Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Susan Benton

Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Susan Benton

Susan Benton, president and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council (ULC), has worked with libraries and local governments for more than 30 years. Her professional career has been dedicated to assisting city and county executives initiate and manage change in their organizations so that citizens and businesses are receiving the strongest possible services.

We’ve been working with COSLA for a couple of years now. From the ULC side, we understand how important data is, and are very much oriented to the impact of what the library does in helping move the community forward. We’re focused on the questions of how to help support the workforce, children, education, and development, and ensuring we close the gap on the digital divide. You need to have data to understand where you are today and measure yourself year over year. The library system wants to be informed on what the community needs are; take responsibility to be a part of the landscape to help individuals, children, and businesses reach their highest aspirations; and measure our ability to do that.

A couple of things we’re trying to focus on are understanding the impact on communities and helping libraries look at community data, both private and public, in the cities and counties in which they reside — graduation rates, unemployment rates, health issues — and consider that in a larger context to help libraries have those conversations internally. It’s always good to collect data, but if you’re not using it to inform the work you’re doing, to what end are you going through the steps? That’s why we work so much on data fluency and data literacy.

Libraries are great at what they do, and are always trying to get better, but our coin of the realm has been words. We want to also make sure people are comfortable looking at numbers, and put their great words beside those numbers to provide connection and context to help illuminate what’s going on. We want to help libraries better use their data to encourage, empower, help, and grow the stories so they’re not just anecdotal.

It’s something ULC has been working on for a long time. We’re a small organization and we all wear the same and different hats, and work a lot more in teams than solo. For the past 10 years, we’ve done a considerable amount of work around data and made some progress. But this is a long road. We didn’t become comfortable and fluent overnight — it’s an evolution and it’s the right thing for libraries to be working on right now.