As communities shift to evidence-based measures, libraries must, too
In these dire economic times, with too many Americans out of work or living below the poverty line and too few receiving a decent basic education, governments at all levels are shifting toward outcome-based or evidence-based measurement and so, too, are the institutions and organizations, including nonprofits, that serve their communities. They’re looking at big picture issues that will move their constituents forward. They’re collaborating broadly to ascertain what it is that their community values, to determine and adopt goals, to develop and deliver needed services, and to gauge impact—and then to go back and do it all over again and again.
Libraries are no strangers to delivering community services, nor to goal-setting, but they need to ensure that they’re participants in these larger movements (often called collective impact). It’s critical that they’re providing what their communities need, and that they, too, are collecting data that illustrate the outcomes of their efforts and tell the stories of their successes to funders, donors, and voters. That means moving from statistics like how many children participated in summer-reading programs, or that such programs grew X percent, to sharing names with schools on who participated—as they did at Mid-Continent Public Library, Independence, MO, despite the privacy reservations—to find out whether and how summer reading programs translate to individual student improvement.
Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML), OH, executive director Patrick Losinski is a huge proselytizer for such approaches. In “Lessons from Ohio” (LJ 9/15/11, p. 26–29), he put it this way: “[We must move] from tracking traditional library outputs [like circulation] to tracking community outcomes that are influenced by the presence of strong libraries. But to do that we must become more skilled at linking our strategies and services to outcomes.”
Losinski’s challenge was the subject of a two-day Directors’ Summit last month at CML, which was the 2010 LJ Library of the Year, that he spearheaded with LJ. (See also “Moving from Outputs to Outcomes,” p. 34. For the program, its sponsors, materials, and details on an upcoming February 24 webcast, check www.libraryjournal.com/directorssummit.)
The summit brought together library directors from around the country, along with leaders from other fields, to see how they’ve made the shift. Also on hand were keynoters Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project, and futurist Garry Golden (who will keynote the webcast), as well as vendors, social media marketers, and library experts who are leading the charge.
Outcomes that matter to other community organizations are likely key library outcomes as well, like workforce development, reading readiness, literacy, business development, and so on. Because of the number of constituents they reach, libraries can be powerful allies. As Jeanne Goodrich from Las Vegas–Clark County Library District, NV, pointed out, “We bring to the table a way to work together and reach huge numbers of people.” The top nonprofits in Las Vegas serve 16,000 people, she said; her library serves 1.5 million. As a result, she was able to bring together hundreds of organizations to begin to tackle huge unemployment and illiteracy rates in what has traditionally been a “one-business town.”
Goodrich and others noted, however, there are impediments to libraries having a seat at the table. People still “don’t ‘see’ libraries,” she said, “they see stereotypes.” That’s why it’s so important that libraries tell their stories to other local agencies, nonprofits, and business groups, to legislators and users and potential users. One video (ow.ly/87Y9y) shown at a breakout led by Michigan directors Christine Berro (Portage District Library) and Larry Neal (Clinton-Macomb PL) on “Measuring Library Outcomes Through Storytelling” illustrates the power of stories. In it, a library user (selected from hundreds who submitted short narratives to Portage’s library website and 11 face-to-face interviews) described how the library had helped her find a job. “The librarian directed me to a test to determine what area I’d be good in…helped me with computer skills to apply for jobs. It’s not the same as an [Internet] café, [it’s] not like Michigan Works, you don’t get the same one on one there.” Compelling accounts like these can help reshape perceptions of libraries as community partners and show real outcomes.