The Research Institute for Public Libraries: What I Learned

By Aimee Fifarek

The Research Institute for Public Libraries is a relatively new event created by the large library organizations in Colorado with support from the Institute for Museum and Library Services. To call it a data bootcamp is completely accurate but does not even begin to describe the experience.

Thanks to a scholarship from the Arizona State Library, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2nd annual Research Institute last month along with about 100 librarians from across the country, including the State Library’s own Jaime Ball. During the Friday through Monday event we spent each day learning the finer points of how to collect and analyze data, turn it into actionable information, and weave it into meaningful stories that can be used to convince stakeholders about the importance of libraries to the communities they serve.

RIPL was enlightening. It was exhilarating. It was exhausting. And you should absolutely go if you get the chance.

Like many libraries, Phoenix struggles with effectively using data. The collection part we have down cold – we have data coming out of our ears! The real problem is making meaning out of all the varied bits of information. After attending RIPL, it still seems like a tall order, but I definitely feel like I am better prepared to make our data work for me.

A lot of time in the workshop is devoted to helping participants understand what is called the logic model – how an organization can assess the effectiveness of its activities by measuring four different types of data: input, outputs, outcomes and impacts. Libraries are very good at tracking inputs (staff time, budget, items purchased) and outputs (classes held, circulations, patrons attended). What we struggle with measuring are the outcomes (the immediate effects of the inputs and outputs) and the impact (the long term effects of our activities, and the most difficult to measure).

In the past, libraries tracked inputs and outputs – counted the widgets of circ and door counts – and that was enough. But now in our data-driven environment, libraries are expected to prove that we have made a difference in the lives of our patrons and in the success of our community. Numbers by themselves are no longer important unless you have the stories – the outcomes and impacts – that will make those numbers meaningful to the audience you are trying to sway.

For as much time as you spend learning about hardcore data measurement you spend an equal amount of time learning to communicate those measures in meaningful ways. There were sessions on infographics and storytelling, as well as breakout sessions on advanced techniques with Google analytics, Excel and Census data. The message was clear – different audiences judge success in very different ways and modern librarians need to develop proficiency in all of them.

During the workshop RIPL attendees get to apply these techniques in very practical ways. First, every person is expected to come with a research project that they need to work on for their library. During each session, there is an opportunity to apply what you’ve just learned to your own project, as well as built-in chances to share your project with other attendees and get their input.

The Speed Data-ing activity was one of my favorites. Over the course of a half hour you walked up to a random RIPL attendee and gave them a 30-second description of your project an asked them how they would approach it. They were expected to suggest an input, an output, and an outcome you should measure, and then you switched and heard about their project and gave them ideas. At the sound of the bell you found a new person to pair up with. By the end of the half hour, you had spoken with four different people and had a dozen new ideas to take back with you.

The other applied activity was the sandbox session. The whole room was provided with information about a fictional library attempting to get fund to pursue a digital literacy program. You worked with the rest of your tablemates to develop a communication strategy designed to persuade target audiences to vote in favor of the funding package. Data for the library was provided by the three vendor sponsors – Project Outcome, Impact Survey, and Library Edge – and your team sketched out the strategy on large post-its for the instructors to judge.

Alas, I did not win any of the competitions, but I did learn a great deal about the process of collecting data and turning it into actionable results. I’ve already applied many of the techniques I’ve learned and fully expect to be able to continue to do so. RIPL was a long weekend well spent – I’ve got the data to prove it.

Aimee Fifarek is ALA Councilor, AzLA, and Deputy Library Director, Phoenix Public Library.

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