September 3, 2009 - libraries should measure community impact
I've been thinking a lot lately about library development: how the public institution I serve has changed over time.
At the beginning of library development, the focus, the measures of success, are mostly about inputs. Is there enough money to hire staff, buy materials, build buildings, and invest in technology?
Assuming that those basic needs are met, then libraries start focusing on other kinds of measures: outputs. Internally, we use benchmarks. For instance, we divide the number of checkouts (or the number of new materials ordered and processed) by the number of people it took to do that. Then we compare it to last year's number. Objective: get more productive and efficient. (We have!)
A second kind of outputs is what made us the top-rated library in the country for our population size: the measurement of use. How many checkouts per capita (checkouts divided by service population)? How many visits per capita? How many programs attended? How many reference questions asked per librarian? These are the statistics of performance.
Both kinds of measures -- inputs and outputs -- are collected across the nation for public libraries. (We report them annually to our state libraries.) That makes it relatively easy for us to measure ourselves against each other.
On the one hand, that sounds competitive. I admit that I'm interested enough in excellence to be pretty aggressive about improving our "numbers."
But here's the difference between libraries and almost everybody else. If I hear about libraries outperforming us in some regard, I can (and do) call up the directors, and ask them how they did it.
And you know what? They tell me.
Similarly, if someone calls us to ask about how we did something, we share everything.
Why would we trade away our competitive advantage for nothing? Answer: because we're ALL in it for excellence.
When you get acknowledged as the best library in the nation, it doesn't come with a cash award. It's recognition, an identification of "best practices." Most of the librarians I know are in the field for love. If we can be better, well, then we should be. It's a professional obligation.
But lately, a lot of my peers and I are thinking there's a whole new level of library measurement. After inputs and outputs are community outcomes.
Both inputs and outputs, even when used to compare across organizations, still are internally focused. While that's useful operationally, libraries operate within a social, political, economic, and cultural context.
In Douglas County, our entire existence depends upon the support of taxpayers. While that support is focused on library services, surely excellence of library service has other positive results.
For instance, we check out more children's materials than any library in Colorado. What kind of impact does that have in the larger community?
A recent study ("The link between public libraries and early reading success," by Keith Lance and Robbie Marks) validates one obvious result: the more books preschool children are exposed to, the better readers they are likely to become. Literacy is a predictor of many other kinds of success.
It turns out that there is a wealth of data, already out there, about all kinds of things: the health and safety of families, drop-out rates, per capita income, percentage of new business success, and much more. It's time to dig into that and compare it to various library statistics. I bet we'll learn something.
The next frontier of performance measurement won't be just about how well the library does library stuff. It will be about demonstrating the impact of good libraries on the towns, cities, and counties in which they operate.
LaRue's Views are his own.