Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Benchmarks Give Public Libraries the Edge

April 19, 2013

Enter a public library, and you’ll inhabit a world that mirrors its community. Libraries continually evolve their services, programs, and technology resources to meet changing needs, but in this digital world where the next big thing is yesterday’s news, responding to trends can be an ongoing challenge. So in this community-centric, hyper local world of public libraries, what would happen if libraries nationwide adopted a common framework for developing and sustaining tech-based services?

Consider how community priorities might be addressed if libraries engineered a neighborhood-based listening program to understand the type of health information patrons need, or perhaps the training and resources patrons require to find a job.  What if libraries committed to providing services that were a reach, or aspirational in nature, but indicative of where the library sector was heading?  Moreover, is it possible to develop a set of benchmarks that include these and other issues relevant to the more than 16,000 public libraries in America?

 We know that benchmarks alone are not a panacea. A key part in strengthening public access technology services is advocating for them, in particular at the local level. 

My colleagues and countless librarians believe the answer is yes. The Edge Initiative offers a suite of benchmarks and accompanying tools and training that strengthen public access technology nationwide and increase awareness and support for those services. Even though the project is still in its infancy, libraries are proving they’re ready to jump in and participate.

The Sullivan County  Public Library in Tennessee started using the Edge beta benchmarks to plan for their library’s future, incorporating benchmarks into their library’s technology plan. One hallmark of their strategy included a benchmark that focuses on providing access to relevant digital content and enabling community members to create their own digital content. Amy Lippo, librarian, shared that while their community isn’t yet asking for this service, the benchmarks provided insight into the kinds of services other libraries are providing. She shared, “when we saw it as a benchmark, we knew it was something that we’d want to look at and have in place before it becomes big [in our community].”

How does the Edge Initiative benefit the average library patron? We know from the Pew Internet & American Life Project that 77% of Americans age 16 and over report that free access to computers and the Internet is a “very important” service of libraries, and 80% say reference librarians are a “very important” service of libraries. The combination of these two findings is key: communities across the country benefit from access to the Internet and technology—particularly when accompanied by the expertise of library staff. From finding reliable online health information (47% of Americans age 16 and over say they found health information online at their library) to submitting a job application online (36% say they looked for jobs or applied for jobs online at their library), libraries are serving key community priorities. Through resources, examples, and training, the Edge Initiative helps libraries plan for and participate in meeting those needs.

As we celebrate National Library Week this week (April 14-20), we shine a light on why libraries are important; how they address local priorities and strengthen communities. We know that benchmarks alone are not a panacea. A key part in strengthening public access technology services is advocating for them, in particular at the local level. Edge Coalition members are creating training to improve leadership skills and crafting resources to showcase how libraries are succeeding in benchmark topic areas. The act of checking off these skills or services isn’t enough; communicating where a library stands and how that translates into funding and support is what shifts the Edge Initiative from a checklist to an exercise in transformative sustainability.

Libraries are more important than ever in this digital age, providing critical services in communities far and wide.  We think the Edge Benchmarks can give libraries the edge to meet community information needs.  Check out the Edge Benchmarks. Invest in the future of your community.

 
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