Guide 1: Set the Direction with a Community Assessment


A community assessment is basically a description of a community and its people. The purpose is to identify the needs of a community in order to provide services appropriate to those needs.

Data collection does not need to be extensive but should be adequate to identify needs and priorities in support of planning decisions. It should take into account some of the cultural, economic and physical conditions that make up the community.


Both formal and informal assessment methods can be used. It is a good idea to obtain information from at least three different sources. The following suggestions are from the NN/LM GMR Outreach Symposium


  • Demographic data - much of this data comes from the census and statistical abstracts. The Florida State University, in conjunction with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, has created the Public Library Geographic Database Mapping tool ( Using this, you can locate your library on a map, and immediately find out population characteristics from the US Census.
  • Surveys - funding is not always available to conduct a survey; however on occasion funding might be available to purchase survey results from some other source.
  • Key Informant Interviews - these are interviews with members of the community with whom you have established trust. They might be respected members of the community or group that you are planning to work with.
  • Focus Groups - can be time consuming and difficult to organize; however can reveal information not apparent to project initiators.
  • Community Functions and/or Meetings - in order to study a community by taking part in community meetings, you must know the role of attendees, including yourself. In some Native American cultures, Listening Circles are methods of information sharing that can be very useful.


  • Windshield survey - drive around the community/area you are researching, and record your observations.
  • Walk about - walk around the community/area you are planning to work with. Stop in a local restaurant. Visit with people that may be available.
  • Suggestion Box - let your customers anonymously make suggestions or express their needs.

Community Assessment Tools

An excellent example of how to do community assessments can be found online in Booklet 1, in the series: Planning & Evaluating Health Information Outreach Projects by Cynthia Olney, PhD and Susan Barnes, M.L.S. Thne authors describe the various processes needed to identify a target community. They suggest various methods of obtaining information from and about the community; deciding which method to use depends on the resources that are available to your institution.

The New Planning for Results has helpful information about community assessments. It is the latest in a series of planning models published by the Public Library Association over the past twenty years. These models have helped public librarians envision, evaluate, and respond to community needs with distinctive programs and services, but they have practical applications for all types of librarians. The New Planning for Results is an all-in-one guide that outlines a tested, results-driven planning process-revamped and streamlined to enable libraries to respond quickly to rapidly changing environments, transforming services to effectively meet changing community needs. Chapter 2 provides an overview of identifying community needs in the context of a community vision. WORKFORM B provides a template for gathering data about your community.

Other Resources

American FactFinder from the U.S. Census Bureau is a good place to start gathering population, housing, economic, and geographic data on your community. Click on the Fact Sheet link on the home page to access your community's profile. For state and county level data visit State and County QuickFacts from the U.S. Census Bureau. City and county planning offices can also be good sources of data, along with state departments of health and state libraries.

Profiling Your Community is a module on the New Pathways to Planning website that grew out of a series of workshops sponsored by the Northeast Kansas Library System (NEKLS) in 1998. According to the creators of this site, New Pathways is a customized alternative rather than a replacement for The New Planning for Results.

National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) is the Nation's principal health statistics agency. This resource provides statistics at a national level, and an overview of America's health.