As librarians, we are always asking ourselves, “What does our community need? How can we make a difference in the lives of individuals and the community as a whole?” On this episode of Library Leadership Podcast, we talk with Kendra Trachta, Deputy Director of Sno-Isle Libraries, a two-county system in northwest Washington.
She helps us answer these questions by guiding us to become data-driven libraries and shares that this is not really about numbers; it’s about using numbers to understand people and purpose. She takes us from passive to active means for making informed decisions. Her favorite question is “Why?” Yours will be, too, after listening to this show.
This podcast is brought to you by the School of Library and Information Management from Emporia State University where, library leaders are created with program sites in Kansas Utah, Oregon, Colorado, and South Dakota by the Park City library, making film and podcasting possible with green screen and sound recording resources.
As librarians we’re always asking ourselves what does our community need? How can we make a difference in the lives of individuals and the community as a whole? Today on Library Leadership Podcast, we talk with Kendra Trachta, Deputy Director of Sno-Isle Libraries in Washington State. She teaches us, it’s not about numbers, it’s about people, and takes us from passive to active means for making informed decisions. Welcome to the show Kendra.
Kendra Trachta: [00:01:03]
Hi, Adrian. Thanks for having me.
It’s a pleasure. I’m so excited today to be talking with you about data driven libraries.
Kendra Trachta: [00:01:11]
I’m always excited to talk about data.
Well first, as we start can you tell me a little bit about yourself and about your organization?
Kendra Trachta: [00:01:18]
I am Deputy Director for Sno-Isle Libraries. We are a two-county public library district in Washington State. We have 23 libraries across the Snohomish and Island counties, with a service population of about 740,000 people.
That’s a big system.
Kendra Trachta: [00:01:44]
It is a big spread, and we’ve got a lot of diversity among the different communities we serve from small mountain towns, to agricultural areas, to the densely populated urban areas.
It sounds like a wonderful place to serve. And it also sounds like that makes data driven decisions even more important.
Kendra Trachta: [00:02:11]
Absolutely, one of the benefits of being a library system like this is, of course, that all of the communities benefit from shared resources. Our staff is amazing. But, there are different needs in the different communities. How do we serve each community best, because the cookie cutter approach does not work.
Exactly, and this is what we’re all asking ourselves as librarians. How do we assess what our community needs so that we can make the best decisions possible about serving them?
Kendra Trachta: [00:02:55]
So, tell us what is data driven library decision making all about?
Kendra Trachta: [00:03:02]
What it’s really about is being purpose driven. A lot of people hear data driven and they think, oh, the numbers tell you what to do, or it’s just very cut and dried. But really, as a purpose driven organization, we want to know are we achieving our purpose? That’s where the data comes in. It’s not about numbers it’s about people, and are we doing the right work that benefits the community in the right way?
That’s fantastic. I’ve heard you say it’s not about numbers it’s about people, and purpose. Which I think is fantastic. So, how do we do this? And, what kinds of questions is this going to help us answer?
Kendra Trachta: [00:03:57]
Well, it helps us answer things like, who are we? Who are we reaching? How does that align with the actual makeup of our community? How are people responding to our services? Are they learning something from us? Are they just coming for fun? What we really need to start with is that question as well. What are you trying to accomplish? What is your purpose? And really, everything moves out from there.
We’re asking ourselves these questions and these are important ones. What would be a starting point for someone who wants to jump into being more data driven? Where do we start?
Kendra Trachta: [00:05:00]
Where do we start? I would say you first want to start by looking at your community, talking with your community, and identifying what community priorities are. Then looking at your services and saying, are our services meeting these needs? And, how would you know that? It’s really about asking yourself why, and what does this mean, over and over again.
So, here in Washington, kindergarten readiness is a top priority for our state. And, there’s an annual assessment that all kindergarten teachers do and that anonymized data is public data. So, here we look at Snohomish and Island counties. Our kids in the aggregate are pretty ready for kindergarten. So we think, well great, our storytimes, our early literacy efforts are doing the job. When you break it down and look at the difference between children from low-income households and children who are not from low-income households, there is an amazing gap.
So, we start thinking, OK, we’re doing our regular thing. But, here’s an audience that we absolutely have to reach. So, that’s when you start thinking, OK, well how? How are we reaching this group? If we’re not, what are some barriers between us and them? How do we overcome that? How do we pinpoint where we can reach these children before they’re in kindergarten, because early literacy is our game. So, it’s just stopping to think about, what are we really achieving?
Right, and early literacy being very important in your community you’ve been able to establish that through your research and your information collection, regarding these matters. And, I like what you said earlier, data is really just information, and we love information in librarianship. So, what should we be asking ourselves what kind of community data should we be gathering?
Kendra Trachta: [00:07:52]
Well, I think it again goes back to what are you trying to accomplish. What do you want to make happen in your community?
There’s so much information out there. We have of course, census data, some basic demographic data. Now, we also have access to do the market segmentation data that marketers use to sell us stuff. A lot of this market segmentation data is household by household. Many public libraries have these resources available for the public particularly if a library has a small business focus. We’re very likely to have this sort of information.
