Category: Blog


Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Verena Getahun

Verena Getahun is the Library Data Coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Education’s State Library Services. She holds a Master’s of Science in Information degree from the University of Michigan and a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and English from Yale University.

As the coordinator of our state’s annual public library report, I work to refine and clarify definitions of data so the counts and metrics we report are as comparable and accurate as possible. This is a constant battle, both because of the incredible variety in the communities we serve, and because libraries are rapidly changing the way they operate and provide services.

I’m very interested in which data is “squishy” — where the data came from, if it’s correct, and if everyone collects this same information. Sometimes data collection can be hampered by things outside the libraries’ control, such as variation across platforms, electronic resources in the hands of vendors, and things that are difficult to measure, such as the number of people attending a virtual program.

The Public Library Survey is all about counting, which is enough of a challenge, but now we’re thinking about guidance on additional information libraries will need to collect in 2020 to reflect the changes they’ve made in response to the pandemic. There’s now even more of a discussion about whether the data we collect is meaningful. There should be standard measures, but we need to also be listening to the local community’s needs and tracking the impact we’re having there.

Lately, many organizations have been looking at racially inclusive policies, and for libraries that can mean looking at who is in the community and what they need as opposed to what the library has always historically offered. The challenge in collecting this data is that putting people in categories by race is a fraught exercise. You can’t avoid collecting that information because you want to reflect what’s going on in your community and in the country but it’s sensitive work turning people, in all their facets, into numbers.

To communicate our value, we must emphasize community impact, and standardized metrics are key to being able to tell that story. It’s one thing to say how many people participated, it’s harder to know what they got out of it — if there was a change in their knowledge, attitude, or behavior.

Looking at a spreadsheet, you imagine a mechanized plan but it can come down to one person making a decision about how to respond to a question. It’s not always cut and dry, but it rolls into larger numbers that are reported. All social data collection has that “squishy” human element to it. That uncertainty needs to be communicated; you can’t rely solely on numbers to make decisions. These are always our best estimates and a proxy for what’s really going on in the world.


Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Stacey Aldrich

Stacey Aldrich

Stacey Aldrich holds a Master’s of Library Science degree and served as the State Librarian of California and the Deputy Secretary for the Office of Commonwealth Libraries of Pennsylvania. She was selected by Library Journal as one of the top 55 professionals “shaping the future of libraries” and was awarded the LINK AMERICAS Foundation Knowledge Award for vision and leadership in digital literacy.  She is the current President of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) and having been highly involved with COSLA’s interest in and efforts around data collection and use, will serve on the Public Library Data Alliance.

I feel lucky to have started my professional career at the dawn of the internet, and I’ve always been a bit of a techie. When I worked in Maryland, it became the first state to have internet at all its state libraries, and I was part of the group that taught people how to use it. It doesn’t seem like that long ago, from a human perspective, but now we’re at a point where we can identify the impacts these tools are having on people and services.

COSLA is tucked into everything library and has both a statewide and a national perspective. We represent multiple kinds of libraries and we all work together, which gives us a really good “big picture.” As state librarians, we know how data is collected and used, what the challenges are, and how to use that data to explain how our libraries are making a difference.

We need to measure and tell our story without it being so burdensome. We ask libraries to take surveys that use the same form other organizations do, causing a doubling-up of data which has become onerous. By bringing people together, we can work more effectively in building the data pictures for the future.

The magic of putting this group together is that a lot of the lead organizations have been trying to do the same thing, and now we can sit at the table, together, to think about collecting and using data in new ways. As a group, our goals are to keep supporting people in using data, question data to help us think better, and make it easier and more strategic to use.

Libraries are great collectors and connectors to our human stories but sometimes we’re not as good at telling our stories. Data helps us articulate them. Having this wonderful group talking and thinking about what data means will improve our ability to elucidate our, sometimes hidden, roles.


Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Michelle Mears

Mears Photo

Michelle Mears is the Director of the Rolling Hills Library in Saint Joseph, Mo. She holds a Ph.D. in Instructional Development and Technology and a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Southern Illinois University, as well as a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois.

I’ve worked in libraries in Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas, and they all collect data differently. Data collection is driven by each state’s annual report and sometimes states will add questions or tweak them. As administrators in our individual libraries, we have our own, different goals and interests. When I look at the annual report for my libraries, I want to submit our foot traffic, meeting room usage, and other information so people will understand how much the library is being used, not just our circulation number, which tends to be put on a pedestal.

