Measuring the immeasurable

Photo of a man testing industrial scales
Testing Toleberk scales in laboratory (1946) by Lyle Fowler, courtesy State Library Victoria

The difficulty in measuring the contribution of libraries to the community is not a new conversation, but it is one that we must keep returning to. For national bodies such as ALIA, APLA, CAUL and NSLA, ‘telling the story’ of libraries is an essential part of advocating for resourcing and recognition, as well as understanding how we can adapt our library services to meet changing community needs. Telling the right story means having the right data, and that means regularly reviewing past practice. How can our program and service statistics tell us about a contribution to concepts like ‘connected citizens’ or ‘creative communities’? How do we measure cultural change? Two recent projects spearheaded by NSLA are attempting to move beyond the bean counting.

Australian Public Libraries Statistical Report 

Every year since 1997, there has been a coordinated effort by all states and territories to gather data that reflects the range and volume of public library services, presented in the annual Australian Public Libraries Statistical Report. While each jurisdiction collects its own data for benchmarking purposes, the goal of the national report is to provide a broader picture for use in advocacy and research.

In early 2020, the state and territory data collators identified a number of issues with the existing data measures. Some were obstacles to the library services submitting data, such as unclear explanations and definitions of terms, and others were with the measures themselves.

Last reviewed in 2016 as part of the Guidelines, standards and outcome measures for Australian public libraries, the data collected focused very much on loans, visitor numbers and providing access to technology. Since then, library program offerings have broadened considerably, playing an increased role in egovernment transformation, digital and information literacy, workforce skills, community engagement, personal wellbeing and business development.

Data collectors from the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria formed a working group to fine-tune explanations and definitions within the survey instrument, and to reassess current indicators against outcome measures in the ALIA report such as digital inclusion and lifelong learning. The resulting revised measures focus less on collection holdings and loans, and more on the scope of library activities and the benefits of these for communities.

The next step, with assistance from APLA, is to trial the new measures with a number of urban and regional or remote libraries in each state and territory. Their feedback will help us further hone the survey instrument and prepare library services for the changes ahead of its first use in the 2021-22 data collection.

Culturally Safe Libraries Program

NSLA launched what is now known as the Culturally Safe Libraries Program (CSLP) in 2018. CSLP is about making our national, state and territory libraries safe, respectful and inclusive places for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and visitors, onsite and online. Beyond the rhetoric, this means visual signifiers in our library buildings, consistent and respectful practices in description and discoverability of Indigenous materials, demonstrations of cultural awareness between colleagues, more trusting community relationships, and much higher numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in libraries – especially in decision-making positions.

Practical measures to achieve this start with the rollout of training developed by AIATSIS; delivery of Indigenous collections workshops in NSLA libraries; development of online resources for the sector; joint projects with external Indigenous researchers to improve collecting and description practices; and local initiatives to build cultural competency.

While it’s easy to collect straight data from this such as how many people completed training or attended a workshop, how do we measure the cultural change that we are seeking to introduce?

Together, NSLA libraries have developed a set of national cultural competency principles. Each is mapped to measures of success such as ‘meaningful and monitored integration of ATSILIRN Protocols into library and information management policy and practice’ or ‘dedicated investment in strengthening organisational capability to respond to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and staff’.

These measures will be assessed using a blend of traditional evaluation survey instruments alongside qualitative evidence from one-on-one interviews with program steering group members and HR managers; anonymous questionnaires for workshop facilitators; collated feedback from the NSLA Blakforce network for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff; and consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander library users and community members.

Beyond the life of the program itself, we will continue to evaluate cultural competency in our libraries with an annual, repeatable set of measures that hold us to account.


Note: This article first appeared in the November/December issue of ALIA's INCITE magazine