Samantha Lopez works on the Public Library Association's (PLA's) Project Outcome. Project Outcome is a free online toolkit designed to help public libraries understand and share the impact of essential library services and programs. The toolkit offers simple surveys and an easy-to-use process for measuring and analyzing outcomes. Project Outcome also provides libraries with the resources and training needed to apply their results and confidently advocate for their library's future. We want to raise awareness about this excellent free resource by showing a bit of what it can do.
This article is an excerpt of a larger piece by PLA's expert in measuring library outcomes, Samantha Lopez. It first appeared in PLA's Public Libraries magazine (PDF) and is reprinted here by permission of the author and PLA.
Appleton, Wisconsin, Public Library: Using Project Outcome to Measure Its Summer Library Program
Appleton, Wisconsin, Public Library (APL) first experienced the value of measuring outcomes through its ongoing use of the Impact Survey. Library leadership viewed Project Outcome as an opportunity to extend outcome measurement to their summer library program and support program improvement and communications with the library's board.
Data-Driven Changes Strengthen Programming, and Evidence of Patron Outcomes Gains Board Support
APL offers a range of activities for children, teens, and adults as part of its summer library program. Patrons can earn rewards through an online component by completing "missions," such as visiting a local nature preserve or the police department. These missions help patrons build connections with community resources and other community members through informal interactions. Project Outcome surveys conducted in 2016 showed that patrons benefited from the program but that they found some of the missions confusing and hard to follow. APL has since improved the descriptions and layout of the missions, and they look forward to reviewing subsequent survey results.
APL's reports to its board on the impacts of library programs and services are based on the results of Project Outcome surveys and Impact Surveys. Library leaders have found that outcomes resonate with board members, strengthening how they voice their support for the library. One leader shared:
"I think reporting on outcomes really transformed conversations with our board, so that they're much more interested. It lets us tell a more complete story about the library, and what we're offering so they can understand it more fully. When you talk strictly in numbers, or outputs, it's not something that people can hold on to as clearly. And so, when you start talking about outcomes and the impact that a library is having, that's where the true heart of what we're doing is. And our board feels that as well. It allows them to have something more concrete to hold on to, and to talk to people about what the library does in a more complete way than 'X number of people walk in the door every year' or 'X number of books walk out.'"
Several APL staff members took part in trainings offered by PLA, which helped build familiarity with Project Outcome and led to their early use of the tools in 2015. APL staff appreciated that Project Outcome offered ready-to-use surveys, which the library did not have the expertise to create in-house.
Burnsville, West Virginia, Public Library: Using Project Outcome at a Small Library
Burnsville, West Virginia, Public Library (BPL) is an important community anchor within the rural county it serves. BPL has used Project Outcome surveys to better understand the impact of the library's programs and has developed new partnerships and designed new programs based on community input.
Survey Results Support a New Partnership and Enhanced Programming for Children
Project Outcome surveys showed that caregivers of young participants in BPL's summer reading program wanted tutoring and extra help for their children. Equipped with this information and evidence of program impact, BPL worked with the local school district to have two teachers offer tutoring at the library the following summer for three days each week. A library staff person whose two children participated in the program shared, "the children work on reading, math, they get on the computer. It's really benefiting them. And some of the kids are here because they need the extra help, and some of them are here just to try to beat the summer slide. It's working very well."
BPL also started a new after-school program because surveys showed an appetite for additional programming for children. Children shared that they wanted to learn more about science and technology, so one of the after-school classes will include hands-on science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) activities.
How Survey Data Helped Secure a Technology Grant
Project Outcome surveys showed that a basic digital literacy skills class at the library helped adult participants feel more confident using technology and become more active email users. Participants also shared their desire for access to better technology. This feedback from Project Outcome surveys helped BPL secure a technology grant from the West Virginia Library Commission, and next fall the library's public computer lab will be upgraded and expanded. A library leader shared, "It seems like [town council members'] support is a little more evident since we actually have the data to back up what we're claiming."
Pima County, Arizona, Public Library: Using Project Outcome to Measure Business Development and Youth Job Skills Programs
For eight months, Pima County, Arizona, Public Library (PCPL) has been using Project Outcome surveys to assess the workshops, classes, trainings, and drop-in sessions it provides in the areas of business development, job skills, and digital literacy.
Data-Driven Decision-Making Leads to a Deepened Business Development Partnership
Based on survey results, PCPL has added components to business development services, changed how they offer services, and, in one case, decided to eliminate a service. One program manager explained, "It's not just a matter of measuring attendees, but in measuring the effectiveness, or the immediate impact that it has on patrons that attend these workshops. Some of these workshops were well-attended, but the feedback was such that we no longer offer them."
Through the Project Outcome surveys, the library learned that patrons wanted a more structured learning opportunity in addition to one-on-one help. Library leadership approached an existing nonprofit partner, SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), and, together, PCPL and SCORE decided library staff would teach content from the first of five SCORE foundational business workshops during the library's drop-in hours. As a result, more community members are now accessing a continuum of services that match their evolving needs.
In this mutually beneficial collaboration, SCORE provides the library with materials, coaching, and occasional in-person support, and the library frees up SCORE mentors to provide higher-level training to patrons who have an increased level of readiness for it. Each partner is doing what they do best.
Demonstrating the Impact of a Job Skills Program Leads to a Deepened Government Partnership
Pima County's Economic Development Plan includes PCPL's contribution to "human infrastructure" through support of workforce development and small business creation and growth. In its quarterly updates to the county, as well as its recent annual report, PCPL included evidence of outcomes and anecdotes provided through Project Outcome surveys.
The result is a new collaborative effort between the local One-Stop Job Center and PCPL to provide youth with work experience as well as college and career readiness programming.
One-Stop youth participate in Teen 365 programming at the library, which helps teens develop skills, connections, and opportunities to create a successful and happy adulthood. The year-round program addresses all aspects of teen development, from academic goals to social and personal interests. Combined with One-Stop's efforts to provide employability skills training, the program helps create pathways to college, career, and entrepreneurship.
PCPL is currently building staff capacity to scale up use of Project Outcome throughout the system. The library has coordinated a training on Project Outcome with library program instructors who are spread across its 26 branches so they can begin to measure impacts across a broader range of programs and services The trained instructors can serve as point people for other staff at each branch.
What PLA Learned from These Case Studies
What PLA learned from the case studies is that, even with limited survey responses, libraries are able to leverage their outcome data into actionable results. By using Project Outcome surveys, libraries are tracking their impact across time; improving and expanding programs and services to meet community needs; supporting new and deepening existing partnerships; and increasing library championship. For additional case studies like these, see PLA's full article (PDF) in Public Libraries magazine.
About the Author
Samantha Lopez is Program Officer for the Public Library Association. In her work for PLA, she is responsible for creating new member engagement activities, managing and increasing library use of Project Outcome, and increasing PLA's external presence.