As leaders, library directors must make decisions based on data, but sometimes the data you have is telling you one thing and your gut is telling you something else. It’s always three dimensional; you take staff observations and opinions as well as data, and use that to project into the future. We don’t have a crystal ball, so it’s one of the hardest things to do. Will we need movable walls, big or small meeting rooms, study rooms or no study rooms? After a while, you make a decision about what the community needs. What I’m doing is trying to solve problems people didn’t even know they had.

Librarians love numbers and we know how to count stuff; we’re seen as literary people but believing we don’t also like math is a fallacy. Numbers have clarity — there’s very little gray area there — but we want qualitative data, too. How do we collect it and what do we do after we get it? In my libraries, we try to show anecdotal data, such as the opinions of our patrons, and document it so it can be shared with our board or analyzed to make sure we’re moving in the right direction.

There’s still a lot that is not standardized in how we collect data. When libraries began to offer computers for public access, it made circulation shoot way up, but should we be counting their use as “checked out” items? I’m hoping we’ll be able to set up best practices and come up with definitions. I like manipulating spreadsheets — working with qualitative and quantitative data — but many others find it unwieldly and difficult. I’m interested in making data collection relevant enough that it’s not a chore but one of a library’s central functions.


Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Todd Carpenter

For the past 14 years, Todd Carpenter has served as Executive Director of the National Information Standards Organization (NISO), a U.S.-based non-profit association that develops and maintains standards for the creation, management, and effective interchange of information. He has served on the boards of the Baltimore County Public Library, the Society for Scholarly Publishing, the Free Ebook Foundation, is a member of the inaugural ALA Policy Corps, and will serve as the PLDA’s secretariat.

I was a part of the Measures That Matter implementation group that developed the ideas behind the Public Library Data Alliance. I was invited to participate in the implementation stage, not as a statistics expert but from the perspective of my experience in consensus-building across the community. NISO as an entity is a neutral third party. When people are developing standards and best practices, there are many competing interests (privacy vs. advertising is an extreme example) that need to be reconciled. Even within the space of library assessment, for example, the academic libraries have one perspective and the public libraries have different interests and concerns.

Our vision was to create a confederation of interested parties with NISO serving as secretariat to keep the lights on, convene the meetings, and develop a process for conflict resolution. Our job is not to say what the PLDA will be, but to offer a framework on how to proceed. That could be technical standards, common vocabulary or survey tools, or a repository of data, best practices or benchmarks. There is a broad expanse of what the PLDA could be, and we’ll leave it up to the initial participants to define what it should become. NISO’s role is to support whatever that will be. It could grow significantly and we’d help support its growth, because a community success is also our success.

The story of libraries and data is changing; gone are the days of simply counting how many items are on a library’s shelves. In the internet age, what counts as your collection? If you’re offering health education, job training, or maker spaces, that isn’t easily measured by counting the number of computers you have. We need to match library assessment with our activities and our collective goals.

It’s really important for the larger library community to get behind the PLDA — there are 15 members of the Alliance but we’re going to need everyone to engage, adopt, and participate in our activities, and push for resources. If it’s just the 15 of us, we’re not going to accomplish our goals. We need the buy-in from the broader community to drive this initiative, which is at its core about telling the story of library success.


Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Cyndee Landrum

Cyndee Landrum is the Deputy Director of the Office of Library Services for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). She oversees the agency’s largest program, Grants to States, which is the primary source of federal funding for library services in the U.S. Landrum has served in public libraries across the country, including as CEO-Director of the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library in Indiana, assistant director for public services at Oak Park Library in Illinois, assistant director of Mt. Lebanon Public Library in Pittsburgh, and in various positions at the Glendale Public Library in Arizona. She will serve as the IMLS liaison to the Alliance.

The Measures That Matter project is funded by IMLS and done in collaboration, so as a liaison I’m there to represent the agency. I don’t vote but I make sure our interest in this project is represented. We have significant interest in this area because of the two surveys we publish and our intimate relationship with library data. We have a data interest and so do the organizations represented, and the whole concept is to bring those voices together.

It’s important work and we’ve gathered a really well-rounded group of individuals through this inaugural alliance. I’m excited to see what they bring to the table and the things they elevate through this work.

