Counting on Results: New Tools for Outcome-Based Evaluation of Public Libraries

In recent years, public libraries have been urged to engage in outcome-based evaluation and decision-making. Organizations in both the private and public sectors have been hearing this call from funders for several years. When the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) was passed in 1996, the Institute for Museum and Library Services mandated outcome-based evaluation as part of its grantmaking to public and other types of libraries from LSTA funds. To date, the focus of most activity responding to this call has focused on outcomes of special projects receiving short-term funding via state and federal grants. The Counting on Results (CoR) project shifted the focus from special projects to ongoing library services. The goals of the project were to develop and demonstrate the potential utility of new tools for outcome-based evaluation of public library services (see Chapters 1 and
2). These tools include the following:

  • customizable software for Palm personal digital assistants (PDAs) that facilitates collecting standardized data on conventionally recorded library outputs (e.g., visits, circulation, reference questions) as well as observable patron activities in the library; and
  • standardized questionnaires eliciting reports of the outcomes of public library service directly from patrons.

The project developed these tools and demonstrated their use by 45 public libraries representing 20 states and all 4 major regions of the United States (i.e., Northeast, South, Midwest, West). In addition to reporting data on conventional library service outputs, the project generated data on the observed library activities of more than 40,000 patrons and reports of the outcomes of library services from more than 5,500 patrons. Thus, this project completed the largest, most comprehensive, and most detailed multi-state data collection of this type attempted to date (see Chapter 3).

This project built upon the Public Library Association’s Planning for Results (PfR) model by designing data collection tools for 6 CoR service responses that were derived from 9 of PfR’s 13 service responses: Basic Literacy, Business and Career Information, Library as a Place (Commons), General Information, Information Literacy, and Local History and Genealogy.