March 22, 2018

More Data for Your Dollar | Data-Driven Libraries

In the past few months, LJ has looked at how libraries of all kinds can improve the way they serve their patrons by gathering better data on what their communities want and need. Of course, a good idea in theory can often seem out of the question for cash- and time-strapped libraries, with few having resources to spare for specialized staff or software.ljx140602webchant1

The good news is that much of the data librarians need to start making informed decisions that are right for their particular user base is free and already available to the public. Even without much of a budget or a staff who can dedicate chunks of their workday to it, pertinent facts and figures are easy to access. Combined with the information libraries are already collecting on their patrons, these resources can be powerful.

Of course, learning more about the people who are already using libraries only tells a part of the story in any community. Much of the importance of local data is that it can offer librarians insight on whom they are not serving. “Librarians need to be gathering data on the people who are not coming into libraries,” says Gary Price, editor of infoDOCKET.

Where to find the facts

One good place for librarians to start getting a closer look and better understanding of their constituency, users and nonusers alike, is by plumbing the data of the U.S. Census. The census provides powerful, free tools for parsing data about your community in the form of the American FactFinder service. FactFinder lets searchers start with probes that are as broad as state level, or access information from just a single zip code. It allows for searches of many different datasets provided by the Census Bureau, from the Decennial Census to smaller selections like the American Community Survey and American Housing Survey, though not all these surveys will be available for all populations. Census data can be invaluable, providing insight into changes in demographics by offering information on the makeup of communities broken down across a wide variety of factors, from ethnicity to income to how many children are living in a household.

The Census Bureau provides lots of training opportunities on the service, running the gamut from intensive two-day workshops at the agency’s Washington, DC, headquarters to webinars that can take as little as an hour and be attended from anywhere in the world. Such training also ensures that librarians can, in turn, train other staffers or patrons.

Free tools

It’s not just the government that’s in the data-mining business. Plenty of private enterprises offer products to help break down information about cities and towns into digestible chunks. Even better, several of them offer these services free of charge—at least, up to a point.

For example, Civic Technologies lets librarians look up all sorts of data on their surrounding areas using Civic’s Community Connect tool, which provides an interactive map in which census data is already turned into more easily processed market segmentation statistics broken down into granular, neighborhood-by-neighborhood looks. “With Community Connect,” says Civic Technologies CEO Marc Futterman, “a library can drill down to census block level to look at detailed statistics for every group in its community.”

Futterman cites the example of a library in rural northern Texas, which turned to his firm for an analysis of its patron and community data when staff couldn’t figure out why their children’s services seemed to be reaching fewer patrons despite increased outreach. An analysis showed that the problem wasn’t the library’s outreach but the demographics—families with young children were on the wane in the surrounding area. That freed the library to reframe its perceived failures as a success at reaching many members of a dwindling community and also to redirect its efforts at serving adults in the area with services like job retraining.

For a fee, Civic Technologies representatives will consult more closely with library staff to help them interpret and analyze the available data, turning that into actionable plans that suit the library’s needs. While Community Connect is not available for every library jurisdiction, the company continues to update the service, bringing free data insights to more and more library systems. That data, says Futterman, can help libraries readjust their priorities by presenting them with new information, or can provide evidence that backs up staff’s anecdotal knowledge, on solid ground, which can help make the case for new ideas to supervisors, city council members, or other stakeholders.

Price also recommends the services put forth by direct mail consulting company Melissa Data, which offers dozens of free tools—known as “Lookups”—on its website. From large-scale queries, like finding how many public schools or nonprofit organizations are present in a given city or zip code, to focused ones such as locating the email addresses associated with a particular street address, Melissa Data’s products are a reliable, free resource for gathering specifics that you might not think to look for elsewhere, from who contributed to a political campaign to what crime statistics look like in a given neighborhood.

Price also cites the importance of developing a personalized list of sites that will keep librarians abreast of developments in the field and offer access to the latest reports on libraries and the world at large, including the census, the Pew Charitable Trust, and Cato Institute, among others. Local nonprofits and government entities are also good to watch for small nuggets of data and news on trends in a single city or county that can be invaluable for inspiring new programming or marketing efforts for local librarians. Rather than manually checking all these different resources, Price recommends Website-Watcher, which monitors sites for changes and alerts subscribers when a page they’re interested in has been updated. A copy of the software costs less than $100.

Straight to the source

Librarians can also collect information on their communities the old-fashioned way, by doing primary research such as conducting surveys. That’s especially important, says Price, when you’re looking for details that may not exist or be aggregated in one place yet. For libraries that want to conduct their own research, a variety of free and low-cost and easy-to-use tools are available, ranging from general interest software such as Survey Monkey to the library-specific Impact Survey developed by the University of Washington (UW) iSchool with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For those who want to invest, professional pollsters are not necessarily out of reach for smaller libraries. Lincolnwood Public Library, IL, with a population of under 13,000, hired Library Survey Consultants, a division of Donna E. Fletcher Consulting, Inc., and was able to increase cardholdership by 12 percent simply by making small changes suggested by the survey responses, Director Su Bochenski explained at the Engaging the Elusive Non-User panel at 2013’s annual American Library Association conference in Chicago.

Libraries can also tap into primary research conducted by partners in the community. On a panel at this year’s Public Library Association conference, Pima County librarian Mary Givins spoke to the importance of going beyond what the census numbers provide to get a clearer picture of the composition of a community and details on how to serve users better. When looking to improve services to children, for example, Givins suggests reaching out to local school districts, which do data gathering of their own, including some facts—such as what language is primarily spoken in students’ homes—that aren’t readily available from other sources.

While school districts can be a great source of info on families with children, they’re of limited utility for librarians looking to reach out to single adults or seniors. Luckily, schools aren’t the only community partners with information to share. “Just about every county in the country has an economic development council or something similar,” Price says. “Often, those are the people who are really spinning data to find out who’s who in a community, especially among businesses.” In addition to valuable economic and demographic data, Price points out, these organizations can introduce libraries to potential local partners and help staff think about ways to reach or collaborate with small business owners and entrepreneurs with whom they may not otherwise cross paths. Local journalists can also be a valuable starting point for librarians looking to answer questions about the people they serve.

Using data to drive decisions about what programming to offer and where to spend resources isn’t just for big regional players. With numerous assets available for free or little cost and requiring little special training or technical expertise, the knowledge librarians need to make big changes in small communities is already largely at their disposal. And while being able to access those statistics and make the most of them are two different things, if any field is prepared to do its own dirty work in discerning what complicated information means and how best to put it to use, it is librarianship.

This article was published in Library Journal's June 15, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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