Benchmarks, from PLA's perspective

Earlier this year, the Public Library Association joined 12 other organizations to develop public access technology benchmarks. The group is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; the Urban Libraries Council is serving as the facilitating organization. Members of the group have been working very hard examining the history and roles of benchmarking and thinking about what sort of common, measurable services libraries offer. The purpose of the benchmarks is to develop a tool that libraries can use to quantify their public access services and to give libraries a common language in talking about these services to local decision makers.

PLA has long encouraged libraries to make decisions at the local level: What is important in your community? The benchmarks will be flexible enough to allow for this, too. They are not meant to be prescriptive. Rather, they will allow libraries to accurately measure the services offered, as well as think about ways to improve services the community needs and wants. Doing so will allow library leaders to present strong and compelling evidence to funders and the community.

To this point, PLA’s role has been largely supporting colleagues in developing the benchmark content. Once a draft is complete and pilot tests begin, PLA will step into a familiar role of designing training. Libraries who decide to participate will have the opportunity to learn how to use the benchmarks to advocate for improved public access technology. Training development is still in the very early stages but it seems likely that three main topics will be covered: Organizational Policy, Making Decision About Technology, and Programs and Services Using Technology.

A lot of good and interesting work is being developed by the benchmarks work group. This project is different from much of PLA’s work, which makes it both challenging and exciting for us. We have informally worked with many of the program partners, but this is the first time we have all actively joined together in this way. Having the International City/County Managers Association involved is a great advantage here. The people that need to hear what the libraries have to say will be involved from day one. Most of all, PLA sees a lot of value in the benchmarks themselves. We all know how much work libraries do on tight budgets or without even realizing the level of service they provide. The benchmarks will give libraries the tools to empirically show what they do and be their own champions.

There is still much work to be done, but each time we see a new iteration of the work so far, we feel re-energized and confident that the eventual benchmarks will be a useful in the real world. We are excited about this new tool and the new partnerships we have developed, and we hope all types and sizes of public libraries will be too.

Mary Hirsch

PLA, American Library Association