Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Larra Clark

Larra Clark serves as Deputy Director for both the Public Library Association (PLA) and the American Library Association’s (ALA) Public Policy and Advocacy Office. Her portfolio includes broadband access and adoption, public library data and research, strategic communications, and national initiatives and partnerships. Her career spans 20 years managing library communications, policy, and research, following a decade in non-profit public affairs, government relations, and print journalism. She received her library master’s degree from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Clark serves as the Public Library Data Alliance’s liaison to PLA and ALA.

Measures that Matter is the original framer of the PLDA initiative, and I’ve been involved with that work since the beginning on behalf of PLA and ALA. Public library data and its collection is important to the work we do at both of my jobs, and I look forward to being on the alliance with my passionate and talented colleagues.

My role on the PLDA board is to serve as the representative for PLA an ALA, and I bring a knowledge and understanding of activities that should be shared across the ecosystem, as well as perspectives from those associations’ members at a national level.

Going back to the beginning of my career, I’ve been a power user of library data and research. People would ask me why we need libraries now that we have the internet and, 20 years later, we’re sometimes still answering that question. I worked to show how libraries are a bridge to digital inclusion and equity. Data has helped us understand the field internally, but it’s also been critical in including libraries in broadband plans and demonstrating the role they play to members of Congress and the media. I’m committed to having the best data to inform policy, serve the association, and bring back to libraries to use at local and state levels.

At ALA and PLA, we’ve done a lot of work in this space and collaborated with other library organizations, IMLS, state libraries, academic researchers, and others, but it’s been mostly project based. Everyone is interested in an ongoing collaboration to improve coordination on what data we collect and then connect it with community-level data to create greater value and insight. We have a lot of data but don’t know if we’re wringing every drop of knowledge out of it.

I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation on library impacts and outcomes. PLA’s Project Outcome is the only national tool to measure immediate patron outcomes in several key areas — digital learning, job skills, summer reading — but we need to continue expanding and connecting resources like these. We also need to increase skills in the field to identify gaps and improvements libraries can make. I’ve seen a lot of progress in these areas and I think we have a nice foundation to build from, so I’m looking forward to continuing that forward momentum. People would like to better measure the contributions and change libraries are able to create in their communities. I’m proud that ALA and PLA have been a part of that work so far, and I’m looking forward to taking the next steps with other users and contributors to library data.


Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Maria Chiochios

Maria Chiochios is the Assessment Librarian at the University of Texas Libraries. She holds master’s degrees in Library Science and Public Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the University of California, Davis.

I deeply enjoy library assessment work that improves library services, demonstrates the value of libraries, and tells the story of 21st century libraries. My passion for this work began in graduate school courses and was reinforced in the projects I oversaw in my first library job after graduation. In my current work, my desire to contribute to the library assessment field has continued to grow, which has strengthened my intention to keep helping libraries improve and tell their story of impact.

While libraries are good at counting things, those things aren’t always tied to outcomes. Library data collection is usually done for recording purposes for governing bodies, associations, grants, or annual reports, but these numbers aren’t always the most meaningful. Data can have different counting requirements for each report, which can also be different from how a library uses that same data internally. On top of that, interaction with and analysis of the data usually only happens at the library director or manager level.

Libraries often have to deal with budget, staff, and time constraints, and they’re continuously striving to do more with less while also perpetually growing existing programs and offering new services. In this environment, I have observed that library staff don’t always have the necessary skills or capacity to focus on data and gather feedback on the performance and effects of their activities. Knowing these outcomes is beneficial for communicating a library’s community impact and helps change people’s perspectives about what a library is and does. When looking at library services – such as skill building, entrepreneurial support, access to tools and technology, or legal assistance – impact and outcome data is harder to define and more difficult to capture, but is where you uncover the true value of a library.

I’d love to see a framework that provides clearer, more consistent language to talk about library data across the board. I’d love to see a structure that offers best practices for combining internal library data with external data sources. I’d love to see a plan that strategizes how assessment work can be more integrated into library services and have more library staff be involved in that work. I’d love to see guidance for libraries on collecting more meaningful data that enables libraries to make data-driven decisions and demonstrates how libraries change lives and bring value to communities.

These observations and desires are what drew me to become a member of the Public Library Data Alliance. I bring both an academic and public library perspective to this work, as well as skills and experience in public administration. And by currently being situated in a strong research environment, my hope is this will infuse the work of the PLDA with a similar ethos.


Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Lynn Hoffman

Lynn Hoffman is the Director of Operations for the Somerset County Library System of New Jersey. She holds a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s degree in English from Boston University, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude with distinction.

I’ve been involved in the public library data sphere for almost a decade, and all the staff at my library know I’m our resident data nerd. I’m fortunate in that it’s very easy for me to find an interesting tidbit in a data set, but I’m in the minority in the larger public library world. My experience with librarians and library leadership is that if it doesn’t come naturally, they can get intimidated. It’s compounded when someone has a math deficit, when numbers and spreadsheets are too closely associated with bad math experiences.

But reading spreadsheets doesn’t require much math knowledge. What’s compelling about the PLDA project is that having a single overarching view of the data landscape will give us a more focused platform. It’ll make it easier to explain the cool things you can use data for and why we love it, with the hope that people lose the intimidation factor and see how data is relative to their daily lives.

Some of the lack of comfort with data stems from the seemingly disparate groups and collection points; the relationships between these sources is very opaque. People are entering the same information again and again in different surveys, but aren’t sure how they all fit together. I would love for this group to make strides in terms of simplifying that landscape and making it more easily understandable.

There’s a lot of potential for real change, especially in a practical day-to-day kind of way. We have an opportunity here to provide people with a better comfort level when using data in the process of providing service. A lot of what Measure That Matter has done so far is very interesting to me but to others it might seem like an abstract, theoretical exercise. I’m excited to be a part of manifesting it in real life so people can see directly how data is helpful in their work. 


Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Ryan McCrory

Ryan McCrory is the director of the Lititz Public Library in Lititz, Penn. He holds a master’s degree in Information Science from Clarion University, a master’s degree in History from the University of Alabama, and a bachelor’s degree in History from Athens State College. 

I’ve worked in libraries of all sizes, from a large public urban library in Seattle to a small rural library in Pennsylvania. They’re the same in that they all keep statistics and everyone is very interested in keeping them, but they all do it differently.

Coming from a history background, I’ve been trained in research and analysis to study long-term trends from a historical perspective and measure change over time. But, as I moved around the country, I found it difficult to compare one library to another because they keep statistics differently or they change which ones they collect. I’m interested in having a national clearing house for data so we can collect and use information to gauge whether we are doing better, the same, or worse from year to year.

Although numbers aren’t the whole story, they remain an important tool for tangible benchmarking of goals and achievements. The world in which we work has changed drastically, but the tools by which we measure that work has not kept pace. I hope the PLDA can gather input from libraries of various types and sizes to recommend new metrics, or new ways of using metrics, to better tell our story, both internally and externally.

I’m glad to see this coming together because it’s necessary. We’re all in this together to promote libraries and make sure people understand what services and values libraries bring to communities.

Now, because of the pandemic, it’s important to understand how we can measure our impact in physical realms and in virtual environments. I’m interested in understanding how libraries are dealing with this and how we can come out of it, not just intact but with new opportunities, and tracking these statistics is part of it.


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.


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.


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.


Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Todd Deck

Todd Deck is Tehama County, California’s County Librarian. He holds a master’s degree in -Library Science and Information from Emporia State University in Portland, Ore. and a bachelor’s degree from California State University. Before becoming a librarian, Deck worked in customer service and marketing.

My first foray into data equaling people was working the Star Wars booth at Comic-Con. We had forecasted a certain number of R2-D2 action figures, but it wasn’t enough and we had a lot of people there who were very angry at us. It made me realize the importance of having correct numbers in relation to supply and demand, and I try to think about that in the work I do now. We had to change our approach, and that is also important for a library’s outreach and community engagement. We want people to have a positive experience with us, and then go on to have a positive experience in their lives.

As a library director in a rural setting, I have an interesting perspective. My library has a very small budget compared to other California libraries but we’re providing an amazing experience for our patrons and I’m very proud of that.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, our libraries closed on March 17, but we had a digital strategy in place within 24 hours. We re-opened for curbside service in late May and then re-opened our buildings in a limited capacity a few weeks ago. We’re operating at fifty-percent capacity, and we have the space and the staff support to do that. We have incredible people working here who don’t have an issue being both a librarian and the sanitation police.

Finding the tools to cultivate data to communicate a library’s impact is vital for the future of the rural library community, but it can be a real challenge. I’ve been thinking a lot about data and the tools my library uses to communicate the services we offer. I feel like there are some gaps in how we are painting the picture of what we do, and therefore how I communicate that information at a state level. I see the Public Library Data Alliance (PLDA) as an opportunity to help figure this out.

