The Importance of Stories When Measuring Success

By Sarah Keister Armstrong

When you speak to someone about why libraries are important, when you interact with your state legislators, or when you explain (again) why libraries are still relevant in the age of Google, do you lead with your library’s circulation numbers? The number of times staff answered reference questions? The number of visits to the library’s website?

Whether it’s to show the progress you have made towards the goals in your strategic plan, a monthly board report, or an annual compilation of usage statistics, libraries are collecting and analyzing data all the time. But what are we measuring? Does it matter? Why are we spending all of this time quantifying metrics? Does it help us reach our goal of effectively measuring our success?

When we talk about measuring success, it’s easy to conflate “outputs” and “outcomes.” But if we look beyond the quantitative outputs with which the library world is so accustomed – circulation, patron counts, program attendance – we can explore how to better measure and communicate the true impact our services and resources have.

Outputs are quantifiable indicators that measure activity. How many people walked in your doors this week? How many programs did your library hold? How many people did you reach at an off-site event?

An outcome tells us more of a story. Has knowledge changed as a result of our work? Has actual behavior changed? Has our work resulted in actionable, meaningful change in someone’s life?

Outputs are easily and clearly communicated with numerical data, and while tracking these measures of your library’s success is important, we must push beyond reporting what we’re doing to tell the story of why we’re doing it.

This is where stories come in.

We all have anecdotes about the impact our libraries have on the lives of those we serve. I often cite an example of an individual who participated in a focus group I facilitated:

After struggling with reading ability for many frustrating years, the library helped her improve her literacy and confidence as a reader. With the encouragement of a library staff member, she worked up the courage to check out an adult nonfiction book. For the first time in her life, she finished the book, cover to cover, and went back to the library to check out five more.

Measured in terms of outputs, this user’s experience totaled six circulations. Is that valuable information to have? Yes, it’s important to be aware of our operational activity. But the outcome of this library’s work – the interaction with staff, the readers’ advisory services, and the ease of locating materials – was that it transformed an adult into a confident reader (and a lifelong learner and library user).

Libraries have historically excelled at measuring and sharing their outputs, but pinpointing a feasible way to measure outcomes can be a bit more daunting. We need context, stories, and depth behind the numbers with which we are all so accustomed. The golden combination of valid and reliable quantitative data supported by illustrative anecdotes and demonstrated impact is a much more persuasive way to express the value of your library than a monthly report of isolated statistics.

How this combination takes shape will be different for every library. While there is value in having standardized outcomes across an industry—portraying the collective impact libraries have and demonstrating concrete and economic value—the unique roles libraries play within the communities and constituencies they serve necessitate a degree of individuality when it comes to measuring impact. One way to start is simply by reflecting on what you see when users walk through your doors. Do you see numbers, or do you see people, coming to enrich their lives through what the library has to offer? Yes, we’re in the information business, but we’re also in the people business, and that’s fertile ground from which to start communicating the true narratives of our organizations