Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Michelle Mears

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.