I’d love to see an overarching philosophy on data that I can utilize to make decisions within my library. A lot of time is spent pulling data and presenting it to the board of state libraries but I don’t necessarily use it for programming choices or budgetary concerns. I see the PLDA as an opportunity to bring data full circle as we move forward.


Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Daphna Blatt

Daphna Blatt is Director of Strategic Research & Analytics at The New York Public Library (NYPL). Prior to joining the Library in 2011, she provided strategic and analytical support to Fortune 500 companies as part of the consulting staff at Bain & Company, and served as in-house strategist for a portfolio company of the private equity firm Warburg Pincus. Blatt holds a B.A. in Psychology from Yale University, from which she graduated summa cum laude.

As the NYPL’s Director of Strategic Research & Analytics, I see my team’s mission as having two key prongs. The first is to develop, implement, and leverage qualitative and quantitative data to advocate for our library’s — and all libraries’ — impact on the communities we serve. The second is to foster a culture of data-informed decision-making across all departments and levels at our institution.

In pursuing this mission over the years, my team and I have skirted — and occasionally hit — some interesting data-related or data-adjacent limitations, many of which we share with other library systems of all sizes, in other cities, and across other countries. These have included the challenges of: using standardized peer benchmarks to contextualize our institutional performance, balancing our values around privacy with our appetite for insights and impact reporting, and operationalizing outcome (rather than exclusively output) measures for our programmatic offerings.

Given all of this, I am excited to be a part of the Public Library Data Alliance’s beginnings, and to contribute to a national-level, action-oriented conversation to collaboratively advance the role that data plays in library operations, communications, and service. In addition to representing the unique perspective of an institution that includes both research and circulating libraries, I welcome this opportunity for NYPL’s investments in data and analytics to provide value to the broader library community. Having served on the Measures that Matter Action Plan Implementation Group that helped lay the groundwork for the PLDA, I can already attest to the value of convening a diverse group of stakeholders to envision and prioritize the data-related investments that could pay dividends to libraries serving any size, or kind, of community.

As the PLDA embarks on its forward-thinking work of strengthening library data infrastructure, I look forward to our taking an expansive view of what “infrastructure” includes. Of course, it includes more incisive metrics, efficient reporting workflows, and data interoperability that will allow us to roll up individual library data to a meaningful national level. But it also encompasses investments in staff training, channels for soliciting meaningful feedback from patrons about their needs and experiences using our services, and messaging for communicating the extent of our usage — and that usage’s reverberating impact — to our public, partners, and funders. A library’s value to its community, and the individuals within it, is too multidimensional to be reduced to a set of pithy data points, and yet not fully articulated without them. 


Meet the Public Library Data Alliance: Kate Laughlin

Kate Laughlin is the executive director of the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL), based in Seattle, Wash. She has worked in or with libraries on the front lines, in circulation and reference provision, branch management, staff training, strategic planning, and association management.

Board members from the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL) have previously been involved with Measures That Matter, and now that I’ve become the ARSL’s first executive director, I’ll be the one serving year to year. There’s a major benefit to having a continuous representative keeping our board aware of what’s being asked of us.

The importance of having ARSL on the Alliance is that, often, large urban library systems wag the dog but the vast majority of libraries in the country are small and rural. They’re often overlooked and voiceless, and that makes it all the more important we have a collective voice. On their own, they have limited abilities to get access to things, less staffing, and lower budgets. Together, our voice is mighty. To have an ARSL representative involved means we’re not overlooking the smaller but more plentiful voices.

In urban areas, libraries often have options we don’t have, such as multiple internet providers with competitive rates and stronger service. That’s not an option in smaller, rural places where there’s often only one provider and it’s expensive. You might have staff who are working from home who can’t get on Zoom meetings or be serving patrons who don’t have reliable connections and can’t take advantage of a libraries’ online programs.

I’m hoping to bring awareness and serve as a conduit between these communities [ARSL and PLDA]. As we gather through PLDA, what comes out of that are resources, relationships, learning, and networks we build that are of great use to the ARSL constituency. It was very gratifying to be a part of recruiting people from around the country who are now able to be part of the Alliance. Any time I can bring practitioners on the front lines into these discussions, it has huge value. For a long time this constituency was under everyone’s radar.

At a basic level, it’s about relationship building. We’re all on “team library” and we’ll be able to look out for each other’s shared and differing interests, and help each other by way of this mass collaboration. Only good things can come from that — that’s solid gold.