Conduct an Evaluation Without Ever Leaving Your Desk

Are you ready to get your hands dirty and start evaluating? After covering outcomes, the logic model, evaluation questions, and research ethics, our next step is to start collecting data. I know many of you might be thinking, “But we’re still in a pandemic. How could we possibly do an evaluation now?” Well that’s one of the many advantages of secondary research.

What is secondary research and why should I do it? 

Secondary research involves data that has been previously collected by someone else. As opposed to primary research, where you collect the data yourself, secondary research uses “available data” and various online and offline resources. Also called desk research because you can do it without ever leaving your desk, it’s a particularly useful evaluation method when you have a limited ability to collect your own data. In many ways, it is similar to a literature review—it gives you an idea of what information is already out there. However, secondary research focuses more specifically on analyzing existing data within the confines of your evaluation question. 

What are different ways I can use secondary research? 

Secondary research can be useful whether you have limited resources and time or have no limits whatsoever. Your evaluation might only consist of secondary research or it could simply be the first step. No matter what your goal, secondary research can be helpful. 

Let’s say you are a youth services librarian at a rural public library that serves a population  of 4,000. You want to know if your summer learning program is effective at engaging youth with developmentally enriching content (our evaluation question). You don’t have the time or resources to go out and collect your own data, so you decide to conduct secondary research instead to help you make a decision about how to alter your summer learning. 

One approach you could take is to conduct a classic literature review and in the process, look for studies on topics that align with your evaluation question. If possible, also look for data that is similar in some aspect (demographics, size, location, etc.) to data you would collect yourself. For instance, you might find a study on how public libraries facilitate youth development. Within the study, you see data was collected from another rural library. Perfect! 

Depending on your evaluation question, you may even find multiple data sets that are useful and relevant. For example, let’s say we find data on summer learning from three different libraries. Each recorded what their main activity was and participation numbers. Great! We can compare these data sets and extrapolate some conclusions. Just remember, when using multiple data sets, it’s helpful to have a variable they all share. In our example, even if one library recorded participation rates in weekly numbers and another in monthly, we can recode the data so that the variables match.

Even if you also plan to collect primary data, secondary research is a good place to start. It can provide critical context for your evaluation, support your findings, or help identify something you should do differently. In the end, it could save you time and resources by spending a little extra time at your desk!  

What are the different kinds of secondary data I can collect?

Internal sources

You don’t have to go far to find data. Your library has probably been collecting some sort of data ever since it opened! This is called internal sources—data from inside your organization. Here are a few common examples:

  • Usage data (visits, circulation, reference transactions, wifi, etc.)
  • User data (ex: number of registered borrowers)
  • Financial data 
  • Staff data
  • Program data (attendance, number of programs, etc.)

External sources

Maybe your library doesn’t have the data you’re looking for, like the demographics of children in your service area. Perhaps you are more curious about what other libraries have found successful or challenging in their summer learning programs. Or maybe you want to look at peer-reviewed research  about summer learning loss (summer slide). These are all examples of external sources—sources from outside your organization. Here are a couple of common examples:

  • Government sources
  • State and national institutions
  • Trade, business, and professional associations
  • Scientific or academic journals
  • Commercial research organizations 


Now you have the what of secondary research. Next time we’ll cover how to do secondary research in four simple steps, so stay tuned. As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to reach out to us at