Here is a question that has been the source of many an existential crisis for library staff. What is the value of your work?
That proposition is at the heart of a major project every library undertakes once a year–the creation of the annual report. In its most basic form, the annual report summarizes the work conducted by a library during the preceding year.
But what if the annual report was more than a formal document? What if it truly told the story of the impact a library had on its community, beyond numbers and statistics?
That’s what Explore York Libraries and Archives in the United Kingdom, led by Barbara Swinn who is Head of Strategy and Engagement, set out to do this year with their annual report.
Explore York provides library service for a city founded in 71 AD by the Romans. The flagship library sits within Roman-era medieval walls and has the remains of St Leonards, the largest hospital in medieval Europe, within its grounds.
The library serves more than 211,000 residents. It is an affluent city but there is also need in the community. 13 percent of children in York live in low-income families.
Putting together an annual report that connects with a varied audience and also demonstrates the vast but important work of Explore York is daunting. Barbara has a small team at her disposal: herself, a co-worker, and an outsourced graphic designer. But these three visionaries wanted to do more than report facts and figures. So, they took a storytelling approach to their annual report.
Barbara begins work on her next annual report as soon as she’s released the latest version. “We already produce quarterly reports for our Board of Directors, and for the City Council,” explains Barbara. “However, these reports are focused on fairly ‘dry’ information – statistics, evidence that we have met contract requirements, etc. We recognized that our Annual Review needed to be more than a reiteration of the year’s quarterly reviews. We knew, at the end of an extraordinary year, that our pandemic story made a powerful case for the enduring value of public libraries not only in our city but everywhere.”
So Barbara and her team decided to take a different approach. “To start off our planning we read Angela’s article on “The Dreaded Annual Library report” (!) and used it as a basis for our approach,” Barbara recalled. “We read the example Reviews cited in the article, we chose our favorites, and decided which bits we were going to steal from them! We also looked at the Reviews some of our local cultural organizations had produced. We shared our thoughts with our graphic designer early on too, so she could start to think about how some of our preferred visual elements could be incorporated using our branding and style.”
Next, Barbara and her team set goals for their annual review. They had to connect with a variety of audiences, from politicians to donors to volunteers to library users. “We kept in our mind what we wanted our audiences to think, feel, and do as they read our Review,” remembers Barbara. “We wanted them to understand the breadth and depth of what we had provided, feel reassured and proud of their libraries, and to support us in future years whether financially or through advocacy or practical support such as volunteering.”
“We wanted it to be a powerful advocacy tool and something that would tell our story through its imagery and design as well as through words and numbers.”Tweet
With all that in mind, Barbara and her team began to plan and gather content for each section. But she recalls that, with so much worthy and valuable work happening at her library, the focus was tricky. “Our aim was to hold up some diamonds from our daily work and from our special projects, so they could shed light over all the work we do day by day, in every library and Reading Café across the City of York,” explained Barbara.
The team did a lot of groundwork gathering feedback and testimonials from the community. “Some of the feedback we had gathered specifically with documenting our pandemic story, some arrived through the ordinary feedback channels and through conversations with our library staff,” said Barbara. “We gave equal weight to facts and figures, quotations from people, and imagery. We edited and edited to keep the words brief and to the point.”
“Telling the story was key for us,” continued Barbara. “We wanted to create a connection with the reader and us, to demonstrate our values that would hopefully resonate with the reader and encourage them to find out more, to become more involved perhaps as a volunteer or potential funder. Angela described this as a call to action for readers, that by the end of the review they would know what help we need for the following year.”
The final product is extraordinary. Read it here.
Barbara has some advice for libraries in putting together their annual report or review. “Remember we are all about stories, we hear them every day and we see the impact we have on the lives of people in our communities every day,” she explains. “Use that rich resource to shine a light on the value of our community activities, programs, and events to stir emotion and build a connection to our organization. Inspire future donors and volunteers to be involved, to want to be part of our story.”
Barbara Swinn joined Explore in 2015 as manager of the city centre flagship library York Explore and has worked in the libraries sector for 40 years. She’s been awarded the British Empire Medal in The Queen’s Birthday Honours for her work with the library. She is a passionate advocate for public libraries and a gifted leader. Committed to improving the customer experience, Barbara is skilled at creating spaces and environments where people can learn and grow, connect with others, and contribute to their community. In particular, her work with the award-winning Explore Labs project shows Barbara’s exceptional talent for development and innovation. Her work and encouragement have helped Explore grow and develop as a cultural business, and she is always looking at new ways for people to engage with the riches of York’s libraries and archives.
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