“The Cycle” and Library Environmental Analysis

Written by: John Connolly, host of our Vertical Files podcast.


I spent six years at a library in an art museum, and during that time I learned several lessons about how arts nonprofits operate. I’m a huge fan of taking lessons from other fields and applying what I can to libraries. One of the most rewarding experiences I had working in a museum library was having the opportunity to hear author Michael Kaiser speak to our board of directors.

The Cycle

Kaiser has led several arts organizations, including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and has a reputation for taking troubled organizations and turning them around. He operates arts organizations according to several straightforward principles, and he brings years of wisdom to his writing and speaking. Kaiser formulated procedural pillars for arts organization success, he calls “The Cycle:”

  1. Produce Great Art
  2. Market the Organization Formally and Institutionally
  3. Build the Organization’s Family
  4. Build a Donor Base and Receive Funding
  5. Reinvest that Funding into Creating Great Art (Cycle Begins Again)

I really like the cycle, and I think it has a lot of applications to libraries. I don’t have space here for a full translation, but I consider many of the services and programs in our libraries to stand in good place of the art produced by arts organizations. As libraries market themselves and their services (this can be external or internal marketing, as circumstances allow), they grow a family of users and supporters. This family helps the library fulfill its mission: whether that means giving direct donations of money or time or other resources to support the library. When the library reinvests that support into creating more of its “art,” it grows the family in a positive cycle.

Opportunities and Threats

One area Kaiser writes about is using the cycle for environmental analysis of the opportunities and threats of the organization. This is founded on the organization having a robust mission statement. Once a clearly defined mission statement has been crafted, the organization needs to evaluate the environment in which it operates to determine what is required to achieve that mission.

Environmental analysis on the cycle’s framework hinges on asking good questions relating to each step in the cycle. As society emerges from a months-long, pandemic, it’s an extremely useful time for libraries to conduct an environmental analysis to understand where we now stand and how we can build (or rebuild) our library family. Kaiser points out that any organization in any field must evaluate itself on the factors laid out in the cycle.

Kaiser and Libraries

I’ve adapted some of his questions for libraries and listed them below:

  • What is required to produce great programs and maintain great collections for our users? What competition might exist for our programs or collections in our service area or larger institutions? How does the library differentiate itself in what it offers? What defines great libraries and library service? What resources (human, technological, material, etc.) are required to provide a superior level of library programming?
  • How do we communicate the value of the library and library work? What tools are required to reach people in our environment? Which libraries of our type are attracting the most attention for the work they are doing, and what tactics have proven successful for them?
  • How are libraries growing their families? What does family look like for our type of library? What are the outcomes of successful libraries growing their institutional families? Is there a relationship between our family and our budget or reach? Can the library family work as a “force multiplier” for enacting the library’s mission? Can the family help build capacity for the library to build its programming offerings?
  • What are the most effective practices for turning the family’s goodwill into funding? Are there opportunities for the library to do direct fundraising in its environment or within its larger institution? Are particular kinds of donors more valuable or useful to the library’s mission? What do comparable libraries offer in terms of donor recognition, memberships, or volunteer programs? Does the library communicate its value and successes to its funding organizations (civic, academic, or other kind of funding organization)?

Of course, these questions form just a beginning of a thorough environmental analysis. Libraries will be well served to understand the broader context in which they operate and integrate with their community and the broader community of libraries to understand the prevailing challenges and trends at any given time. As libraries reopen and expand services, it’s an excellent time to begin evaluating the environment to inform operational tactics and a regularly updated strategic plan.

Further Questions?

Can you think of more good questions to analyze the library’s environment right now? Let us know if your library is looking to better understand its place in the broader environment and the steps it is taking to inform its tactics. I highly recommend library leaders read Kaiser’s book, The Cycle: A Practical Approach to Managing Arts Organizations in order to learn more.

John Connolly is a librarian with over ten years of experience in the field, including technical, administrative, and supervisory roles in a variety of library settings. He blogs on librarianship, leadership, and management topics.