Blogger Kary Henry

The Altar of Quantity

It all started with a tweet. A thought-provoking thread on Twitter by Ann S. Her post got me thinking about libraries’ focus on quantity when it comes to programming. The day after I read Ann’s tweet, I ran a homeschool program for three students. Inspired by both of those things, I tweeted the following, which went my level of viral.

Picture of tweet about how libraries tend to worship at the altar of quantity

Ann’s original tweet was about conducting a storytime for two families. She wrote, “tech services gets to do 1-on-1s all the time, so why shouldn’t we.” She also tweeted libraries are “so obsessed with stats,” but “*this* is what libraries should be. One family at a time, building and nurturing relationships. Numbers are not the way to measure a successful program, and we. are. not. a. business.” I deeply admire Ann and was so grateful she shared more thoughts on this topic during a Zoom call with me. I also reached out to two other librarians I hold in equal esteem to continue the conversation.

Asking Questions

In our conversation, Ann wondered about why libraries are afraid of low attendance. “We aren’t losing anything…we’re not losing money,” she wisely stated. Ann asked, “How have libraries developed this fear-based reaction [to programming statistics?]” I myself wondered: If a few people have a fantastic experience, why is that of less value than many people having perhaps a mediocre experience?

Moving to a different “why?” Jessica F. shared, “I think we should ask WHY the program is drawing few attendees and brainstorm possibilities before making any decisions. What if the time changed? What if the program needs more promotion? What if it just needs time to grow? As a former classroom teacher, I also know that quantity can be the enemy of quality. Pack a hundred people into a storytime room, and it will be difficult to deliver a high quality early literacy experience.”

Return on Investment

Ann and I also discussed the use of the business term, “ROI,” or Return on Investment. To me, that term makes sense when discussing the physical items our patrons take away from the library. I’ve seen library receipts that calculate how much the physical items would have cost if purchased. Great marketing tool! But Ann’s point that “we are not a business” is so important when looking at programming numbers. When one of the three homeschool students in my virtual program shouted, “This is the best thing ever,” can we assess the ROI of my time and energy? I don’t think so. That program was valuable for those three students.

Along those same lines, Jessica said, “Who and how we count matters. (emphasis mine) For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, the IMLS decided to only count live virtual program attendance for the Public Library Survey, not recorded views. Although on-demand recorded videos are more accessible, the IMLS said these video views don’t matter. By saying that only people who can engage with us on our schedule ‘count,’ libraries are discouraged from serving all members of the community – such as the busy parents who can’t tune in realtime for storytime.”

Katie S. shared, “I think that some of my low attendance programs have been the most beneficial to the individual families and patrons.” A virtual program of hers, early in the pandemic, had one family attend a session. Katie told me that she had a one-on-one conversation with those kids for twenty minutes. Together they moved from the scheduled virtual show-and-tell to book recommendations to unique library services, such as the Library of Things. Katie made another salient point, “There are also great benefits to letting attendees drive the program. When I have a small storytime audience, I let them vote on which activity or book we read next. Empowering kids to choose books leads to a lifelong love of reading!”

Everything In Its Place

I do understand the value of statistics. I’m not advocating for libraries to do away with the practice of gathering attendance numbers. I think there’s benefit to exploring the emphasis that libraries place on those numbers. Explore why staff are made to feel that programs with low attendance aren’t as valuable as those with high attendance. Can there be a place for both numbers and the anecdotal evidence that often accompanies low-attendance programs?

Let’s Keep Questioning

When I wrote the first paragraph of this post, I had to stop myself from using the qualifier “only” before the number “three.” Messages of needing to “grow programs” and “increase attendance” were ringing in my head. But for those three students, the connections, learning, and laughter were enough. Shouldn’t it be the same for us too?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic and encourage you to share in the comments below.


This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: I. Committment to Client Group and V. Outreach and Advocacy.

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