Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Jack Tilney

Jack S. Tilney is the Analytics Librarian at San Francisco Public Library. He holds a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from San Jose State University and a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz.

San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) was among the first public libraries to form an analytics unit to develop, guide, and implement data-driven decision making. As the first staff person to join the unit, I’ve been collecting, analyzing, and visualizing data from our internal divisions, and participating in conversations with other public libraries and library agencies as they develop more meaningful metrics. At the SFPL, I’ve worked to measure impacts of projects such as our fines-free initiative and our scholar card program.

The scholar card program, begun in 2017, provides library cards to all students in the San Francisco Unified School District and four local private schools. What we’d seen internally and at other libraries was that it’s one thing to hand a student a library card but another to make sure they’re using it and track their level of engagement. We wanted to see if and how often they were taking out physical materials and using the card virtually.

We found that from 60 percent to two-thirds of students engaged with the library in some way. I think it was successful because we were very hands-on in distributing the cards; our youth services librarians were going to the schools and engaging with students directly, not just sending cards out in the mail. With COVID-19, we now have a process in place to message all students their account information so they can still access services, and our youth services team is developing messaging to keep students engaged.  

For our fines-free initiative, we partnered with the city government’s Financial Justice Project to look at everyone who owed more than ten dollars in late fees, which is the dollar limit when we’d block patrons from taking out materials. The report showed the problem was an equity issue. Everyone accrued fines at a similar rate but those who lived in lower-income communities were hampered by their inability to pay and more of them were being blocked. It was impacting our mission to serve the community. Looking at data at that level informed a change in policy. Upon going fines free, SFPL ran a campaign to announce the program in October and saw an increase in our active patron numbers.

The PLDA is important because the data analysis landscape can be challenging. Our library is now making a concerted effort to not only collect statistics but to measure the impacts of our services to find out if the programs are making a positive impact in people’s lives. Libraries are seeing an increase in electronic resource usage and a decline in physical usage and physical visits. That leads to questions such as what a “visit” means if it’s not walking through the door, and how we should meaningfully measure library usage and engagement. The PLDA gives us an opportunity to explore how to measure data that better reflects the impact libraries are having in ways that traditional measures do not.