Creating meaningful and useful Public Access Technology benchmarks

What do you think of when you hear the word, "benchmark"? From my experience, it evokes a range of emotional and intellectual responses. For many, it can sound a bit scary, like "job security for some of us (or the ditch we die in)."

This quote was taken directly from a survey respondent who attended a presentation at ALA last week on the Public Access Technology Benchmarks initiative funded by the Gates Foundation. While dramatic, this perspective gets right to the belly of the beast: a benchmark amplifies and raises standards, and sometimes that's a difficult pill to swallow.

The intiative aims to create aspirational and practical tools that libraries can use to drive continuous improvement and investment toward supporting their public technology. This two-pronged approach is smart and lofty... and useless without investment and feedback from the very librarians who will use these benchmarks at their libraries. So, as a first step in retrieving feedback from outside the crew of heads-down researchers, librarians, and library supporters, the organizers of this session set out to say, "hey, what do you think so far?"

The presentation provided an overview of the project with a sharp focus on the vision and guiding principles the project's collaborators devised (more on those folks, below). Approximately 60 or so attendees listened in as Susan Benton, President and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council set the scene, describing the Benchmarks' intent and sharing the project's vision and guiding principles. She then moderated a discussion with Larra Clark (Program Manager, ALA-Office of Information Technology Policy), Susan McVey, (Director, Oklahoma Department of Libraries), and Ron Carlee, (Chief Operating Officer, International City/County Management Association). Following is the Vision and Guiding Principles of the Benchmark initiative:


Communities continually invest in the opportunities for all people to enrich and improve their lives through open access to the exceptional information, communication and technology services available at public libraries.

Guiding Principles:

  • The Benchmarks will be aspirational; they will set a high standard for quality, be motivational and encourage excellence.
  • Use of the Benchmarks will be voluntary.
  • The Benchmarks will provide a path for improvement for all libraries, regardless of size.
  • The Benchmarks will evolve to reflect emerging technologies, behaviors, opportunities and standards of library practice.
  • Use of the Benchmarks will provide clear value for library and local leaders.

The initiative and its goals were received positively. Attendees shared that overall, they agreed that the Vision and Guiding Principles more than adequately provide a framework for what the project intends to achieve. Following is a sampling of feedback received from the session. What do you think?

Attendess shared what excites them about the Benchmarks:

If the vision is achieved, it will give us a technology planning tool and help us tell the story."

"I hope it will become the tool that we can use to make our case in a distinctive and compelling way."

"Great talking points for board members to bring to city council meetings."

Attendees shared what is missing:

In Guiding Principles include 'professionalism,' 'feedback,' and 'clear value for potential funders.'"

"Importance of collaboration between libraries."

"Language about the capacity of these benchmarks to enable transformation of public libraries to new and/or enhance services and use of technology to provide them."

Attendees shared what they need to use the Benchmarks effectively:

"Please give us pointers on how to use the benchmarks with one local leader in the political realm."

"Help communicate value to the general public as they influence decision makers."

"Need to have good introductory information on why the benchmarks are important and this needs to be targeted at library boards and other stakeholders."

"Best thing that could come from this: an easy one-page document I can share with my over-worked city managers."

This collaborative endeavor includes experts from all levels of librarianship and community support.  Below are the organizations working hard on the Public Access Technology Benchmarks initiative:

  • ALA Office for Information Technology Policy
  • PLA
  • Urban Libraries Council
  • WebJunction-OCLC
  • The State Libraries of California, Oklahoma and Texas
  • Two research groups from the University of Maryland and University of Washington
  • International City/County Management Association
  • TechSoup Global
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

This initiative relies on your support and will be successful only if you share your feedback and ideas. What are your thoughts? What is missing from the Vision and Guiding Principles, and what are your hopes for the Benchmarks at your library and in your community? Please share in the comments or take a moment to complete a two-question survey. Your thoughts will go a long way in creating useful and meaningful benchmarks for libraries across the country. Thanks!