Conducting a needs assessment can sound intimidating, but if you break it down into small opportunities for conversations, you’ll be surprised by how much information you can gather. In this article, Mitchell Community Public Library director Alexis Caudell shares her advice and experiences.
Statistics and Data
In a previous TechSoup post, Bill Young shared resources for Finding Data about your Community. In addition to having access to a wealth of community data, odds are you also already have a bunch of library usage data on hand from tracking circulation statistics, door counts and program attendance. Do you have access to reports about library technology use? Our library can access bandwidth reports from our Internet Service provider and we can pull in-house computer usage data from our computer reservation and print management software. Don’t have those services? How about collecting information with paper and pencil four times during the year? Our library does something we call a STATS week each quarter. We count the number of people in the library every half-hour, and record the number of questions asked. If we can’t answer a question, we make a note of it on the data sheet so that we can identify areas that might require additional staff training. What about social media analytics? No idea what that is? Check out these tutorials from NIU.
Remember that every circulation or reference transaction is an opportunity to talk to patrons and find out what they would like to see at the library.
It seems like there is a survey for everything these days, so if you are going to survey your community, keep it short, no more than 6-10 questions. That means you’ll have to identify what information is the most important to you. Don’t ask a question that you can get data for in some other way. At our library, one of the most useful questions we have asked is "why have you not visited the library in the previous twelve months?". With another question, we ask survey respondents to rank the importance of library services and library spaces (such as the children’s area). Computers and technology consistently come in at the top of the list!
Consider working with a local business or organization so that you can give away a prize to those who complete the survey. Tri Kappa provided us with a Kindle to give-away. There are a lot of free online survey tools, which is a great way to collect information. You will also want to offer a paper version of surveys so that those people who are not comfortable with a computer will have an opportunity to participate.
If you only make the survey available at your library, you will only hear from current library users. Think outside the box.
Ask local businesses if they will give the survey to their employees or send a link to the local school administration for an educator’s perspective. Businesses might even allow you to station yourself at their front door to talk with customers. Both our hardware store and general store proved to be great locations! Circulate the survey to churches, organizations, and social groups. Head to the VFW or American Legion and gather responses. If your state has a summer work-study program, consider hiring a couple of additional hands to act as survey ambassadors.
Community Discussion Forums or focus groups are a great way to gather a large amount of information. However, they can be time consuming so plan carefully. Over a six week period, we conducted 8 separate sessions with a total of 102 participants, including a staff only focus group.
You can certainly conduct these with library staff facilitators, but you will often receive better, more honest feedback, if an outsider conducts the sessions. If you choose to do forums, consider inviting specific groups together e.g. parents of small children, social service agencies, and elected officials. It can be helpful if you structure the discussion around a specific concept such as Technology, Programming or Space/Layout.
Focus groups will allow you to drill into survey information more thoroughly.
As people talk through issues you get a better sense of their understanding or concerns than you do from short, prescribed survey responses. You may even find the discussions a good marketing opportunity. During our discussion forums, multiple people stated that patrons needed to be able to scan items at the library. At that point, we were able to inform them that we already had two scanners available for patron use.
You may receive comments that are less than positive and occasionally mean spirited. Try to keep an open mind and examine what it is people are trying to tell you. Constructive criticism is helpful and should be used as you consider actions for improvement. Mean spirited feedback can be put to the side.
Ready to get started? Here are a few resources for learning more:
- National Research and the Local Experience
- A Quick Guide to Community Needs Assessment
- Sparking Interest in Community Assessment
- Writing Survey Questions
- Designing Surveys