As the need for such services as early childhood literacy, computer training, and workforce development has grown, the vital role public libraries play in their communities has also expanded.
Outcome measurement in public libraries
Librarians know their programs and services have an impact, but many libraries do not have the tools to demonstrate the difference they make in the lives of their patrons. Public libraries are continually required to assess their value. Increasingly, they must provide more than just attendance and circulation counts. Traditional output data only captures quantitative data, or how much is done; libraries also need to measure quality, or the good that is done. As a result, libraries are increasingly conducting outcome measurements to better demonstrate their impact on their communities.
The Public Library Association (PLA) responded to this field-wide trend towards standardized performance measures in 2013, when then-PLA President Carolyn Anthony, director of the Skokie (Ill.) Public Library, founded the PLA Performance Measurement Task Force. The task force is made up of library leaders, researchers, and data analysts dedicated to providing simple, easy-to-use tools for public libraries to start implementing outcome measurement. The group created a set of surveys that cover a broad range of core service areas that libraries can easily and directly link to improvements or changes in patrons’ knowledge, behavior, skills, application, and awareness.
This effort led to a grant to PLA from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to build a project based on the work of its task force. This initiative, named Project Outcome, launched at the ALA Annual Conference in June 2015. Project Outcome helps public libraries understand and share the true impact of essential library programs and services by providing free, easy-to-use online resources, surveys, and data analysis tools.
High enrollment and participation numbers in Project Outcome confirm the outcome measurement trend. By the end of February 2016, only nine months into its launch, Project Outcome had more than 1,000 registered users from some 700 public libraries and had collected over 7,000 patron outcome surveys. Project Outcome participants have reported using their results to spark internal staff conversations, apply for grant funding, make easy programmatic changes based on open-ended feedback, advocate in city council and library board reports, and discuss with external community partners.
Project Outcome continues to expand in both registered users and measurement development. Its participants are indicating they want more complex measures and support to develop their own surveys. The task force is continuing to develop a new set of advanced measures for libraries to determine whether patrons followed through with their intended outcomes. These follow-up measures will allow libraries to strengthen their stories even more by providing data that demonstrates the immediate and long-term impact of their programs and services. By combining outcome measurement with traditional data collection, libraries will be better equipped for internal decision-making, advocacy, and strategic planning—proving that better data makes better libraries.