By Rashad Young and Susan Benton
Technology has become essential to success and progress in daily life, and public libraries are go-to resources for digital access and trusted guides in the increasingly complex digital world. Today, no other institution rivals the significance of public libraries as technology gateways providing a wide range of resources that meet personal and professional needs, support local economies, and build stronger communities.
The breadth of public technology services available in libraries is growing exponentially, placing increased pressure on library budgets and staff to not only keep abreast of community needs and changing technologies, but also to plan for the future.
As the library’s strategic role in the community expands, being able to assess the scope and effectiveness of library services, measure outcomes, and make informed decisions about future investments becomes even more important for library directors and local government managers.
Meeting Public Access Technology Needs
Public access technology today covers far more than Internet access and desktop computers for use in public libraries. Those digital-access services continue to be essential, supplemented by innovative programs outside library walls to close the digital divide, including Wifi access in remote locations and hotspot lending programs that provide home mobile broadband wireless Internet access, particularly for use when libraries are closed, and Wifi-enabled bookmobiles.
Libraries also support a growing range of these technology services that address community priorities and improve community outcomes:
- Workforce development and entrepreneurship through organized online resources for job seeking, employment skill-building, professional certification, small business development, and career testing.
- E-government access through links to local, state, and federal resources with instructions for identifying, finding, and using online government services.
- Education opportunities for learners of all ages that involve web-based read-along programs, online resources for homework help, access to education testing preparation, and high-tech teen learning centers.
- Health and wellness including access to online medical databases, health care providers, and resources to improve health literacy.
“The role of the public library has evolved dramatically over the years, particularly in relation to technology services,” said San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley. “The scope of library services is changing at such a fast pace today that it’s sometimes hard to keep up and predict where we want to be.”
Taking a broad look, rather than a piecemeal approach at public access technology services and developing a digital strategy that aligns library services with community priorities can help local government managers and library leaders stay on top of change while planning for the future.
“I’m certainly not a technology expert, but I am a futurist,” Sculley said. “I want to look three to five years down the road to assess where we want to be and what we need to do today to get there.”
Edge, a new tool developed by a coalition of national organizations including the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and led by the Urban Libraries Council, offers a framework for assessing public access services and developing a technology roadmap.
The Edge System
Edge is a performance-management system built around 11 benchmarks (see Figure 1) that identify essential public access technology services and 30 indicators (see Figure 2 for sample indicators) that identify desired outcomes for measuring progress. Since its national launch in January 2014, nearly 1,900 public libraries have completed an online assessment of their technology services, in partnership with their local government.
The process of examining public access services against national benchmarks can help library leaders and managers:
- Quantify what people expect from their public library.
- Develop metrics to defend and justify proposed investments in library infrastructure, programs, and services.
- Compare library performance with national averages from library systems of similar size.
- Develop a multi-year action plan to address the most pressing needs first while scheduling action on future needs.
Like other performance-management systems that may be in use in local government, the Edge assessment produces data for setting priorities, allocating resources, and achieving higher levels of performance. The framework also provides outcomes that help define the value of the public library in the community and guides smart decisions about investments in library programs.
“As a city manager, it is important for me to identify and implement methodologies that generate valid information on how to deliver services to better meet community needs,” said Tommy Gonzalez, city manager of El Paso, Texas. “At the end of the day, we want to increase the number of people using library services and give the end user a better product. Edge is a valuable tool for making that happen.”
Comparisons Provide Measureable Results
Following completion of the online assessment, the library receives a report with scores on each indicator and comparison with average scores attained by libraries of similar size (see Figure 3).
Tim Burgess, assistant county manager, New Hanover County, North Carolina, said the assessment process is “like having a consultant come in and provide a neutral perspective on what we’re doing as a library organization.” He described the benchmarks and indicators as a different kind of checklist that provides a complete picture of essential, public access library services. “Edge made us aware of things we hadn’t considered and caused us to closely evaluate current operations,” Burgess said.
New Data and New Ideas
Since its January 2014 national launch, Edge has helped public library systems of all sizes achieve results in how they deliver public access technology. From the Alexander County, North Carolia, library, which serves 37,000 people in two locations with 12 staff and 11 public computers, to San Antonio’s public library with 1.8 million patrons, 27 locations, 500 employees, and 791 public devices, Edge has generated data, new ideas, and a framework for action.
