Measuring the "Light Touch" of Library Programs in the United States

Thursday, 19 July 2018: 15:30
Oral Presentation
Lisa FREHILL, George Mason University, USA
U.S. public libraries have faced many challenges in the past decade. The increase in digital information has resulted in realignment of collections and efforts at libraries towards digital content and away from print collections. Additionally, U.S. libraries are increasingly offering educational programming. Concerns about accountability for public expenditures have resulted in calls to evaluate the efficacy of this programming.

The U.S. Commission on Evidence-based Policymaking (CEP) recently completed its work, which focuses on accountability for public expenditures. The CEP’s recent final report emphasized the need for Federal agencies to increase use of administrative data and to more effectively link various data sets. Increasingly, U.S. public-funded institutions are being held accountable for producing impactful results. Recent examples, such as the corporatization of prisons and privatization of schools, suggest these are not empty threats.

Within the changing environment for libraries, the “Measures that Matter” project seeks to develop indicators of the impact of public library programming upon the communities they serve (e.g., see a recent working paper associated with this effort). However, as will be shown in this paper, careful attention to the macro-micro link is critical in the assertion of impact when the associated programming is best characterized as a “light touch.” That is, library programs, unlike formal educational programs, tend to be incidental and of short-duration, presenting a significant threat to causal assertions due to spuriousness, especially when aggregating measurements of different programs.

This paper will use administrative data along with 51 states’ evaluation reports about the use of federal grants funds for the past five years, and data on public libraries available in two longitudinal establishment-level surveys to explore the linkages between projects and outcomes and the issues associated with aggregation from the micro to the macro level. The paper’s focus is on measurement and cross-level linkage challenges.