Why Outcomes Matter: An Update on PLA's "Project Outcome"

June 09, 2016

Illinois Library Association


June 2016 | Volume XXXIV. Issue 3


June 8, 2016


Carolyn Anthony, Skokie Public Library


A young woman who had recently graduated from college came to see me as part of her exploration of possible career directions. “I feel like in public libraries I could really make a difference in people’s lives,” she said. I told her I agreed, but had to acknowledge that as of yet we have little data to confirm the hypothesis that public libraries do, in fact, change lives. In a recent study from the Pew Research Center, it was reported that two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) ages 16 and older say that closing their local public library would have a major impact on their community. In an earlier study, the Pew Research Center reported that 90 percent of Americans ages 16 and older say that the closing of their local public library would have an impact on their community.


If closing the public library would have an impact on the local community, does it follow that the library also makes an impact by being open? We have a lot of anecdotes about transformative experiences at the public library, but no real data to back that up. Do the stories represent occasional, exceptional outcomes of library use or are they part of a pattern that in fact points to broad community impact?


For years now, public libraries have largely reported output measures of activity such as circulation, reference questions answered, door count, and program attendance. These measures show that the library has put resources to use, and the measures may be compared over time within a library to show a trend in library use or compared among libraries of similar size and funding level to get an idea of the potential for growth in services. The output measures, however, do not begin to answer the question, “What difference did the public library make to the individual?” or the larger question, “What is the impact of the public library on the community?”


Moreover, in recent years, many of the output measures traditionally reported by the public library have started to decline. We understand that public libraries are fielding fewer reference questions because so many people are using Google to find answers to their questions. They may be reading some of their books and magazines digitally and renewing titles online rather than making a trip to the library to have staff update their circulation record. For these reasons and more that we are aware of and can explain, library outputs are generally static or declining. Funding authorities may look at these figures and conclude that the local public library needs less revenue for operations or that there is no need to expand or upgrade a dated library facility. 


Those of us working in public libraries know that we are not doing less. In fact, public libraries have been busier than ever and doing important work such as helping job seekers prepare resumes or look for work during the recent downturn in the economy; working with parents and preschoolers on early childhood literacy skills; teaching people computer skills; and bringing people together for discussion of societal issues such as immigration or prison reform. Unfortunately, we have not done a very good job of capturing the results of these efforts. The number of people served has been collected via hash marks and reported in a larger figure of library program attendance or door count that tells nothing about the difference the service made to the individual or collectively to the community.


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