What is success in a public library? It’s a complicated question that can have many answers.For example, success may be:
● A patron discovering a new author or title on the shelves
● A library system experiencing high turnover
● A library director being able to offer new community engagement programs
● Enhanced literacy in the community thanks to library programming
While the idea of success may vary depending on the person or community, a library system’s ability to measure and track success has become a critical tool for libraries working to stay relevant a technology-heavy world.
Scott Crawford, Vice President-General Manager with collectionHQ, talks often with library directors, and Crawford says that forward-thinking library directors take the time to understand their patrons. Understanding patrons lets libraries focus their resources in the most strategic places. With so many factors to consider, however, maintaining an accurate picture of how a library system is performing can be a complicated juggling act. Luckily, there are a variety of strategies and tools available that libraries can use to track the indicators and outcomes that matter to them and their patrons.
Library leaders should define what success means or looks like to their system. There are many criteria to consider, including looking at the system’s leadership, employees, and processes, as well as outcomes.
Examples of commonly used criteria are:
● Circulation and turnover. How often are patrons checking out your titles? Do titles sit on shelves for long periods of time? By tracking turnover, you can see if the system is meeting demand and providing what’s popular among patrons.
● Dead on Arrival. An average of 17 percent of items purchased by public libraries never get circulated. Do you know how your system compares? A lower percentage indicates you are making effective selection decisions.
● Quality of worn and overused items. You want your titles to be popular and in demand, but you also want to provide material to patrons that is in an acceptable condition. Identifying and tracking overused items can help a system maintain the best balance between providing popular items and ensuring items aren’t grubby or unappealing to patrons.
● Community engagement and added services. Consumer expectations are changing, and patrons no longer come to a library just to find books and other reading material. Storytime, makerspaces, fast WiFi, and on-site cafes are some of the amenities patrons can find at their favorite library branch. What do you offer? See examples of innovative services here.
● Accessibility. Does the system offer access outside of opening hours? What about a mobile library, where content and access is brought to patrons in communities. In Grand Prairie, Texas, city leaders installed a vending machine, “Epic Reads” in the community’s new recreation center, which offers a selection of 700 reading materials.
● Impact on local lives. More libraries are focusing on having a positive impact not just on those who come into the library, but on residents who may not make it through the library doors. Examples of such efforts include teaching literacy or making online courses available that let people complete a high school degree.
“A lot of libraries are struggling to tell their success stories,” Crawford says. “The libraries that are able to keep the funding coming in are the ones that are able to show measurable success.”
Benchmarking and comparing your results
Once you know the criteria that you want to track, it’s a good idea to establish how you compare with your peers. Benchmarking helps you identify where your individual strengths and challenges lie, valuable information for strategic planning.
Government-published benchmarks are available, and can help inform library leadership about local and national standards.
Benchmarking also allows for better collaboration within your system. Knowing your strengths and challenges means you can partner with other branches in ways that compliment successful programming or support weaker outcomes that you are trying to improve. One way to get an internal comparison is through collectionHQ, which allows customers to compare collection performance across branches within its library system and to see which titles are proving popular at other libraries on a local, regional and national level.
Thanks to the sophisticated and complex software and technology supporting cHQ’s dashboard, libraries can easily track and analyze collection performance, which in turn leads to improved turnover, DOA rates, and better overall condition of materials.
“CollectionHQ has measurement tools and index points that are centered around content performance, and can show that a library is being a good steward of tax dollars,” Crawford says. “CollectionHQ offers the best tool for accountability regarding decisions made around the content you are buying.”
Measuring the success of outcomes can be more complicated. As libraries devote more of their employees’ time to directly interacting with patrons, libraries are offering new and increasingly innovative programming to reach more people. Baker & Taylor offers a multitude of programs that support this effort. For example, when libraries partner with Baker & Taylor on material purchasing and receive material that is fully system- and shelf-ready, libraries are able to have more people focused on community outcome programs.
Once a library is able to devote time and resources to providing community programming focused on outcomes, they can use surveys to track the programs’ success. The Public Library Association is a strong supporter of measuring outcomes. PLA believes performance measurement is a key next step in library development and offers a free tool designed to help public libraries understand and share the impact of library services and programs. This tool, known as Project Outcome, uses simple surveys and the insights gleaned from them to measure and analyze outcomes. Find more information about and tools for monitoring performance here.
It can be exciting to learn which program had the biggest impact on visitors, and rewarding to see the impact that new collection development efforts are having on patrons. Ultimately, this deeper understanding will let a library better tell the story of the value it is creating for its community.
“If you take the time to understand your patron, it allows you to build a more patron-driven and patron-centric service model,” Crawford says. “Libraries that don’t pay attention to the data or metrics that are available, are missing the mark on providing customer service that the patron finds important to them.”