Five Questions You Might Have About Measuring Outcomes

Among Americans who visited a library in 2012, one in five attended a class, lecture, or program for adults. Did those visitors enjoy the program? Did they learn something from it? Will they attend another program like that? Or was it not what they expected? Unless you have psychic powers, you won't know what your patrons got out of a program or service unless you ask.

TechSoup for Libraries recently teamed up with the Public Library Association (PLA) on a webinar that gave an overview of outcome measurement from Project Outcome. This new program from PLA provides simple tools for libraries to measure programs across seven common service areas. The webinar also featured a Project Outcome user from a small library. Our webinar speakers were:

  • Samantha Lopez, Project Outcome in Chicago, Illinois
  • Robyn Truslow, Calvert Library in Prince Frederick, Maryland

What Is an Outcome?

An outcome is a specific benefit that results from a library program or service designed to help patrons change their knowledge, behavior, skills, application, or awareness. Samantha made sure to distinguish the difference between outputs and outcomes. Outputs are the statistics you're probably already gathering: circulation stats, computer use numbers, or program attendance. Outcomes are job search skills acquired, creating an email account for a patron, or supporting a child's learning.

You can use outcome results for communicating your library's impact to your board or community or as data for a grant proposal. Your library can also use results to improve a program or eliminate it completely if it gets poor ratings.

What Does Project Outcome Offer Libraries?

Survey results

The goal of Project Outcome is to "help public libraries understand and share the true impact of essential library services and programs." And you don't have to start from scratch: the free Project Outcome toolkit includes

  • Field-tested surveys
  • An easy-to-use survey portal
  • Ready-made reports
  • Visually interactive data dashboards
  • Resources and training

The seven survey topics that Project Outcome offers are:

  1. Civic/community engagement
  2. Early childhood literacy
  3. Education/lifelong learning
  4. Summer reading
  5. Economic development
  6. Digital learning
  7. Job skills

The surveys consist of four rated questions and two open-ended questions.

Samantha suggested starting small. Choose one survey for a regular program (such as your weekly tech drop-in or your knitting club), measure the results, and grow from there.

How Do I Manage and Analyze My Surveys?

Survey portal

Project Outcome has a survey portal where you can go to schedule and access all of your surveys. You can also customize program information, track attendance and response rates, and enter response data (if you did paper surveys).

Data dashboard

The data dashboard is where you can get an overview of your survey results. You can aggregate results by outcomes or survey topics, sort through and filter results, and compare your results to national and state averages.

Project Outcome auto-generates reports on your surveys. You can use these for yearly reports or presentations to your board.

Does Project Outcome Make Sense for Small Libraries?

Project Outcome is effective for all public libraries, but especially small and rural ones. 

Robyn Truslow is formally the public relations coordinator for the Calvert Library, but, as is typical for a small library, she wears many hats. Robyn shared a few things she learned from implementing surveys.

  • If you have a registration process for your class or program, announce that there will be a survey after the program ends.
  • If you have the email addresses for your attendees, you can email them a reminder to take the survey.
  • Even if you get a smaller number of responses than expected, you can still learn something from those answers.
  • Use your volunteers. When the library used paper surveys for a program, Robyn got a volunteer to enter the data into the Project Outcome survey portal.   

How Do I Ensure that Project Outcome Is a Success at My Library?

Project Outcome has a wealth of resources to help you implement surveys and analyze data. There are tips on getting started, how to talk to patrons about surveys, best practices for survey collection, case studies from other public libraries, and more. Project Outcome also hosts a monthly webinar on using the tools and resources.

Interested in learning more about Project Outcome? Watch the full webinar and tell us in the comments if you plan to use Project Outcome.