For aspiring librarians who might still be wondering whether management matters, or whether all that data gathering, reporting, and other business-like activity has any purpose, here is an example of how critical these numbers can be to a library.
I came across an article this morning (via the always useful ResourceShelf) that describes some of the metrics that the Boston Public Library will be using to determine which branches will be closed. A few excerpts:
Library administrators will rank the 26 neighborhood branches by foot traffic, computer use, and how many Web surfers use laptops to log on to Wi-Fi networks. They will count how many programs are offered at each location and tally the number of people who attend storytime and English classes.
The library will quantify details about each of its buildings, noting energy efficiency, handicapped accessibility, and whether the wiring could support more computers. Administrators will examine how close each location is to another neighborhood branch and the distance to one of the system’s nine lead libraries, such as the 20,000-plus square-foot facilities in Dudley Square and on Centre Street in West Roxbury. They will scrutinize proximity to buses and subways and take into account other resources in the neighborhood, such as community centers, schools, or Boys and Girls Clubs.
It isn’t clear whether these metrics are long-established measures of success, or if they were adopted recently in order to assist the decision-making process around the branch closures. In an ideal world, the metrics are known to branch managers and staff, allowing them to work towards achieving what target-levels are set for them.
One might (and should) question the quality of service that would result from, for example, trying to maximize the number of people making use of the library’s wi-fi. If the metrics are well chosen, however, all facets of the library experience would be represented, preventing staff from trying to optimize one metric at the cost of another. Sure you can fill the library with people using laptops, but if it creates an environment that no longer feels welcoming to children or seniors and their visits drop off, you won’t be any further ahead.
What is unfortunate about the approach being taken by the Boston Public Library is that it appears that they have already decided to close a number of branches, and now they are using a system of metrics to determine which will go. It isn’t enough for a library to offer good or great service: they have to be better than the other libraries in order to survive the cuts. As mentioned in the article, this can only pitch branch against branch in a competition for survival. I wouldn’t blame anyone who makes it through this mess (or anyone reading about it) to take the lesson to heart and operate in full competition with the other branches.
This is not the kind of environment library students might envision when they think about working in a library, but it is the reality for most libraries, and not only in the public space. Academic libraries and specialized libraries deal with the same pressures and work in similar organizational contexts, ones that see them having to quantify their performance and compete for resources. Library students approach the field with a passion (ok, maybe passion is a bit too strong a word to use here… let’s say they believe in the value of libraries and librarians) for the work, which is important. But they cannot take it for granted that everyone shares their innate sense of the value and importance of libraries, and they will need to work tirelessly at justifying their existence to both their funding agencies as well as their patrons.