Stop the Measurement Madness!

At St. Louis Public Library there are many things that we can and do measure. SLPL staff regularly collects data on a variety of subjects, which information is then analyzed and used to make the Library a more effective institution and to better allow us to fulfill our mission: to "provide learning resources and information services that support and improve individual, family and community life." The Library reports certain information to its Board of Directors, and is also required to provide information to the Missouri Secretary of State's office each year to help inform the State Library's annual statistical reports, which include data for all public libraries within the state. But with 16 branches, millions of books, tens of thousands of cardholders, dozens of databases, as well as programs, outreach, classes, blogs, and more, it can be daunting to determine what to measure and when to stop, otherwise one runs the risk of doing nothing but measuring and having no time to do the actual work that is at the core of our mission. 

This blog post offers an inside peek into some of current and historic Library measurements, and information about a GFC program to be offered to help all of us, especially nonprofit organizations and the people who make them run, in our battle against tendencies to "over-measure" and to learn more about what should be measured, how to do it, and how to present the findings in a way that is compelling to funders and stakeholders. Join us at Central Library on Thursday May 23 [PROGRAM RESCHEDULED - WILL BE HELD ON TUESDAY, JUNE 25!] to hear from Sarah Buek (more on her below) who will walk us through how to "Stop the Measurement Madness;" Sarah will be talking about the urge many nonprofits have to measure everything, and will be sharing some "Measurement Strategies that are Meaningful and Manageable."

Chart on left shows trendlines for Foundation Directory Online searches and various page views for month of April (through 4/23); chart on right shows book purchases for fiscal year 2019 through the end of April, by number of items.

Above are examples of some things we measure in the Library's Grants & Foundation Center and the Social Sciences room at Central Library. For measurements to be meaningful (as Sarah will probably explain), it is necessary to understand a bit of the "why" behind those measurements. Since the Library has, of course, finite financial resources, we need to monitor whether the tools that the Library subscribes to are being used or not; while those of us who work closely with patrons who use the Foundation Directory Online can anecdotally say that it gets a fair amount of use, it is nice to be able to back up that impression with some data to make the case that local nonprofits are accessing the database in their search for grant funding to "improve individual, family and community life" (see SLPL mission, above). Again with respect to the finite financial resources, it is important that we keep track of our book purchases to ensure that we are keeping our collections fresh and relevant, providing our patrons with the books they want to read (even if they did not know they wanted to read them), while staying within our budget. 

Historic SLPL measurements from Fifty Years of Progress of the St. Louis Public Library (1926).

St. Louis Public Library, as an august, publicly funded institution, has been gathering data, both quantitative and qualitative, since its inception. To the right is some of the quantitative information regarding circulation, maintenance costs, and library card holders (Fifty Years of Progress of the St. Louis Public Library  by Charles H. Compton, Assistant Librarian, 1926). In terms of qualitative data, the book shares this account, from an interview called "What People Read" that Frederick Crunden, head librarian at St. Louis Public Library from 1877 until 1909, gave to the Post-Dispatch in 1888:

"If any one is possessed with the idea that only the well-to-do members of the community, those who wear fashionable clothes, do any solid reading a short time spent near the issue desk of this library would suffice to convince the most skeptical that such is far from being the fact. Men and women wearing the roughest clothes, and evidently making their living by manual labor, are among the most constant readers of religious, philosophical and scientific literature. Social science, especially anything relating to the relations between employer and employed, is read with great avidity by this class of people and in character the books issued to the poor would compare favorably with those read by the rich." (p. 42)

While we might phrase things a bit differently, this description of our patrons and their interests is not that different from what we observe from day to day here at Central Library, and the diverse range of people the Library has served and is committed to serving is in keeping with the Andrew Carnegie quote found on the Locust side of Central Library: "I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people because they only help those who help themselves." 

The Library is the perfect place to "help yourself" and we invite you to come to the Library to help yourself and your nonprofit organization by learning from Sarah Buek, who will be presenting the May 23 June 25 GFC program helping us get a handle on measurement. Sarah is the founder of The IllumiLab, a team of nonprofit consultants and coaches with the goal of "enhancing the focus, quality, and impact of nonprofits' efforts." Last fall Sarah presented a program on CQI (continuous quality improvement, as all who attended the program learned) for the Grants & Foundation Center, where she motivated participants to incorporate CQI into their nonprofit organizations' culture and workflow for better cooperation, efficiency, and capacity, among other benefits. She also provided book recommendations (we are big fans of book recommendations!), and we can't wait to hear what else she suggests for the Library's GFC collection. In the meantime, here are a few titles to help us determine what to measure and why:

Measuring and Improving Social Impacts (available in both physical and ebook format)

Level Best

The Social Profit Handbook

You may also want to sign up for the monthly newsletter (link also includes additional resources) from The IllumiLab: in a timely post, the most recent shared the 1st in a five-part blog post on "Do-Able Data Analysis: Getting Started in Excel" by a client of The IllumiLab. (psst: the Library also has great Excel resources, both in terms of books - check the SLPL catalog - and online learning via Gale Online Courses and Lynda.com). 

Click here to learn more about the May 23 JUNE 25 GFC program and/or to register (not required, but will help us have the correct number of handouts, and you will receive  a reminder email with info about free parking for programs at Central). We look forward to counting many of you among the GFC's statistical data, and learning from Sarah how we can stop the measurement madness!

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