Early on in my career, I spent a lot of my time participating in the data process for libraries — compiling, collecting, analyzing, and interpreting for the library systems where I worked. I thought a lot about data, its importance and significance, and the kinds of things we measure. Trying to build an evidence-based culture in libraries is important to me. I’m happy to serve as a liaison to this group and glad to see it move forward at the national level and gain traction in the profession.

We’ve made progress around refining some of the data that we have traditionally collected, and now there’s a great opportunity to refine that. We still have a bit to go in terms of applying some of the different types of analyses, evaluations, and assessments so we can tell a more complete story about the important impact of libraries’ work in the communities they serve.


There has never been a better time to take…

Guest Blog Post: Director, State Library Services, Minnesota, Jen Nelson shares why she thinks Measures that Matter and the Public Library Data Alliance remain important during the pandemic. 

Collecting robust data –beyond indicators, inputs and outputs – has been a challenge for libraries for a long time. There are pockets of helpful coordination and agreement, but efforts have been far from comprehensive. While I can tell you how many books were checked out of Minnesota libraries in the last 100 years, I cannot tell what kind of difference those loaned books made for borrowers and their communities. Clearly, that is the problem with a dogged focus on outputs instead of outcomes.

Today, the stakes are high. Libraries are stepping up in all kinds of unique ways to assist their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. From moving all programming online, to delivering books to shut-ins (and in some cases even food and medicine) to extending the reach of their WIFI networks so people in the parking lot and nearby neighborhood can stay connected, there are many wonderful examples of library outreach and service. However, what is largely missing from the environment are agreed upon data collection points that libraries can use to document their work and speak more concretely to stakeholders about the ways libraries are contributing to community safety and well-being. The significant data gap is magnified by the unusual time we are in.

The good news is the Public Library Data Alliance (PLDA) will play a pivotal role in helping libraries to better collect and analyze unique data points. Libraries have been terrific at adopting and adapting to new methods and new services, but not so much with measuring those new services – libraries adopt first, think about measurement second – in many cases. That is where the PLDA can provide thought leadership, guidance and build consensus among the various constituents.

What a gift to libraries it will be when we can align library data needs so vendors can design and build systems that ease the collection process. The PLDA can provide a bird’s eye view of the stories we are trying to tell with data and establish the required mechanisms for collection, distribution and use of data. I eagerly look forward to seeing the fruits of its work.


What Should and Shouldn’t Be Counted in Library Surveys…

MtM PERSPECTIVES Guest Blog Post :: Jefferson County’s Director of Libraries, Julianne Rist shares with us what drew her to get involved with Measures that Matter and why she feels the initiative is important.

Julianne Rist, MtM Working Group 2.3 Member

When the Measures That Matter initiative was announced, I knew I wanted to be part of the conversation about what libraries should be tracking and how the use and impact of libraries on their communities could be reported. I participated in the Measures That Matter working group 2.3 which focused specifically on how libraries can best connect with other community data streams to better understand and measure community impact.

Simply reflecting the busyness of libraries – such as items circulated or programs offered – is no longer enough. We need to reflect how library use impacts residents and the community.

Libraries have a long history of counting and reporting what we do. The services and resources that the library provides have changed dramatically over the last 10-20 years, however the way we collect data and report on it has not changed much. The conversation about what data points we should collect is long overdue. We have continually added items to count, but have not had the conversation about what should or should not be counted. Simply reflecting the busyness of libraries – such as items circulated or programs offered – is no longer enough. We need to reflect how library use impacts residents and the community.

Libraries have long tracked the number of references questions answered, but everyone knows these questions are not the same. Whether it is a simple five-minute search for a quick fact or a more in-depth question, both questions carry the same weight when reported. Many libraries now offer one-on-one appointments and have stories about people who have started a business, found a job, or can now use their mobile device as a result of these appointments. Currently, these one-on-one appointments can only be listed in state surveys as a reference question, and there is no way to show the impact of this service.

The Measures that Matter initiative will not only identify the key elements that need to be counted but will also develop ways to show the impacts of library services on their communities. I use data in setting goals, success measures, and benchmarking how my library performs. Also, by looking at our data I can identify trends and plan for future services.

The future of libraries depends on being able to reflect the work we do – both in how the community uses the library, and the impact our library has on the community. Measures that Matter can help to make that vision a reality.

— Julianne Rist