Programs like the Iowa City Public Library’s local music project, the Human Library Project at the Stair District Library in Michigan, and the Library of Congress’s Flickr Project all jump to mind as both innovative and impactful. But for every successful program at one library, there are dozens of programs or services at others that suffer from low attendance or just completely fall flat. Why?

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To answer this question, I thought it might be useful to write a few posts that pull together two disciplines that have a lot in common but are rarely, if ever, talked about together: librarianship and product management.

The goal of these posts is first and foremost to provide a starting point for librarians, especially directors, to familiarize themselves with some of the basic terms and concepts in product management. Secondly, we’ll give an example of how implement those concepts to build a more efficient approach to thinking about library programs and services.

In this first post, we’ll talk about how to avoid the dreaded project plan at the outset of a new service or program.

If you build it…

One of the main reasons library programs or services fail is captured perfectly by Field of Dreams. Just picture Kevin Costner as a librarian with an idea for a new program or service while you watch:

MVP – Minimum Viable Program

So what is the best way to avoid spending countless hours planning mediocre programs or services at the library? Let’s start by discussing what product managers refer to as “minimum viable product” or “MVP”. Tweaking Eric Ries’s definition a bit, MVP in library-land would refer to the minimum program or service that will allow librarians to collect the maximum amount of learning about what their users want from that program or service, and most importantly, with the least amount of effort. Whereas we tend to be quick to define a large-scale project plan, MVP allows us to do the smallest thing possible to gauge interest.

MVP for Digital Collections?

Let’s say we serve a community that is celebrating its bicentennial and is experiencing renewed interest in local history and genealogy. The librarians, having a finger on the community’s pulse and being ever-responsive to it, want to create a digital collections project at the library to support this new demand in the community.

But since this project would ostensibly entail a good amount of planning as well as costs for software, hardware, materials, and staff time to install, maintain, troubleshoot, and of course work with patrons, it’s sensible to approach this cautiously in order not to waste resources. How can the concept of MVP help us here?

Don’t do a project plan

If you’re like me, hearing those word is a source of great relief. Instead of creating a detailed plan, securing funding for staff time, an expensive scanner and high-end software that does more than we need it to, we can step back a second and ask the MVP question: what is the minimum amount we can do to learn the maximum amount about the needs of our community with regard to the digital collection? In other words, before jumping into project planning full boar or creating a pilot project, what’s the smallest part of the full digital collections service we envision that can validate the exact need for the digital collection? (We’ll try to suggest answer this in a future post…).

However, perhaps even more fundamental than our MVP question is the creation of a testable hypothesis. So in our next post, we’ll talk more about the concept of how MVP, hypothesis testing, and validated learning can save you time and energy when planning a new service.

In the meantime, what kinds of new programs or services are you thinking about introducing at your library? Have you already created the dreaded project plan?


  1. Poultry Marketing Class poster:;orient=0;size=100;seq=5;attachment=0
  2. Field of Dreams.
  3. San Mateo College, 3D printing:

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