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Inputs, Outputs, and Outcomes – Oh My!

by on December 17, 2014

Outcome-based measurement demonstrates the “why” behind a program or service. Public libraries do not check out books for the sake of moving materials. We move materials to meet our community’s information needs. Outcome-based measurements help to explain the importance and effectiveness of a program or service. They can also be used to plan and improve them.

In a recently released report by the Aspen Institute entitled “Rising to the Challenge: Re-envisioning Public Libraries,” outcome-based measurement was found to be an area of growth for public libraries. “Measuring outcomes is more important than measuring outputs. An intelligent community, not large circulation numbers, is the primary goal,” (p.11). Developing good community outcomes is one of the action areas cited in the report.

So what’s the difference between an output and an outcome? According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, outputs are “direct products of program activities, usually measured in terms of work accomplished.” In contrast, outcomes are “benefits or changes for individuals or populations during or after participating in program activities, including new knowledge, increased skills, changed attitudes or values, modified behavior, improved condition or altered status.” An output is a measurement of activity size and scope. An outcome shows the social value added. An output is a quantitative measurement. An outcome is generally a qualitative measurement. We can use outputs to measure outcomes, but not the other way around.

Where to begin? Think about the impact are you trying to achieve. What will participants learn? How will the service make a difference in their lives? Bloom’s taxonomy is a tool for educators to develop objectives. It can also be a good starting point for library planning and evaluation. Use the taxonomy as a first step in developing your desired outcomes. Using active language will help you to create strong objectives.

Below are sample outcome measures you could adopt at your library:

From the California Summer Reading program:

  • Children belong to a community of readers and library users
  • Underserved community members participate in the summer reading program

Examples from IMLS:

  • Adults will read to children more often
  • A program increases the reading time caretakers spend with children

An example of outputs you could use to measure outcomes would be surveys results that compare participant knowledge at the beginning and end of a program. Another option would be to conduct focus groups to gather direct input from participants.

PLA is delving into this topic in a big way, with its Performance Measurement Task Force. This task force is developing new standardized measures for public libraries in selected service areas including early childhood literacy, digital access, and learning, civic engagement, reading, and economic and workforce development. Once finalized, these performance measures will be piloted in self-selected libraries.

Other tools you can use to gauge your library service outcomes include the Impact Survey and the Edge Initiative. These tools were designed to measure and improve library technology services using outcome-based measures.

Outcome-based measurement is new to many librarians. It is a powerful tool we need to learn for our libraries to deliver effective services in the 21st century. It is time to move beyond counting and toward continuous improvement.

Resources and further reading:

Aspen Institute. Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries. Washington, D.C., 2014.

Braun, Linda W. “Outcomes-Based futures.” American Libraries Nov/Dec 2014: 58.

Hartman, Maureen L., Hughes-Hassell, Sandra, Kumasi, Kafi, Yoke, Beth. The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action. Young Adult Library Services Association, 2014.

Institute of Museum and Library Services. Outcome Based Evaluation.” Accessed November 16, 2014.

Institute of Museum and Library Services. Perspectives on Outcome Based Evaluation for Libraries and Museums. Accessed November 16, 2014.

Lyons, Ray, Lance, Keith Curry. “Outputs, outcomes & other data.Library Journal 138, no. 18 (2014):22-28.

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