A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Measuring the Impact of Public Libraries

by Felton Thomas on November 28, 2016

Ideal student” and “a pleasure to teach” were the phrases often used to describe fourteen-year-old Kendra Monroe. A sophomore at Anywhere School of the Arts, Kendra had overcome great odds to attend the preeminent public high school for performance in her state. The oldest child of a single mother who worked two jobs, Kendra often had to surrender her dreams for the betterment of her younger brothers. While she was praised as one of the better dance students, additional ballet training after school for Kendra was not possible. Instead, she was tasked with picking up her siblings from their school and taking them to the public library until their mother got off work.

Despite the limitations she faced in her one true love (dance), Kendra blossomed academically. The public library had become the family’s second home and the resources at the library had become the foundation for her success. Eighteen months ago, Kendra had walked into the Main Branch not knowing what to expect from the library. She shushed her brothers as they walked in and was initially surprised at how much activity surrounded her. A library staff member welcomed them at the front desk and directed her to a room in the back. As they walked through the library, they passed banks of computers that were filled with focused users. When they reached the meeting room, she was greeted by a young woman who introduced herself as Kailey. Kailey was a local college student who worked with a library partner organization to provide tutoring every afternoon after the local schools ended their day.

Kendra was a good student before she started working with Kailey, but the math tutoring that she received at the library transformed her from a middle-of-the road math student to the highest-scoring pupil in her algebra class. It hadn’t been easy. At first, Kendra was resistant to spending every afternoon watching her brothers and breaking down math equations, but her mother was thrilled with the arrangement. Kendra would sometimes be embarrassed when her mom would praise her as “my little genius” to her friends, but she was glad that her mother was proud of her. She could see changes in her brothers as well: her youngest brother was now reading all the time and the middle child was now an honor roll student.

While she still missed taking additional ballet classes, her mom would let her stay a little longer at the library for its Wednesday yoga class. Her mother also let her volunteer on the weekends. She was surprised by how many interesting programs the library offered and how they affected the lives of so many people. Sometimes, the librarian would let her introduce an author or someone important, and Kendra would think about how the library had changed her. Eighteen months ago, she had walked into the library as a student of the Anywhere School of the Arts. The library now allowed her to become a student of the world.

Kendra’s story is fictional, but we know that public libraries are transforming lives like Kendra’s across the United States every day. As I mentioned in my last column, I’m the poster child for public libraries changing lives, but beyond anecdotal stories, what can we do to document our work?

PLA’s Project Outcome seeks to solve this shortfall of information and the results are promising. Project Outcome started in 2013 as a task force of librarians and researchers who were brought together to consider outcome measurement. Then-PLA President Carolyn Anthony made outcome measurement her most important initiative and a task force was launched to examine using standardized measurements to judge the effectiveness of library programs. Chaired by Denise Davis, deputy director, Sacramento Public Library, the task force began with a question: “How do we go beyond simple attendance counts and enhance existing service data?” The task force met for over a year and in the fall of 2014 began to test surveys in seven core service program areas:

  1. Civic/Community Engagement
  2. Digital Learning
  3. Early Childhood Literacy
  4. Economic Development
  5. Education/Lifelong Learning
  6. Job Skills
  7. Summer Reading

Each survey is flexible, easy to use, and accessible to libraries of all sizes. The feedback from the pilot libraries that tested the surveys were positive and patrons liked that the surveys were short and specific. The success of the pilot led to funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A three-year, three-million-dollar grant has allowed PLA to expand the program and currently 1,396 libraries are using Project Outcome. We are thrilled by this promising beginning, but recognize that we need many more participants to join us so libraries can build more persuasive arguments about the programs we provide.

I know that you are shaping the lives of young people like Kendra every day with the programs libraries are providing, but we must move beyond expressing our successes through inputs. Success today is judged by the outcomes displayed by those who attend our programs. Please join us as we seek to document how we make our communities better. Get more information at www.projectoutcome.org or email info@projectoutcome.org.