Measuring What Matters

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Joan Frye Williams, Library Consultant @ Northeast Kansas Library System Trustee Training

We are a word profession, not a numbers/statistics profession. Communities are changing…younger generations realit

To understand how your library relates to your community,

  • look beyond what’s always been measured
  • look beyond the conventional wisdom (change ideas about what’s important)

Focus on these six: Start with the people; Reach consensus on what role your library should play in your community; Get acquainted with library services; Understand how library resources are allocated; Look for certain things; Gather brief, compelling stories about the impact of library services

  1. Start with the people.

    No point in libraries doing what they do without the people. Yet, it’s not customary to do measuring based on people. Libraries track inventory; close records of stuff, but not much at the people. As long as you’re looking at groups, you’re not breaching confidentiality. We’ve secured privacy through ignorance of what our people are doing. Hard to make policy. Confidentiality and not knowing what’s going on is two very different things. What is okay to measure? Okay to know about our public? Believe in the principle of privacy; measure without breaching someone’s privacy, yet still must look at the people.

    Who is eligible to use your library? We think we know who’s here, but who’s here now? What are their aspirations? Profiles? Libraries are prepaid services tha

    Community profile: demographics; neighborhoods; destinations — not just where people sleep (where residents work, play, shop, go to school, and hang out); technology availability/usage (technology penetration; broadband speeds; cell phones; what’s normal in a community with technology); quality of life goals and priorities [aspirations].

    Communities are communal. Are people in your community because they want to raise their kids in a small town? The schools? Costs? Golf course? Lake? A stepping stone to another community? The answers to these questions provide context for what . If you ask people only about their library experience, instead of their life experience/aspirations, you’re missing the point. How can the library help people achieve these experiences/aspirations? Quality of life issues drive what the libraries do.

    Who has signed up for a library card? Who’s actively still using the library 6 months after library card signup? How are people using library over time? How many are active? Do people only use the library once, and then stop, or use it a lot at first, and then stop, or stay active? Strong case for recruitment and retention.

    Member profile: Age range; neighborhood; school (add to patron record); other demographics or target audiences (add to patron record), eg Spanish speakers; business owners; new residents; recruitment rate; retention rate.

    What does the library card mean? To civilians (non-library staff/board members), they joined something, a sign of membership. To librarians, it’s a sign that you get access to certain services. One library puts notes on their library cards like “member since…” or “donor”. Recruitment: membership instead of inventory control. Collect card information for a short period of time. When talking to elected officials, telling them how many people have joined the library, can show how good a service it is. Some people may be library supporters but not use the library services. If it’s a membership…anyone can show support. Cards not just as gatekeeping, but a way to know the community.

    Who works at the library? Track employee/volunteer profile; age range; years of service; similarity to community profile. How close a match is the faces people see in the library compared to the community?

  2. Reach consensus on what role your library should play in your community

    What business should the library be in? A candy store of books that was the library of many of our childhoods? That was the library business of the past. Libraries are not the only source of information anymore. Choices about what business libraries are going to be in.

    CRITICAL: Consensus: Process was fair; understood the decision criteria; opportunity for voice to be heard; even if the direction isn’t exactly what I would have chosen, I will support it w positive communications and actions.

    Choosing what business you are in, means you sometimes say no. It’s hard to say no. Choosing a direction, helps you say no. If an opportunity isn’t fitting in with your library’s direction, you need to say no.

    Strategic profile: mission, vision, values; alignment with broader community goals; positioning with respect to other service providers; desired impact — measuring success; how do we know something worked? Librarians are focused on what isn’t right, what didn’t go well. A strategic profile is easy to boil down and then makes decisions easier. Helps determine if things fit in/don’t fit in, in certain places.

    Charlotte Mecklenburg strategy focus: Early years, literacy; School years, educational success; teen and older : workforce/development.

  3. Get acquainted with library services

    Libraries have lots of data of how hard they work. Proof of hard work isn’t enough. Do our services fit into the people and the position of the library?

    What can the community get from their library? Very few libraries can, today, give a full picture, full list of all their library services. 154 services. Some services are well-kept secrets. Librarians need to know the list, and clump the list, under that strategic positioning. Why are we doing these services? For every service that is offered, someone needs to ask if a service is successful, what is a “good” service? If everyone asked for every service at the same time, we’d die of being overwhelmed. Libraries have designed services with the intention that they’ll be used, but not too much, because many involve staff intervention. What happens if people really like a service? What would great turnout be, and what happens if we exceed that? If this happens routinely, can libraries cope? What can libraries stop doing if demand goes up for important services? Librarians design services with librarians in mind…should services be designed differently? Delivered by others, including support staff and volunteers?

    Service profile: Complete list of services available; when each service was introduced; how each service relates to the library’s strategic profile; where each service is offered in the library, out in the community, online/virtual; how is designing, delivering services.

    A healthy library has services in the library, outside the library, and online/virtually. -JFW

    Which services are members choosing? What percentage of people who borrow materials from you, place holds? How many holds have different patrons placed? Communicating with heavy service users. What is okay to talk about? Talking about content vs data?

    Demand data: number and percentage of members who are using each service; types/group of members who are suing each service; seasons, days, or times of heaviest demand; services for which community demand exceeds the library’s capacity to respond, with an estimate of the gap

    What’s a “typical” transaction for members of different groups? Not just average. Marketers say typical…bell curve. Design policies for sweet spot, not around the outliers. Most library people set policy based on a situation that happened yesterday that we didn’t like. As library board members, ask how long until that situation happens again?

  4. Understand how library resources are allocated. 

    Ask, not what is the cost of the library, but what does the community get out of the investment.

    Cost data for key services: per capita; per member (card holders); per user; per program/event; per transaction.

    When you have this data, you can look at services, and is everyone getting served equitable, not just reacting-to-demand-services. Services relationship to community important.

    Key services: total cost of doing it per capita; and what part of that is staff. Scalability important.

  5. Be on the lookout for…

    Diversification; sign that interest in a service is waning (every service has a life cycle) —  VHS/Audiobooks on Cassette options: change with mercy, honor system or tell people who have used these materials in the past, you are welcome to what you want, and we’ll get rid of the rest); cost/demand disparities; outliers and exceptions (change with mercy: don’t make everything an exception but meet these people where they are at, if possible, not just keeping services where they are at because of the exceptions); omissions; surprises.

  6. Gather brief, compelling stories about the impact of library services

    Critical pieces: person, problem, library intervention, happy ending.
    Story: Caden was a bright 6 year old boy. Caden had a stutter and was having trouble in school. Caden’s Mom took him to the library, and he saw a library program where children were reading to service dogs. Caden began reading to Toby, and eventually overcame his stutter. Caden’s Mom called last week, and he’s doing much better in school!

    Focus on these six: Start with the people; Reach consensus on what role your library should play in your community; Get acquainted with library services; Understand how library resources are allocated; Look for certain things; Gather brief, compelling stories about the impact of library services

joan@jfwilliams.com — continue the conversation!

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