Is It Possible To Develop An Evidence-Based Complement Plan?

by Frank Winter
Librarian Emeritus, University of Saskatchewan

Although not typically phrased as such, librarian labour – what it is, how much of it a library has, how best to deploy it – underlies the ongoing discussion of how best to deliver the services needed by the host institution. Opinions abound on what is needed and what is desirable. Proposals for new or modified roles and services are often received as something that can only be achieved using incremental resources rather than by internal reallocation, a stance based on the oft-voiced assertion that each member of the current complement is already more than fully occupied with existing responsibilities.

The common unit of analysis in these discussions tends to be the position held by an individual librarian, considered as an indivisible worker. But any position and its associated responsibilities is made up of a bundle of tasks. Considering workload and complement in a position-based sense can forestall systematic discussion about options for assigning or reassigning tasks up, down, sideways, out (in terms of partnerships and collaborations, and/or outsourcing, and/or assigning to a different group of employees in the library or elsewhere on campus), redefining the task, utilizing technological options, or not doing the task at all. These are all part of the standard toolkit when dealing with short term situations such as leaves and vacancies and perhaps longer term situations such as downsizing but seem not to be typically part of the discussion when discussing longer term complement plans.

Complement plans are assembled from many component parts. Although there is typically a great deal of professional judgment that goes into complement planning, it is often individual, implicit, and fraught with the usual power dynamics of any group process and all the other pitfalls of planning and decision-making.

Is it possible to employ the processes and tools of evidence-based library and information practice (EBLIP) to develop a complement plan that would address some of these challenges and produce a robust planning document? A quick review of the relevant evidence-based literature suggests that such an approach has not yet been reported but might be productive.

What would such a process look like using the 5 As (Articulate, Assemble, Assess, Action, Adapt and the interactive process of their use) outlined by Denise Koufogiannakis (2013) together with her description of what types of evidence are typically considered in library research as well as the “institutional, group-driven decision making” framework typical of library organizations? Constraints of space make a full discussion of each A impracticable but a quick sketch might be helpful as a starting point.

* Articulate

Koufogiannakis sketches out several points but it is important to recognize that a complement plan addresses the allocation of one subset of a library’s resources – librarian labour. As with every proposed resource allocation it is a political document incorporating budget choices that reflect values.

* Assemble

There is a wealth of riches with respect to potentially relevant evidence. Many of the sources would typically be included in the Environmental Scan section of any Strategic Plan. What EBLIP provides is clarity of purpose in the Articulation stage and focus in assembling evidence at this stage. If the assembled evidence does not, at the Assessment stage, reveal enough about the librarian labour involved, then the evidence-based approach requires an iteration of this stage.

* Assess

Assessing the evidence is the next step in EBLIP. The standard criteria of credibility and validity apply as well as issues of relevance and context. Ensuring that at the Assemble step there is as much depth, breadth, and context as possible in the assembled evidence will aid in assessment. Transparency and inclusivity during the discussions are also important elements at this stage.

For example, although evidence from comparator libraries is often considered it is actually quite tricky to find true comparators. It is very important to be very aware of similarities and differences and what specific tasks and responsibilities are included and not included and the extent to which they might be distributed among others in the library and on campus. It is not particularly helpful to assume what any library or librarian is doing based on what is described on home pages or position titles. The arbitrariness of organizational structure on campus and within libraries sometimes makes it challenging to map apples to apples. At a minimum, personal contact should be made to ensure that the full situation is known. On the other hand, if a comparator library with approximately the same complement of librarians and roughly the same organizational mission is responsible for services not supported by the local library, then further investigation is needed to discover how that other library distributes the responsibilities among their librarian complement. If a smaller university library delivers the same or even an expanded array of librarian-related services then that, too, merits further investigation and perhaps further iteration of the Assemble stage.

It is necessary to assess the potential impact of the evidence on “the Library” and the librarians. Impacts range from measurable and substantial through to insubstantial and unmeasurable.

Evidence from existing librarians must be weighed to distinguish anecdotal empiricism and self-interest from credible evidence.

Another step to take at this point is to be clear about the appropriate unit of analysis when assessing evidence. It is not helpful to view “The Library” – either local or comparator – as an undifferentiated lump. It is more appropriate to disaggregate “The Library” into a bundle of things (work groups including librarians, physical locations, and so on) responding to differing user needs. This step will help in the assessment of what works and what won’t and why. What might work in one area of a library might not be appropriate in another. This avoids the trap of trying to find one size that fits all.

* Action

Getting to agreement is obviously another critical step in the development of a complement plan. Koufogiannakis describes a number of criteria but it is her articulation of the outcome of this step that is important: Determine a course of action and begin implementation of the decision. If no action results from the work above (and acknowledging that a considered conclusion that no changes are desirable is a possible outcome), then arguably the process has been pointless.

In this respect, it is interesting to read the recent blog posting by Roger Schonfeld entitled Shaping a Library by Linking Planning and Budgeting, and the associated comments (2016). Even for the largest libraries, librarian complement is typically a slowly evolving resource if viewed as being composed of positions. Alternatively, for smaller academic libraries changing just one position can be a major and rare action in the overall composition of the complement. The Schonfeld posting highlights librarian time – a more fungible resource than positions – as the productive unit of analysis.

* Adapt

Have the goals and outcomes of the process resulted in what was anticipated to be their effect – the allocation of librarian labour to most effectively meet the current and emerging information needs of library users? If not, why not? At least one possible outcome at this stage (very much institution-dependent) is a conclusion that there is a diminished need for librarians labour. If this is the case, it makes for a pretty gloomy complement plan going forward. And so, the planning cycle returns to the Articulation stage.

In conclusion, the 5 As of EBLIP in addition to the collegial decision-making style typical of libraries seem quite suitable to the development of useful librarian complement plans.


Koufogiannakis, D. (2013). EBLIP7 Keynote: What we talk about when we talk about evidence. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 8(4), 6-17 doi:

Schonfeld, R. (2016, November 7). Shaping a library by linking planning and budgeting [Blog post]. Retrieved from

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.