Logic, Data and Planning: Takeaways from RIPL

Amanda Armstrong, Business Librarian, Loveland Public Library /

When I learned that I had the opportunity to attend the Research Institute for Public Libraries (RIPL), I was excited to spend a long weekend learning about data collection, analysis and visualization. I currently work as the Business Librarian for Loveland Public Library (CO), and I absolutely love data! Prior to working at the library, I worked as a data and systems manager in healthcare, so I know that good data analysis and proactive work can improve people's quality of life. I was thrilled by the possibility of using data to help our diverse community of library users and even reach yet-to-be library users.

Having experienced RIPL in full, I now realize that all the exciting elements that I learned were truly the many layers of the onion. At the core of the RIPL curriculum there were two major elements that can help libraries build and improve their services and programs: the logic model and the data roadmap.

The logic model allows us to evaluate using four different elements: inputs, outputs, outcomes and impact. And for the purpose of RIPL, the presenters focused on inputs, outputs and outcomes. I like to use a Thanksgiving metaphor to understand the logical model.

  • Inputs = Ingredients, kitchen tools, cooks in the kitchen, stove, etc.
  • Outputs = Roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, 15 attendees, one meal, for example.
  • Outcomes = 90% of attendees rated the dishes as extremely delicious and 100% were absolutely stuffed to the gills.

Next, we have the data roadmap, which builds critical elements into the planning progress. First up, we have community needs assessment, which informs the strategic plan. Then, after planning the goals and activities based on the strategic plan, we also plan how to evaluate the program, collect the necessary data throughout and, finally, use the data to determine our success and opportunities for improvement.

Using these two tools will allow libraries to build programs and services that have the potential to help our community, collect data to see if the programs/services are meeting our set objectives, and then share that information in a compelling format with key stakeholders (including patrons, of course!). It was far more practical and exciting than I could have ever anticipated.

Evaluating a Real-Life Initiative

One part of the amazing RIPL experience revolved around the evaluation project. Each attendee was asked to identify a high-priority program or service at their library that required evaluation, and these became our evaluation projects. Having an evaluation project served as a way for each of us to immediately begin applying our new knowledge, assist others with brainstorming, and have useful ideas to bring back to our colleagues.

I have an unusual evaluation project. My library is considering an automated kiosk at a remote location as a means of providing materials to our patrons. This kiosk would allow library patrons to obtain a library card, search the catalog, check out a selection of items directly from the kiosk and return any item. My instructions were clear: go to RIPL as a sponge and soak all of the information that might help my library determine who in Loveland would benefit from a kiosk and where it should be located.

During RIPL, I had the opportunity to both formally and informally discuss my evaluation project with fellow librarians, state-level library employees, and several of the facilitators. In particular, I had a great experience with the "office hours." During two designated breaks, facilitators were available to consult on projects, like an online dating service for data nerds.

After reviewing the different facilitators and their profiles, I spoke with Keith Lance, founding director of the Library Research Service at the Colorado State Library and now a consultant with RSL Research Group. He and I had an excellent discussion about my evaluation project, and we agreed that the best course of action would be to identify several different target markets in Loveland that might benefit from a kiosk and then evaluate the potential outcomes for each target market by taking the following steps:

  • Look at the potential outcomes and then work backward to determine the necessary inputs and outputs.
  • Find a community group that represents that target market and present the library kiosk concept to them. Ask if it would be useful and beneficial to this target market.
  • Conduct key informant interviews with representatives of that community.

Post-Event Next Steps

Returning to the library after RIPL has felt a little bit like coming back to sea level after a deep sea dive. I prepared myself for the transition by setting next steps for myself that fell over a period of two weeks. This has allowed me to share targeted information with my colleagues without overwhelming them. I've also met with Amy Phillips my manager twice, and we've begun working on a plan to bring the RIPL curriculum to our library. I'm very lucky because my manager is also a data nerd, so she is also excited to learn about and implement outcomes and the data road map at our library.

Our plan includes both a top-down and bottom-up approach that will be taken on simultaneously. This month, I will present the logic model (focusing on outcomes) to the library's director and supervisors. At the same time, I will work with library department representatives to select an evaluation project, and then we'll use experiential learning to explore the key concepts and find areas where they'd like more training or information.

I also plan to learn from their areas of interest and curiosity and use that to guide my efforts. For example, if several people are interested in the same topic, I'll put together a training presentation and open it up to all of the library staff. My manager and I believe that by having projects that will focus on data that is important to each lane, we'll give the staff an opportunity to be excited and impacted by these concepts, instead of ideas simply being a bunch of concepts.

My evaluation project is also moving forward! Recently, I met with the supervisor who is overseeing the library kiosk project, Joanna McNeal, Loveland Public Library's Customer Service Supervisor. She is an excellent manager and compatriot for such a project, as she has a science background and loves to approach decisions with the data in mind. Based on the data I gathered from RIPL and Keith Lance's recommendation, we agreed that my next steps are that I will identify five to seven target markets, which we'll review together and determine our top three. Once we have our top markets, we will begin to identify and evaluate potential locations that would best serve those markets.

Joanna and I anticipate having recommendations for the library supervisors by early 2017, and we're both very excited about the prospect of not only offering this amazing technology to the community of Loveland, but also doing it in a data-driven, thoughtful manner. This process will allow us to hone in on the needs of the different communities we serve and evaluate if we're meeting the objectives of our strategic plan and serving our community. 

Moving from Transaction to Transformation

Sharon Streams, Director, WebJunction & RIPL participant

Libraries are not new to data, but have typically measured their "outputs" as circulation, visits and attendance, collection size, etc. What RIPL helps us learn is how to use data and research to answer to the question, "How can our library make a measureable impact on peoples' lives?"

This is a powerful question to answer because, ultimately, if our communities do not perceive the library as making a difference, they will be less likely to deem it an essential service to support. And, if the library does not have data to aid planning, managing and evaluating services, it may be spending its precious resources on services that are not relevant or effective.

The methods and tools that RIPL attendees are exposed to help libraries move from a focus on transactions to a focus on transformation. The conference also shows us how to use words, pictures and numbers to tell a compelling story about the library.

WebJunction realizes that understanding community needs, and planning and evaluating services to meet those needs, are part of an ongoing "cycle of success" for libraries, which is why we wanted to attend RIPL and learn alongside public libraries. You can read more about this cycle in this OCLC Next blog post "A five-step cycle for strong library programs."