Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Sharon Comstock

Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Sharon Comstock

Sharon L. Comstock, senior lecturer in the School of Information Sciences at Illinois, holds a Ph.D. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and an M.A. from Northwestern University. She served on the Measures That Matter Implementation Group and will serve a two-year term on the Public Library Data Alliance (PLDA) for continuity.

I admit I’m a methods and data nerd, having trained in mixed-methods and situated evaluation of inquiry learning under mentors Drs. Delwyn Harnisch and Bertram “Chip” Bruce at the National Science Foundation. In our work, I came to understand that all learning environments, from formal to informal, are rich data cultures that require our respectful immersion if we are to draw meaning. We need to be able to see all kinds of disparate data in relationships that make sense at local levels.

This idea of needing a local lens became evident in my work in and with public libraries, where we tended to focus on our metrics as a sort of proxy for quality and value in our communities of practice. Yet I couldn’t help but be reminded of the phrase ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.’ I would always fall back on my training and ask, ‘What is missing? Who isn’t here? What questions aren’t being answered, or even asked?’ That’s where applying impact evaluation frameworks come into play — we can see other community actors’ values, needs, and priorities in relationship to our own. We can begin to identify relationships between local and national themes, and start to tell locally relevant data stories.

I became aware of the Measures That Matter (MTM) movement — and it feels like a movement, it truly feels grassroots — when it launched in 2016, and began including it in the graduate library and informatics classes I was teaching. MTM was a dynamic example of what impact can look like, at scale. Students often aren’t aware of the data available in our field, and MTM was a way to have serious conversations about our own “data beliefs.”

All of us who have served share a deep passion for and long-term dedication to the core motivations behind the founding of PLDA. Very few professions have more than 100 years’ worth of data sets. Library staff past and present have a demonstrated commitment to measurement, and I think our opportunity now is to ask different questions. Community inquiry starts with a belief that the community is where the knowledge is.

It’s really about cultivating conscious curiosity. If there’s one thing we at PLDA can do, it’s be the thought leaders that model curiosity. If we think we already know, then we’re not able to pose (or hear) the questions that spur action.

In many ways, I see our work as just now starting. We’re tapping into a national “data renaissance” of sorts and PLDA is right on the cusp of this. Libraries are making visible how important critical data-literacies are in everyday practice. Meaningful use of data can change the conversations we have in our field. That’s where PLDA can really have an impact.

I suspect that, coast to coast, we’ve already been having these conversations, and now we can collectively take the next steps. We often hear, ‘We don’t need another tool or technology!’ What we might not have realized is that we are the “tech” that can shape our data. That’s a pretty powerful thing.