Benchmarks could be the trick to getting the support we need

I have to be honest, when I first heard about the Benchmark project I was a little circumspect. In my experience, most people don’t even know what the definition of a “benchmark” really is and it is often misconstrued as a goal or an objective. While benchmarks do work with goals and objectives, and even, *said in a whisper* strategic plans, they are by definition different. A benchmark is an industry standard or point of reference against which things may be compared or assessed. For example, a company wishing to improve would look to another company that is setting the industry standard in terms of development, quality, or service, and use that company’s success as a benchmark for setting their own goals.

So I was pleasantly surprised to hear at the focus group I attended that not only do the people leading the project understand what a benchmark is, but most of the people participating did too. The idea being kicked around is to create an industry standard for libraries with respect to technology. This standard would then be endorsed not just by the State Library but also by organizations like ICMA, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ALA, and other groups that, wait for it, have CLOUT. With high-powered groups standing behind the idea and lending weight and importance to it, libraries would have a true industry standard that they could not just aspire to but actually use to set goals and influence decision-makers. This would give libraries more power and leverage when pleading our cases to local leaders, funders, and more.

It was also nice to hear that there will be a big emphasis on making the tools that will be created to implement the benchmarks scalable as well as easy to understand and use. As a born-again cynic (or as a friend of mine likes to say “disappointed optimist"), it is easy to roll my eyes at projects like this. I may be relatively young for this field of work but I’ve been around long enough to remember things like Input and Output Measures, Planning and Role Setting, Planning for Results, and a number of other catch phrases and program formats that generally meant a lot of committees, worksheets, binders, and talking heads. But I have to say that I am intrigued by this notion because it seems like, at last, there is some appreciation for people’s fatigue with this type of thing and there is finally a real effort to make something simple, applicable, and achievable that won’t just add to the list of reports we have to generate each year.

We all have stories about how public access to technology has impacted individuals in our communities. My personal favorite is of a gentleman who was trying to apply for a job online but was having difficulty jumping through the necessary hoops with his limited computer skills and the limited time available on the public computers. After six grueling hours he was finally able to create an email account and a résumé and successfully apply for the job he wanted. He never once lost patience and although I’m sure he was frustrated and perhaps even at bit embarrassed at his lack of expertise, he was cordial, understanding and appreciative the entire time. In fact, by the time he had completed his application we were on a first-name basis and I told him I would be happy to serve as a reference. These stories are powerful. They tug at your heart strings and remind us of why we chose this profession. For those outside our profession, they make people nod their heads and smile. They make politicians feel good too which is why we use them. But they don’t always get results. Often decision makers’ hands are tied, especially when it comes to funding. Benchmarks could very well be the trick to getting the support we need. Endorsed by those who are acknowledged for setting and supporting industry standards across the globe, we have something about as close to a mandate or directive as we’re likely to get. That clout combined with our storytelling could be a recipe for success.

Jennifer Baker

Library Director

St. Helena Public Library, CA


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