Better together: benchmarks and advocacy

What would you think about a tool that:

  • Creates a common language for discussing public libraries' and public access technology's role in supporting community goals
  • Sets clear, achievable and measurable standards for public access technology for libraries of all sizes
  • Supports strategic planning, budgeting and advocacy processes
  • Provides an extra layer of legitimacy and authority to library technology discussions
  • Helps you find new and clearer ways to tell your library's story

Would you want to use that tool? How could it benefit your library? What would help you make the most of the tool? And what kind of challenges do you think there might be in implementing it? That's exactly what California public librarians have been discussing recently, as part of an effort to understand how best to implement the Public Access Technology Benchmarks (PATB).

As part of this process, two focus groups were held this month, one in Southern California and one in Sacramento. Sarah and I were lucky enough to attend last week's session in Sacramento, along with about 35 representatives from California public libraries. I also got to meet Stacey Aldrich, the California State Librarian (for a library fan like me, this was awesome, like meeting a rock star).

The compiled results from both focus group sessions were presented at a webinar held on Monday, July 25. The archived webinar is available here. There’s also a survey being conducted to gather additional feedback on the focus group-identified themes. The survey will run until August 2, and all California public library staff (not only librarians!) are being encouraged to participate. 

Looking at the webinar and the survey contents, I thought the facilitators did a great job of capturing the main themes that emerged from the focus group session Sarah and I attended. Rather than rehashing what the webinar already covered, I’ll focus on a few of the discussion points that particularly caught my attention. 

Many of the potential benefits I mentioned at the beginning of this post - creating a common language, setting standards, supporting planning/budgeting, etc - were what I'd expected to hear in a benchmarking discussion. A few potential benefits really surprised me, though:


  1. Advances credibility and authority to library technology discussions: In particular, they mentioned that the Gates Foundation name carries a lot more weight than libraries do on their own. This came up repeatedly, across all the small groups. One librarian put it this way: "I can say ALA this and PLA that all day, and people just roll their eyes. They perk up at Gates, though." Another noted that the benchmarks make it clear that "this isn't just our opinion or crazy idea."
  2. Standards and language that resonate outside the library community are needed. In a similar vein, many of the groups mentioned the need for tools that help them communicate with businesses, and with city, county and state officials and other stakeholders. Clear, impartial benchmarks that included measurable benefits to the community (and were backed by the Gates name) could help libraries make the case for the value of public access technology. Similarly, businesses, police/fire departments, and other government organizations all use benchmarks, so public access benchmarks would let libraries speak a familiar language. That way, as one librarian said: "We won't just be in little library land, talking literacy talk."
  3. Finding effective ways to tell your library's story. Another recurring theme was the struggle for effective advocacy. Many of the librarians mentioned that it was difficult to get leaders to listen to what libraries had to say. One librarian mentioned the "culture of modesty" in libraries, which made it difficult for librarians to effectively promote their libraries.

These all boil down to the same thing: the struggle to get the message out. I'm not saying librarians aren't already effective advocates, or that they aren't credible and authoritative outside the library world. But I believe (as do most librarians) that libraries and public access technology are essential for maintaining thriving communities, and I'm happy about anything that helps libraries make that point more effectively. It seems like the benchmarks could give library advocates new language and tools to help shout their message from the rooftops.

Which brings up final benefit of the benchmarks: they can help identify and reward those libraries who are already doing great things. Given the "culture of modesty" in libraries, the benchmarks have the potential to highlight public access technology achievements in a way librarians might not naturally do on their own. Benchmarks don't just tell you what you should be doing (or aren't doing well enough). They can also help spotlight what you're already doing (and doing well). And it never hurts to be reminded of that.

Ariel Gilbert-Knight

Technology Analyst, TechSoup Global

Calling all interested parties: We're gathering librarians and other interested folks to get involved in this project. Would you like to learn more or offer your ideas on the benchmarks? Please get in touch with us. We rely on your feedback.