Planning: Community needs

For public libraries, the greatest emphasis remains on the services and collections provided and how it meets the needs of the surrounding community.

What does your community need in a public library building?

Every community is unique, and for local government the development of any type of public building must relate closely to the local community’s needs, demands and aspirations. For public libraries, the greatest emphasis remains on the services and collections provided and how it meets the needs of the surrounding community. The building itself may reflect one of several service models through which a library service can be delivered. Service models include mobile libraries, specialised services for housebound, joint developments with other activities and increasingly, library websites with online resources and services. The library service needs to fit into the bigger picture of what is happening in the community and how the many opportunities available can be harnessed to add value.

It is essential to recognise that the development of public libraries, as is the case with the allocation of resources for any public facility and/or service, is an inherently political process. It involves a range of issues, for which trade-offs and compromises may need to be made. It also involves many stakeholders with particular interests and ideas. As it is a political process, the establishment of a sound planning approach and clear assessment tools will ensure that the process is well organised and informed.

So how do you determine what type of library service your community needs and how best these services can be delivered to the community?

This section primarily focuses on how to undertake a needs assessment for your community. It will enable you to gather the right sort of information to show why changes are needed to library services and/or buildings, how to monitor the changing needs of the community and how this may affect the provision of library services. This section also outlines the importance of collaborative planning and how it should be used to determine an overall plan for library services or a Library Development Plan for the community.

Planning strategies

Collaborative planning is based on involving a range of stakeholders in the planning process. It seeks out those who have a stake or interest in the potential outcomes and ensures that their ideas and issues are addressed in the planning process. 

Planning is part of good management and occurs at a range of levels in all organisations, particularly local government. Planning and community consultation are legislative requirements under the Local Government Act 1993 and the Local Government Amendment (Governance and Planning) Act 2016. These regulations require the mandatory preparation of a Community Strategic Plan (CSP) and Resourcing Strategy, which must be reviewed at regular intervals.

A CSP provides an over-arching framework identifying a community’s vision and main priorities. It will cover issues relating to social, environmental, economic and civic leadership, identified through consultation with the local community. Consultation will be guided by a Community Engagement Strategy. The framework encourages both the principles of social justice, so that the community’s needs are met, as well as ensuring connections with other agencies and policies at state and federal level. Library service requirements should be an integral element of the CSP.

A Library Development Plan (LDP) should create strong links with local government plans and strategies. The following checklist box lists some documents you should refer to in your LDP to ensure that it is linked to other areas of local government activity and planning.

Documents to refer to in your LDP
  • Community Strategic Plan (CSP)
    An over-arching document identifying a community’s vision and main priorities.
  • Delivery Program and Operational Plan
    The Delivery Program outlines what a council commits to achieve within an electoral cycle. The Operational Plan details council activities and budgets on a yearly basis.
  • Resourcing Strategy
    A long term strategy to achieve the objectives established by the Community Strategic Plan including Long Term Financial Plan, Workforce Management and Asset Management.
  • Local Environmental Plan
    Provides the legislative framework for the allocation of specific land uses throughout the community.
  • Social strategies
    Strategies related to multicultural, ageing, youth and children’s issues.
  • Environmental, Waste Reduction, Public Art and Transport Policy
  • Sections 7.11 and 7.12 (replace sections 94 and 94A) of the NSW Environmental Planning and Assessment Act
    Provide the legal basis on which contributions are sought from local development towards the cost of additional public infrastructure needed as a result of this development.

An LDP should be developed for one and/or all of the libraries in the service area. LDPs can be done for communities of varying sizes, including local areas, the whole local government area (LGA) or even on a regional basis. Consultation should not be limited to the LDP. It should continue into the building design phases, particularly in the early phases.

Collaborative planning may also result in links to other plans developed by agencies such as the local economic development board, university or TAFE, tourism development committees and NSW Government departments. A collaborative plan should include:

  • Identification of the various stakeholders to be involved
  • Type of information to be gathered and/or issues to be addressed
  • Consultation approaches to be used for gathering this information
  • Integration of this information into a Library Development Plan.

