A blog from the Ontario Library Service
Your Data, Your Story

Your Data, Your Story

You’ve completed the Typical Week Survey and the Annual Survey of Public Libraries – so what are you doing next with all that data? If it’s just being shelved or filed away in storage, you may be missing out on some valuable opportunities to leverage the work and efforts that went into its collection.

But first, some history…

The Province of Ontario has collected statistics from libraries since the late 19th Century, with most early surveys counting cardholders, collections, and classes offered. Self-reported data submitted by public libraries through the Annual Survey of Public Libraries has been collected since 1999 and is made publicly available through the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sport and the Ontario Government’s Open Data website.

“Data is like garbage. You’d better know what you are going to do with it before you collect it.” – Mark Twain

Fast forward to today…

Every library collects data – for the Annual Survey of Public Libraries, library annual reports, gate counts, program evaluations and attendance, circulation reports, and more. The focus of this post is on all the ways that data can be used to maximize its value and inform library planning. Often when questions arise around open hours, community needs, collection development, marketing, or programming there are answers to be found within the library’s existing data; and it is far too easy to forget what is already at your fingertips when it was originally collected for a very different purpose.

The data public libraries collect during the year can be combined to outline the library’s story – it’s past, present, and future directions. Trends, highlights, and lessons exist within the available data as well as in its gaps or black holes. Whether you are looking at the previous season to inform decisions about the next, comparing year over year performance, or looking at long term trends and patterns in library usage and development, library data is a powerful tool to help the organization move forward.

As you’re planning for the upcoming season, municipal elections, or board orientations, consider how library data might be useful in…

  • Decision making and planning – turning to data as a decision-making tool helps to identify patterns or trends in collection development, programming, and services at a local level. Collection turnover rate, programming attendance, and year over year annual survey numbers provide valuable insight into the priorities and interests of your community to inform planning for future needs or ideas. Consider then taking the next step to compare library data to the changing demographics of your area, the recently released 2021 Census Profiles show how communities are developing and changing over time. A solid understanding of your community at large along with library usage patterns and non-user demographics is useful at an operational planning level and more broadly at a strategic planning or master planning level.
  • Staff engagement – Talking about library data on a regular basis ensures that everyone can understand the story it holds and the details it can provide. For staff working in public service roles, it means knowing what’s popular in the community during readers’ advisory interactions or when brainstorming ideas for the next great season of programming. It also means connecting the day-to-day work of staff with the bigger picture of the library’s mission, vision, and values.
  • Communications and marketing – Incorporate data points or significant figures in community messaging, promotion, advocacy, and other communications from the library. When a program is wildly successful, make a splash of the attendance rate and turn comments into testimonials that can be shared on social media or in print documents such as strategic plans or annual reports. Transfer important pieces of data into talking points or graphics to have at the ready when engaging with stakeholders in your community and beyond.
  • Performance measures and assessment – The provincial Open Data site mentioned earlier in this post includes the self-reported data by Ontario Public Libraries from 1999-2020 (at time of this posting). If you want to know how your library activity compares to others of similar size or in your geographic area, it’s all there and available for review or download. The presentation of the data may have shifted recently, but the baseline information is a great tool for taking a step back and looking at the data with an eye on short, medium, and long-range planning for your library.

The next time you’re headed into a planning meeting, ask yourself if there is data available that you should have on hand for review and discussion. Chances are there will be!

To hear more on connected topics, join us at the 2022 Stronger Libraries. Stronger Communities. Virtual Conference in September. Registration is FREE and live now through LearnHQ with full details available on the Ontario Library Service website.