We look at that and then compare that information to our current customer base. What percentage of your population has used the library in the last year, two years, is that enough? There you’re talking about your reach. Are people aware? Are people making use of some basic services? Is there a particular group that you are not reaching through your services, through this market segmentation? Is there a group that is a fairly large percentage of your population, and yet only a few of them have library cards? Well, why is that? Is it that they’re not aware? Is it that they have particular needs that the library services aren’t addressing? You will never just get a magic number spit out that tells you, do this. I wish you could, because boy, life would be so much easier.
That would be easier.
Kendra Trachta: [00:10:31]
It’s really leading you to, OK, what’s the next question I need to ask? Which , as for particularly information services librarians, is just fun, fun, fun. So, that’s what we are doing right now, looking at this population across two counties which is very different from town to town and seeing at the most basic level, who’s making use of the library. Whether it’s using a computer or checking out an item either, tangible or electronic, and who isn’t. And then, looking further to try to identify some reasons.
Yeah, yeah, these are important questions to ask. I will admit that for some of us data collection is a little intimidating. You know, a lot of us didn’t get into libraries because we’re numbers people, necessarily, but where do we start looking? I know you talk about output data and outcome data. Can you give us a pathway? Where do we go, and what do these data points look like? How do we get started?
Kendra Trachta: [00:12:01]
Sure. Output data is what we all think about when you hear statistics or data and it’s what most libraries collect already, the number of people who attended a program. The number of people who visited a library, if you have door counters. The number of items checked out, those very basic numbers that we all collect. Output data is really just counting. That can be very useful in telling us what has happened. It tells us a scale of activity. It can be really useful for planning your daily operation. If you can track your foot traffic in the building and you see that, surprise, at 3 pm there’s this huge jump in your busyness, and you happen to be next to a school. Yeah, that just helps the manager schedule staff. It can be that simple, that straightforward.
So, you might also be looking at just tracking your circulation and you start seeing a change in the number of items checked out. I think that the typical response is, oh my gosh, publicize, we’ve got to get those numbers up. I think the first question should be, why, that’s always my first question. What is happening here? Are the number of items being checked out dropping? But, what about the number of active customers? What’s going on? Rather than just stopping and reacting and saying, oh, but this is what we do, more and more is better, maybe not. Maybe community needs have shifted.
That output data is a great starting point. It can be misleading. It can be a trap if you don’t stop to think why, because if you make that number the goal, such as circulation. We had a 10 bazillion circs last year, and that’s our goal. Well, maybe this year it’s 9 bazillion, and, the reaction is, oh my gosh, the number, we need to get that number up. Let’s roll in renewals to bump that number up or well, you know, it was slow everywhere, so we’ll just let that go.
No. First of all, if you’re inflating your numbers, why? You’re burying your head in the sand, and your goal is not that number. Our goal is to provide resources to our community. So, if their use of our resources is changing, what do we ask?
Kendra Trachta: [00:16:12]
That’s so important. I love your question, why. We all collect these numbers. We all look at them and sometimes the numbers dictate how we behave. And, I think this deeper inquiry into why, that’s important, or has something shifted, makes a lot of sense.
Kendra Trachta: [00:16:31]
Right, I really believe that if you start with your purpose, that we have to change how we deliver on that purpose. But, that can be difficult because we get so tied emotionally to what we do on a daily basis. So, it really takes some bravery to say, you know what, we need to change something or, in the long term we won’t be able to meet our purpose.
Kendra Trachta: [00:17:10]
…a public library’s purpose. I frame it as building a literate and informed community. So, if that’s our role, how do we keep doing that as the world changes around us so quickly?
That’s fantastic. And, so that’s output data and we all have a lot of that type of information. You also talked about outcome data, and how that can be a little trickier. Can you share a bit about that?
Kendra Trachta: [00:17:46]
Absolutely, in output data as I said, it’s counting things. I used program attendance as an example. Outcome data is what we really want to get at because outcome data tells us if what we’re trying to achieve has actually occurred. It’s telling us, did we meet our goal? With programming, we count attendees and we might say, wow, 50 people came to this. That equals success. Well, maybe. I guess it would tell you that your title and your publicity was successful. But, why did you offer that program in the first place? And so, the PLA outcome is really getting at this same question.
If you’re holding a program, how do you want the customer, the attendees, to benefit from it? So that question is, did you learn something? Did you did you learn something that you’re going to use, those sorts of questions. You might have 50 people come to this really exciting sounding program and you ask these questions.
We do a paper, just in evaluation form at the end of the program. We have a volunteer input the data. That’s a question people always have. What if out of those 50 people one person said, yeah, I learned something, and the other 49 said, not really. Wow, we need to rethink that program. Do we need to present it in a different way? Is that just not the right fit for our community? That’s the difference between output- 50 people attended, and outcome, 1% , or 49%, let’s look on the bright side, actually learned something from that program.
Sure, and, it can be a little hard for us to ask these questions of ourselves.