Public libraries already undertake planning functions as part of their responsibilities to Council. However, it is how these plans are developed and linked that is important in ensuring the right outcomes for the public library service and its community.

Needs assessment

A needs assessment is used to determine why the community wants or needs a new or changed library service. Needs assessment is used extensively as a planning tool, particularly for community services and social planning. It has a strong basis in community consultation, socio-demographic indicators and comparison to other communities/service models.

So why does a particular community need a new library building or changed library service? This question often becomes the basic issue in the preparation of a Library Development Plan. For many, the real distinction lies between needs and wants and the concern that provision is only based on the articulated wants of professional officers or a small vocal minority in the community. There may be a high level of community debate involved in determining whether the community really needs and not just wants a new library building.

Need is both relative and socially defined so a number of methods are provided for determining need. By using all four methods, you will have a resource of valuable information that will enable more effective collaborative planning. You should assess the need for, and size of library required using the four methods outlined below. This will provide a more complete analysis of what type of services need to be provided which can then be translated into the actual design and functional floor areas required in a new/ expanded library facility.

There are four assessment methods, detailed below.

1. Identified need

Expressed by stakeholders such as library staff, community groups and Council officers. It reflects what needs are expressed by service providers, practitioners and consumers. It is also often referred to as qualitative information. A range of consultation techniques may be used to gather this information and ensure that the extent and type of need is fully understood.

More on identified need

This is the need expressed by service providers, practitioners and consumers about library services and/or a new library building. Developing a consultation strategy with key stakeholders and the wider community can be a daunting task.

Before starting it is essential to work out very clearly what type of information you want to get out of the consultation process. To ensure informed comment, you need to provide participants with information. Don’t ask initial vague questions like “What do you think about building a new library?” or “Do you want a new library?” without some opportunity to develop a discussion around the issue. Determine what are the physical problems and benefits of the current library; what other activities/services they would like in the library; and ideas users have on how to increase use. The Evaluating your public library building page has additional information on obtaining community feedback.

Think of which stakeholders need to be consulted and how this can best occur. Choose the most appropriate technique for each group. Consultation can be used to ascertain broad community views or the views of particular groups. It is important to remember that those consulted should reflect the range of different groups in the community.

Examples of types of consultation include:

  • Community meetings
  • Consultation websites with e-newsletters and discussion papers inviting feedback
  • Displays and exhibitions in council facilities and public venues
  • Phone surveys and phone ins
  • Individual questionnaires and interviews
  • Focus groups with staff, young people, older residents, parents, play groups, multicultural and Indigenous organisations, Chamber of Commerce, life-long learning organisations, community based charities etc.


2. Normative need

Based on socio-demographic information and recognised statistical indicators about library usage, provision per capita, etc. The State Library’s standards and guidelines for public libraries which are based on annual statistical returns should be used in determining normative need. Needs determined in this way should be checked to ensure that they are consistent with the qualitative information gained in determining identified need.

More on normative need

Normative need uses socio-demographic information and recognised statistical indicators to assist in determining the need for additional library facilities. All councils in NSW operate under a framework which requires social and other strategic planning. This is often undertaken by Council’s Community Services section and includes a community profile and statistical data about the local government area (LGA). Other information may also be available through planning documents from Council’s Environmental Planning section including development of town centres and community/town centre zoning. You should use these documents to inform the library planning process and gather statistical information which identifies issues of importance to library planning such as:

  • Size and distribution of population
  • Future population growth
  • Work, shopping and recreational patterns of the community
  • Transport patterns and issues
  • Location and size of particular target groups e.g. older residents, residents with a disability, children, young people, residents from multicultural backgrounds, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • Size and distribution of important indicators such as household income, English language skills, employment
  • Location of other services e.g. childcare, seniors’ and neighbourhood centres, educational institutions, retail precincts, recreational facilities, public buildings e.g. post offices, government agencies.