Library directors and local government managers highlight these examples of outcomes from completing the assessment process:
- Holistic and strategic thinking about the library’s overall role in the community.
- New investments in public technology infrastructure based on assessment results.
- Clear focus for action and a structure for change.
- Improved staff capacity to deliver essential services, to support an outcome-based approach to library planning, and to engage in strategic thinking.
- Expanded community outreach.
- Increased ability to tell the library story using outcome data.
- Enhanced confidence about future library directions.
Local Library Snapshots
Here’s a brief overview of several libraries that have completed the Edge assessment and are implementing action plans.
San Antonio Public Library (SAPL) used its assessment results to sharpen its digital strategy, which led to $500,000 in additional city funds for technology investments. Despite already robust public access technology resources, Library Director Ramiro Salazar said the assessment process “helped us be more focused on positioning the library to meet community needs.”
Approval of the additional $500,000 for technology infrastructure and services came after a presentation to the city council on the library’s long-term digital strategy. Library leaders saw the council action as a vote of confidence for the library’s role in public computing.
SAPL used the results of its assessment to expand Wifi capacity, increase public access devices (e.g., desktops, laptops, and tablets), create collaborative meeting spaces in a new branch, explore use of Chromebooks and Chromeboxes as more economical and more easily managed devices to meet per capita user targets, and introduce kiosks at the San Antonio International Airport to give travelers access to the library’s e-books and audiobooks.
Another significant outcome of using the benchmarks has been improved communication between library staff and the city IT department by providing a common language and better data about the library’s technology infrastructure needs.
Guthrie, Oklahoma, Public Library focused its public access technology action plan on broadening connections with less-served areas, engaging all staff in shaping the library’s future, and expanding training to address digital literacy. While Guthrie’s library is a municipal department serving the city’s 10,000 residents, its service area also covers Logan County’s 40,000 residents.
City Manager Sereniah Breland said the benchmarks broadened staff awareness of the importance of standards and outcomes to define appropriate service levels and investments. “We have emphasized the importance of the benchmarks and measuring outcomes—not just for the library, but for all local government services,” Breland said.
To expand the library’s service reach, Guthrie is creating a Wifi-enabled bookmobile to bring the library to patrons with limited access to the main library and to technology resources, particularly in Logan County. The library secured an $18,000 grant to establish a mobile collection and is in the process of getting a vehicle and designing bookmobile routes.
El Paso, Texas, Public Library serves a population of 659,000 people living in a 259-square-mile area. The community has a high poverty rate, low educational achievement, and extremely limited Internet and technology access. Digital literacy and bridging the digital divide have been high priorities for the library, making public access technology a vital service.
The library had received an $8 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant in 2010 from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce that supported significant expansion of technology infrastructure and services. Library Director Dionne Mack said the Edge assessment process helped the library develop strategies and priorities for sustaining progress made with BTOP funds.
“The benchmarks helped us take a more holistic approach to our digital strategy and reframed the way we talked about public access technology in our organization and in the community,” Mack said. “Before Edge, we weren’t thinking about all the details and options such as a technology petting zoo to introduce new technologies.”
Technology petting zoos have been used in libraries in recent years to give both patrons and staff an opportunity to try out tech devices with guidance from expert staff in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere—like a library “genius bar.” Typical services in a petting zoo include one-on-one scheduled visits, tech fairs, and group coaching sessions. E-readers and tablets from different manufacturers are the most common devices in library petting zoos.
Two significant outcomes of the El Paso library’s assessment process have been developing staff technology expertise to support patrons’ needs and shaping the library’s technology future by establishing an expanded program of technology classes, all conducted by library staff.
Of the library’s 148 employees, 68 are now teaching computer classes. In 2014, the library conducted more than 2,600 technology classes attended by 20,000 residents. Despite a 25 percent reduction in staff when the BTOP grant ended, the library has been able to offer the same or higher level of technology services by engaging staff in new ways.
Greensboro, North Carolina, Public Library has focused its assessment and action planning primarily on benchmark nine which addresses devices and bandwidth to accommodate user demand. While library bandwidth was adequate, the number of device hours available on a per capita basis was lower than desired.