Kendra Trachta: [00:20:33]
It really can. Starting all of this is like any other big change in an organization, peculiarly, in an organization of dedicated people who love their work, love their customers, love their organization. When you first start talking about data and outcomes there’s that, it’s all about the numbers. So, you have to, through communication and just ongoing discussion, explain the real goal.
It is to make sure that the work we’re doing is benefiting our customers. There’s always that worry, well are you saying my work isn’t good enough, no, not at all. I think that the work we do is great. Nine times out of ten, those outcomes are going to be really positive. It enables us to, maybe, tweak some things in our work. But, also it enables us to tell the community, here’s the difference we are making in the community, just constantly sharing back with staff and the media and elected officials the results.
So, we’re emotional. We’re human beings. I don’t want to dismiss people’s feelings of, well are you saying my work isn’t valued? My answer is, it is absolutely valued. I want to be able to have some really firm information about it to share out.
We have an annual third grade reading challenge. That is part of our early literacy effort. Early literacy goes through third grade and that’s our last chance to really make lifelong readers, people who enjoy reading. Of course, various studies show that helps them be successful in school and in life, being able to interpret what they read. We have about 50 schools that participate every year. It’s a trivia contest. We have 1300 students participate. In the past we would say, whoo, we did this big thing and we had 1300 third graders participate, and that is great, the participation is great. It shows interest. It shows that some kids read some books.
What we really want to know is, did the reading challenge help the kids to enjoy reading more? Did it make them feel more comfortable reading? Do they think their reading improved as a result of their participation? That is very different from saying, this large number participated. So when we ask after the event, again, we send a paper survey out to the kids, and to the parent. We had 94% of those kids, and remember 1300 participated, 94% said, yeah, reading’s more fun now.
Kendra Trachta: [00:25:07]
We had 94% of the kids say, yeah, I’m more confident in my reading ability. And, 84% said, yeah, now I’m reading for fun more often. That coupled with, of course, the great heartwarming story and the photos of the kids’ faces as they’re sharing their knowledge of these books, says this is fun. We are reaching a large audience, and here are the real differences we’re making in their lives. And, of course that rolls up to benefiting the whole community.
That is outstanding and you ended up with the data to show just exactly how much impact that made, which was huge. I love that. I love that.
So, as you have engaged in this work, and thank you for sharing it with all of us, have you come across any resources or books that have been useful that you’d like to share, and why?
Kendra Trachta: [00:26:20]
Well, there are two books that I really look to as my business books. Neither of these books are really new but, I love Good to Greatwith the focus it brings to having a purpose and sticking to it, not putting your blinders on, not getting in a rut. But, really being driven by your purpose and what you want to make happen. And, I am sure that came through loud and clear this morning.
Then, my other book that I love is Driveby Daniel Pink. It is not really a business book, but it talks about what motivates us as humans. And, the big reveal, which I completely, completely believe is, that what drives us is wanting to make a difference, wanting to be part of something good. It’s not about the carrot or the prizes. It’s that intrinsic motivation and the understanding that if I do this, I’m part of this result.
Those sound like fantastic resources and I’ve never known a librarian who didn’t want to make a difference and who didn’t care passionately and deeply about their work.
Kendra Trachta: [00:28:09]
Exactly, and that’s why I worry when people say, ahhh, she’s all about the numbers because I’m really all about the people. By looking at our work and evaluating it, in this slightly different way, it helps us get better, particularly if the results aren’t what we had hoped for. We learn. We try again. We think why didn’t it work the way we thought it would, and, when it does work out the way we intended it just helps us articulate the value we bring. So that the public library doesn’t just get pigeonholed as a nice to have. It is understood as a critical component in a successful community.
Absolutely essential in this day and age and I’m so grateful that you’re sharing this message. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Kendra Trachta: [00:29:26]
I would just share that it is a commitment. It’s ongoing, and you know in a profession of committed people that’s not difficult, but, it’s not an overnight change. There are a lot of data tools out there, some great data collection, data visualization tools. What’s most important is really being brave enough to change your mindset and say, we need to dig deeper. We need to ask why. And then, we need to ask why. And then, we need to ask why again, so that we can really ensure that we’re being the best public library we can be for the people we are here to serve. And, that’s tough, because we love what we do currently and that could change. So, that’s the hardest part, is the emotional part. Installing new software is a breeze.
As we close, would you like to share with us what it means to you personally to be a librarian?
Kendra Trachta: [00:30:57]
Yes, thanks, Adrian. For me personally, it means being someone who is actively trying to make our community and our world a better place, there are so many people who work to make our world a better place.
I love information. People having access to information, reading materials throughout their lives is critical to a really strong society. I see my role as a librarian as one of the mainstays in our community. And, I’m really proud of our work.
It’s work worth being proud of. Thank you for being a huge part of it in our profession. It’s been wonderful to talk to you today, Kendra. I think you’ve given us all a lot of courage to look at our numbers and move forward with data driven decisions. So, thanks for being on the show.
Kendra Trachta: [00:32:12]
Well, thank you so much for having me. Adrian.
You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host Adrian Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at libraryleadershippodcast.com where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your e-mail inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.