Statistical indicators highlighting the use of library services in the LGA should also be collected to inform this data. This will help to identify the extent of need and issues relating to existing library service points.

Some of this data may already be available as part of the regular statistics collected by the State Library of New South Wales and/or benchmarking data used to encourage best practice. It is important, however, to choose the data which you think is the most useful to provide realistic information in order to identify service needs. The data may also be related to the community profile data collected above, enabling the development of an individual service point/library profile.

Together, this statistical data should help to highlight the particular needs of different communities and how the existing library service point meets those needs.

Examples of useful data to collect
  • Number, distribution and characteristics of library members
  • Number and distribution of non-resident members
  • Gross floor area of each existing library service point
  • Distance between and transport availability for each service point
  • Number of visits, circulation, size of collection per service point
  • Opening hours per service point
  • Existing and future plans for libraries in adjoining local government areas


3. Comparative need

Based on comparing service provision with other communities with similar socio-demographic characteristics. Many local Councils and library staff rely heavily on comparing themselves with other communities of similar size and characteristics. They often visit these library services and seek to provide service models similar to these communities. The advantage in using comparative need is that stakeholders can see the outcomes for themselves.

More on comparative need

To some extent, comparative need can be used to compare the levels of service provision which exist within the LGA. For example, it may be considered equitable to provide libraries of similar size when serving communities with similar needs in the one LGA or region. In reality this does not often occur with communities rarely being the same.

However, comparative analysis does help to identify need based on trends outside the local area and to highlight what has worked in other communities. It is particularly useful for the broad range of stakeholders involved in library development projects. It illustrates the standards of provision considered reasonable in other communities and will enable stakeholders to compare their community needs with what others have provided.

For example, when considering the need for a new library, visits to other communities that have recently built new facilities will encourage informed discussion. The size of these new libraries, the communities they serve, the range of services provided and innovative approaches they may have used, can be used to compare with existing service provision in your community. You should collect this information and develop a picture of what other similar communities are providing.

This does not mean that all communities should replicate each other, but comparison provides an opportunity to use the models already adopted and working in other communities. This may be particularly useful for areas undergoing major population growth. In these cases, experience from other library services located in areas which have experienced major growth, the problems they addressed and the resultant services they have provided, will be invaluable information for developing communities. Equally, for remote communities, information from other areas on how new library buildings are providing for increased technology will be invaluable to local Councillors and community representatives.


4. Benchmark based need

Using the Library Building Calculator provides two different approaches for determining the actual floor area of a public library, the population and service-based calculators. By using both methodologies, a target range floor area for a new library will be provided. This information should be used with the other needs assessment methods. This will provide Council with some flexibility in determining the required size of a library and enable a more local assessment of what best meets community needs.

More on benchmark based need

These benchmarks are considered by the Library Council of New South Wales to provide minimum area sizes for public library buildings in NSW.

The Library Building Calculator includes two methodologies that should be used to set the parameters for determining the need for and resultant size of a new or expanded library building. They are the service based calculator and the population based calculator which are outlined below together with relevant examples to explain how they should be used in practice.

Please note: the Library Building Calculator includes a Renovation Calculator to help you allocate spaces when given an existing building or footprint. This is a very useful tool but not suitable for determining the optimum size for a library building.

The minimum recommended size for a public library building is 190 square metres gross floor area. It is important to note that a library of this size is only capable of servicing communities of fewer than 2,750 people and is only likely to accommodate a collection of 6000 books (including 2000 e-books and resources which have no space requirement), 240 periodicals, 60 audio visual items and five Public Internet Access PCs. The remaining area (115 square metres) would need to be available for reading, seating and study areas, service desks, amenities, storage and ancillary functions and a staff work area. Smaller libraries have been achieved but are frequently co-located in recreational or retail precincts where amenities, ancillary and storage areas are located elsewhere. This should be taken into consideration in the calculation.

