Using Data to Tell Your Story

Like 84 other cities across the country, the city of Madison, Wisconsin (and therefore, the Madison Public Library), has been taking part in a project called What Works Cities. It’s a project funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies that helps cities become more data-driven so that they can better make decisions about what projects work in their communities. As part of this process, our library has had the opportunity to carefully examine what data we currently capture and what data we need. We have loads of information about how many library card holders we have, how many people come to our programs, how many people use our computers, etc. The big question we kept asking ourselves, though, was, “Is anyone better off because of it?” How do we actually use data to tell our story? A few important lessons we’ve learned so far are:

  • You need to create a data action plan. Chances are, you don’t currently capture all of the data you really need to tell your story in the most effective way possible. Data is most impactful when it includes both quantitative and qualitative measures, so you need to plan how you are measuring both. But, figuring out how to measure things you don’t currently measure is daunting. Creating a plan that specifies which areas you are going to focus on and a timeframe for when you are going to add it to the mix is important. For example, maybe for the next six months, you are going to pilot a few different ways to determine if storytime is really creating the behavior change in parents that you’re hoping for. Once you feel you have some good tools developed for that, maybe you want to tackle creating a survey to determine why people are using your meeting rooms (especially important if you’re making the case for a new, bigger library!). Give yourself some breathing room to get it all done. Right now, our data action plan is spanning several years!
  • You need to be realistic. Because of privacy issues, resource availability, or technological limitations, some data may not be possible to obtain at this time (or maybe even ever). It’s better to focus your resources on what you can track than on what you “could know in a perfect world.” There is a lot of room to be creative in determining how to measure success, so it’s best to use that creative energy on projects you can really bring to life.
  • Data can’t replace stories from real people. No matter how wonderful your data may be, it will always be the most powerful when it’s paired with a real life story from someone who has been impacted by your services. Imagine that you’re presenting to your library board or Mayor — you have data showing that 90% of the parents who attended your program are using the skills they learned in their every day lives, their children’s test scores are showing that they are ready to succeed when they go to school, and you have a video clip of a parent and child talking about the importance of the program in their lives. That is an unstoppable presentation!

Measuring your success isn’t easy, but it is well worth the effort. To learn more about creative ways you can evaluate your programs and services, check out the Managing Children’s Services Committee webinar series this fall.

Today’s guest blogger is Krissy Wick, Director of Public Services (and former Youth Services Supervisor and Youth Services Librarian) at the Madison Public Library in Madison, WI. Krissy is writing on behalf of ALSC’s Managing Children’s Services Committee. Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.


One comment

  1. Donna

    Have you had a look at Measure the Future? http://measurethefuture.net/ I haven’t done it (yet), but it does provide a measureable look at your library space usage, in a privacy-conscious tool that uses open-source and market-available hardware.

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