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.