It is particularly important for rural areas with declining or small populations, to give greater weight to the service based benchmark which focuses on providing a range of quality library services consistent with the needs of the community.

The model of one central library with several branch libraries is used as the traditional service structure for many public libraries throughout NSW. However, there are various other models used such as area/district libraries. The benchmarks can be applied to each of these service structures.

It is important to note that mobile libraries are not taken into account when assessing the catchment area of a public library building. For remote and/or isolated communities they may be an important service but typically the service points are temporary, and access is often limited to a few hours per week per location.

The service based benchmark

This method is flexible and easily tailored for local communities. It is used to determine the required size of the library based on the catchment population, future collection size and the type and range of services and core functions that the proposed library building will incorporate. These requirements are then translated into a floor area for each functional area and used cumulatively to determine the size requirement of the proposed library. 

The process derives from a simple concept – that library space needs are based on a level of service provision requiring a range of materials and functional areas necessary to serve the community adequately. Each service has an identifiable spatial requirement and to a large extent all of the services are interrelated. The methodology defines a range of broad types of library space, allows a projection of future needs and provides a way to translate resulting service assumptions into spatial requirements.

The benchmark uses the overall size of the collection area and computer terminal area as a base which is considered to have a direct impact on the areas required for the other library services. It is important that the projected collection size takes account  future population and likely service requirements. As with the projection of the library’s service population, it is most effective to make these projections over a 10 year period based on an understanding of the community’s library service patterns, priorities, and needs. Comparative statistics and published data can be used to suggest an appropriate collection size, which can be modified according to the library’s rate of acquisitions and discards. Particular attention should be paid in the first instance to the standards relating to collection size based on population which are outlined in Living Learning Libraries.

The library’s service emphases may also have an effect on collection size. Each library will also need to assess the impact of the growing availability of information by way of virtual and digital resources and the technology required to access them. For instance, some libraries anticipate that digital resources and the technology required to access these resources will slow the rate of growth in traditional collections or even reduce the quantities that will be needed in those traditional collections. Other libraries anticipate little effect. Still others anticipate that some parts of the collection (reference and non-fiction) will be affected substantially while other parts will be affected less dramatically. The key to this step is an understanding of local needs.

Equally, it is important to determine the proportion of the projected collection in the library at one time, while the remainder is on loan. Many libraries allow for only 65–75% of the projected collection to be on the shelf at one time and each library service should assess its own future needs.

The figures used assume an aisle width between shelves of 1500 mm and that each shelf unit is 4 shelves high.


How to use the library building calculator

The service based benchmark is derived from the space required to provide the services and collections that will be delivered from the library building. This benchmark is considered to be the more specific of the two in defining the required size for a library.

The population based benchmark provides a recommended size for a library based on the population catchment it is to service. This may be thought of as a recommended minimum size, but it should be noted that it may not reflect the size required to deliver the range of services specific to any given library. These two methodologies should be used together to provide a range of sizes for a new/ expanded library building.

Further information on using the library building calculator

Library areas
Base area (collection area plus computer area)

The service based calculator starts with allocating 35% of the total library floor space as the base area. This is for:

  • Collection (books, volumes, non print material, virtual and digital resources)
  • Computers (public access terminals)
Functional and service areas

The calculator allocates 65% of the total library floor space as service and functional areas. This includes:

  • Reading and study areas (tables and chairs, individual seating, group study, lounge)
  • Customer service (service desk, self-check, information)
  • Children and youth
  • Specialist (local studies, specialist genre)
  • Amenities and ancillary (toilets, plant, server, loading, maintenance areas, etc.)
  • Additional service areas (cafe, exhibition room, community services, etc.)

The percentage of space allocated as base area and functional/service areas will change as you fill out the service based calculator. The calculator allows for flexibility in determining the needs of a particular library and community but it is not recommended that you deviate too far from the 35/65 ratio.

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