How Analytics Transforms Services: A case study from Evanston Public Library

The following post is an expert of GovLoop’s recent report: Unlocking the Power of Government Analytics. The report features case studies from the state, local, and federal government on how agencies have leveraged analytics to improve services. You can view the full report below or download a PDF

Post Highlights

  • Be sure to view GovLoop’s recent report Unlocking the Power of Government Analytics.
  • The use of analytics has redefined how the public sector delivers services.
  • This post explains how Evanston Public Library has used analytics to improve services to patrons.

Public libraries are no longer the staunchly silent, dusty, book morgues of our imagination. In this day and age, public libraries continue to be an important gathering place for communities, but for a wider audience. Libraries serve as meeting locations, provide access to the Internet, and function as a knowledge hub for people to research information.

Libraries across the country are rapidly changing how services are delivered. As people have become increasingly reliant on technology, libraries have been adapting to the new ways people consume information, evolving from in-person reference interviews to online chat rooms. In order to keep the pace of technology advancements, many public libraries are using analytics, and using data to modernize service to patrons.

GovLoop recently spoke with Karen Danczak-Lyons, Library Director of the Evanston, Illinois, Public Library. In the interview, Lyons explains how the City of Evanston Library has used data to transform library services, and to update systems to keep up with service demands from patrons. Lyons states, “Traditionally, especially at public libraries, we have looked at circulation as indicators of usage, but we are really broadening as our service delivery models have changed.”

Print is shrinking and trending more towards online databases and websites, so we are looking at usage patterns, which help guide investment decisions. Not that we will ever get rid of print resources, but depending on the quality and depth of the resources of the database, that’s something we look at strategically and shift our resources more and more into that area.”

Libraries are transitioning how services are delivered. Much of the transformation is due to how the internet has dramatically changed how people access information. As libraries adjust their services, they are challenged to continue to provide traditional library resources. More people are looking to use a computer when entering a library than taking out a book, and various surveys report that free computer access is one of the main purposes of a library.

In Evanston, as is true across the country, the public library is one of the only spots people can receive free internet access. Lyons states:

“For many parts of our patron base, we are the only internet access they have. With so many people losing their jobs, and can longer use the internet through work, or they can no longer afford it at home, we are creating the second digital divide, so people that have used the internet and value it, but no longer can afford it are now returning to public libraries more and more.”

Other data that Evanston Public Library collects includes, internet use data, foot traffic, database use, and website analytics. All of this data is used to improve the quality, and kinds of services that are collected.

Lyons also explained that the library tracks information around desktop computers. The library looks at wait time and demand for public access to a computer. Knowing this information, staff can decide what kind of investments to make for internet use, whether that is decisions around installing new computers or providing more bandwidth for internet access. “We track not only internet sessions used, but the demand and weight time for computers guides us into decisions of where and what kind of computers to install.”

3 Lessons Learned from Evanston Public Library

The Evanston public library is an excellent case study of how using analytics and data can help improve decision-making. The conversation with Lyons offered many best practices, lessons learned and tips for those invested in an analytics program. Below you will find the top three lessons learned from the Evanston Public Library.

1. Analytics Takes Emotion Out of Decision Making

“Analytics helps take emotion out of the decision making. When resources are scarce or limited and the need is great, finding a fact based way to make decisions can help move programming forward,” states Lyons.

No matter how large or small the decision, clarity when making a decision is essential. This does not mean that decisions are made in a robotic fashion. When articulating a position and explaining a decision, it’s not just taking into consideration hard facts; it’s acknowledging and empathizing with the very human element of decision making. Analytics is essential to this process, and knowing that a decision is grounded in data can help decision makers arrive at a difficult and challenging decision.

2. Use Data to Define Customer Needs and Demands

At the Evanston Public Library, data has been collected and used to make informed decisions about how to best use data to improve services. Decisions around wireless data, desktop computers, research databases, all have been made due to advanced knowledge of how patrons are accessing information. “Our patrons have their own devices, not necessarily a computer, maybe a tablet or smartphone they want to use to access the internet, so we use this data to know if we need to invest in more bandwidth for internet,” states Lyons.

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3. Set Success Metrics

Critical to the success of a program is setting performance metrics and understanding how success is defined for an organization. As Lyons states, “Identifying at the front end of what you’re going to measure and how, and trying to describe what success looks like, so you know what success looks like when you see it.” This process is essential for managers. By defining success, agencies can set benchmarks, measure against past performance, and identify new methods to improve services.

Many of the changes Lyons highlights in the interview were also reflected in a recent Pew study published in January of 2013, Library Services in the Digital Age. The study shows how library patrons desire an expansion of digital services, and continuation of print services.

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Profile Photo Ramona Winkelbauer

Missing from all of the “Our analysis is way cool: it slices, dices and juliennes” PR spin is information that isn’t (and cannot be) captured: e.g., the library has de-accessioned the last mass market paperback of Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Warrior’s Apprentice” so the person that wanted that book can’t get counted as a reader of that resource. So in fact, the library can say, “Our analysis of the circulation on our print resources reveal that fewer people are reading the books we have available.” While this statement is true, it’s only true because of the other actions prior which drive the later ones. And, the library *reader* loses, especially when the Big Four print houses price the e-book copies out of reach.

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