In order to meet the need for more computers, the library created a laptop lending program for use inside library branches that provided more space and flexibility in library buildings. Library users are able to check out an Internet-enabled laptop for use anywhere inside the library for specific time periods. Laptops must be checked back in before the user leaves the library.
Beyond specific actions that emerged from the assessment report, Library Director Brigitte Blanton said the process of working through the benchmarks and indicators broadened the library’s approach to its public access technology services. “Edge made us think,” Blanton said. “As much as we strive in public libraries to be inclusive, we sometimes define our work in narrow ways. Edge forces you to think and test assumptions about services and resources.”
Meeting Future Public Access Technology Needs
Technology is evolving at a rapid pace and becoming even more important to daily life. This makes the public library’s role as a trusted technology guide and go-to resource increasingly vital.
For city and county managers, the Edge system provides tools for assessing, improving, and demonstrating the value of public access technology services in order to create a business case for why investments are important and how those investments contribute to improved community outcomes.
“Edge is a serious, legitimate tool that gives me valuable data for decision making and tells me where my library stands in relation to other public libraries,” said Harry Tuchmayer, director of the New Hanover County, North Carolina, library. “The backing of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and national organizations such as ICMA, make it [Edge] even more valuable.”
To ensure that the Edge approach to assessing and planning for public access technology remains current, benchmarks and indicators will be reviewed and updated periodically. For library staff, the opportunity to go through an assessment process again a year later to measure progress and revisit indicators is exciting.
“We want to ace it someday,” said San Antonio Public Library Performance and Innovation Manager David Cooksey.
Figure 1: The Edge Benchmarks.
1. Libraries provide assistance and training with the goal of increasing the level of digital literacy in the community.
2. Libraries provide access to relevant digital content and enable community members to create their own digital content.
3. Libraries provide technology resources to help patrons meet important needs related to personal goals and community priorities.
Engaging the Community
4. Libraries make strategic decisions based on community priorities for digital inclusion and innovation.
5. Libraries build strategic relationships with community partners to maximize public access technology resources and services provided to the community.
6. Libraries support continuous improvement in public access technology services by sharing expertise and best practices with other digital inclusion organizations.
7. Libraries integrate public access technology into planning and policies.
8. Libraries have sufficient staff with technology expertise to help patrons achieve their goals.
9. Libraries have sufficient devices and bandwidth to accommodate user demand.
10. Libraries manage their technology resources to maximize quality.
11. Libraries ensure participation in digital technology for people with disabilities.
Figure 2: Selected Indicators.
Each benchmark includes three to five indicators with examples of recommended practices. Sample benchmarks with indicators follow:
Benchmark 1: Libraries provide assistance and training with the goal of increasing the level of digital literacy in the community.
1.2. The library provides individual assistance for digital literacy at all outlets:
- One-on-one technology help for patrons is available on-demand for at least 10-minute sessions at all library locations.
- One-on-one technology help is available for patrons on-demand or by appointment for at least 30-minute sessions at all library locations.
- One-on-one help is available on-demand or by appointment for patron-owned devices (e.g., eReaders, tablets, iPods, smartphones) in at least one library location.
- One-on-one help is available in languages other than English in at least one library location.
Benchmark 4: Libraries make strategic decisions based on community priorities for digital inclusion and innovation.
4.2. The library gathers feedback from the community about its public technology needs.
- An analysis of social and economic conditions of the community is conducted as part of information gathering for strategic planning and decision making.
- Questions about community technology are included in a library-sponsored needs assessment survey.
- Community technology-related questions are included in a local government survey.
- The library conducts community-representative focus groups on the community’s technology needs.
- The library holds advertised forums on the community’s technology needs.
- The library conducts a community needs assessment for technology resources in languages other than English.
- The library conducts a community needs assessment for technology resources for people with disabilities.
Benchmark 8: Libraries have sufficient staff with technology expertise to help patrons achieve their goals.
8.3. Staff assigned to assist patrons are able to answer technology questions.
- 100 percent of public services staff are able to answer basic technology questions.
- 25 percent of public services staff in each location are able to assist patrons with intermediate technology questions.
- 10 percent of public services staff in each location are able to assist patrons with advanced technology questions.