September 3, 2011

A community needs analysis is the method used by information professionals to define appropriate goals, and to pursue continual improvement in the quality of service, for themselves and their institutions. In order to describe how this method is used to produce the stated outcomes, I shall break down the phrase “community needs analysis” into its constituent terms and examine each one in context.

A community in the most general sense of the word is a subgroup of society as a whole, defined by common elements – generally of geography or culture, but also governance, economics, communication or technology. Organizations, of whatever variety, may also be considered as a type of community (Grover et. al. 30-34). From an information science perspective, however, a community may be defined more technically, as a subgroup of society possessing the following common elements: first, a shared knowledge base; second, shared resources through which this knowledge base is utilized; third, a pattern of interaction and communication (with respect to said knowledge base and resource set); finally, a shared set of values, which depending on the type of community may express themselves as rules, laws, goals, best practices or a combination of all of these (Grover et. al. 25-26).

For many librarians, however, “community” is defined in advance as the municipality/district or educational institution that their library serves. This renders the above definition less useful, as the library’s total population of patrons would therefore consist of a heterogeneous mix of many such communities. Following the work of Roger Greer, such librarians have applied a complementary definition known as the Community Analysis Research Institute, or CARI, model. This model defines a community (through demographic and socioeconomic data) in terms of: individuals; groups; agencies, i.e. businesses and public-sector organizations as distinct from “groups” generally; and lifestyles, which includes shared historical, cultural and other elements (Grover et. al., 44-48).

A community has information needs. We may restate the first definition of “community” above as a group of people engaging in the Information Transfer Cycle towards a shared outcome; they may require the assistance of information professionals at any stage of the cycle. In terms of the CARI model, we must assume multiple, ongoing cycles of information transfer in pursuit of various outcomes – any or all of which may require the assistance of information professionals.

We describe the information needs of a given community as subject to analysis for two reasons. The first reason is to indicate that (as with individual patrons) an LIS professional must arrive at an understanding of what those needs are before he or she can take action to fill those needs. The second reason is to suggest that the information needs of a given community are best understood by applying the theories of social science – specifically information science, but also complementary theory from the disciplines of psychology and sociology – and the methods of scientific research, namely constructive, qualitative research as practiced in the social sciences (Grover et. al. 39-41; 50-55).

At the outset, I stated that a community needs analysis is a method used to improve LIS practice. Therefore, the question of why community needs analysis should be performed can be more effectively restated as: Why should information professionals and their institutions commit to a policy of continuous improvement? For many librarians, the answer may simply be in order to secure and maintain appropriate levels of funding, by demonstrating return on investment to their particular school or municipality.

This answer may be appropriate so far as it goes, but is too narrowly focused. To begin with, community needs analysis seeks continual improvement in terms of goals – that is, demonstrating ROI through successful outcomes, not just performance efficiency (LaRue, 2). Moreover, scarcity of funding has forced librarians to recognized that their institutions cannot create successful outcomes through their mere existence, nor by attempting “to be all things to all people,” (Achleitner, 101) but by tailoring collections and services to meet community information needs as they change over time. Returning briefly to the idea of a community as containing multiple information transfer cycles, we can think of community needs analysis as a way to not only respond to, but ideally to anticipate, points of intervention in existing cycles and even the formation of entirely new cycles (Achleitner, 103-4).

On a more idealistic note, commitment to a process of continuous improvement is the hallmark of a professional. “A professional of any kind possesses specialized knowledge that enables the application of that knowledge on behalf of a client” (Grover et. al., 39). For information professionals, then, information needs analysis and the recommendation and implementation of appropriate resources should always be followed by evaluation of the outcome, and commitment to successful outcomes of this “service cycle” necessitates commitment to continuous improvement in all its stages. In short, the reason to perform a community needs analysis is to ensure that one’s job is being done correctly.


Grover, R. et al. (2010). Assessing Information Needs: Managing Transformative Library Services. Denver, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

LaRue, J. (2009, Sept. 3). Libraries should measure community impact. Douglas County News Press. Retrieved from: http://www.douglascountylibraries.org/node/15157

Achleitner, Herbert. (1984). “Assertive Librarianship: A Means of Customizing Services.” in Marketing for Libraries and Information Agencies, Darlene E. Weingand (ed.) Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, pp 100-105.