Research Methods and Next Steps

– A Note on Ethics –

Dr. David Carr has framed the argument that evaluation requires that a phenomenon must be either askable or observable. This methodological simplification reveals a conundrum in light of this research project because the ethics of librarianship seem to oppose efforts to ask or observe individuals as they seek out information relevant to their lives. This resistance is not without sound reasoning. The principles that created the nation’s libraries and librarians’ professional and tacit codes of ethics have been fundamentally challenged by moral debates surrounding titles held by libraries and intrusive efforts to monitor, track, and persecute the learning behaviors of individuals. The library profession holds fast to the ethical principle that users have an absolute and inviolable right to privacy, and the interpretation of this ethical stance poses a challenge for the study of impacts and outcomes that accrue from library programs.

In developing a comprehensive research framework, researchers must be mindful of the unique ethics of the library profession. Care must be taken to develop tools that librarians can use without fear of compromising patrons’ privacy.

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During our first meetings in Philadelphia, advisors Dr. Janine Golden of the University of Southern California and Professor Manju Prasad-Rao of Long Island University commented on the complexity of addressing library professionals’ belief that asking questions alone would meet resistance from across the field. They noted that communities rife with cultural conflict or where a minority community might feel stigmatized were most likely to resist asking questions about library use. Specifically, their experience indicated that library professionals would prevent, avoid, or work around participation in data collection from program participants if they perceived the methods as violating the right to privacy.

While the federal regulations for the protection of human subjects in research (45 CFR Part 690: Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects) established rights of individuals and the reasonable right to privacy in research, library professionals hold these ethics close to their hearts and that interpretation may impact results from studies.

As a caveat to this perceived resistance to conducting research with public program participants, Terrilyn Chun of Multnomah County (Ore.) Library and Henry Fortunado of the Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library, both leading thinkers in program delivery, claimed that their institutions are actively involved in gathering data to assess impact and outcomes from most of their activities. This suggests that any effort to assess public programs at a library or system level may find early adopters willing to participate in national studies, but may possibly exclude a class of libraries whose values are challenged by any attempt to document users’ experience. Researchers controlling for excluded classes of individuals or groups must make special efforts to ensure the final data does not represent a systemic bias through omission.

We explored this challenge during the second set of meetings and asked our advisory group to consider strategies that could deeply investigate the library public program phenomenon, to track closely to the lived experience of library professionals, and to protect the data from interpretation that might bias the results or omit an important class of users. In guiding thinking about research methods, this second convening identified key concepts that would inform any national research framework. As a community, our advisors suggested that there is broad interest in exploring the range of programs and that those delivering programs are skilled observers of user behavior, and are therefore a possible rich source of synthesized data that would protect the rights of users. Others suggested that the vast quantity of programs alone could provide a significant source of information when aggregated on behalf of the collective. Still others believed there may be a complex array of program offerings that could be mapped to identify a “fingerprint” for each institution as a contributor to the national discourse on libraries.

Based on feedback from these leaders in library scholarship, we have identified a series of recommended strategies for exploring both NILPPA and to help outline ways that libraries themselves might be able to undertake efforts they find ethically palatable and contribute to the national dialogue.

– Mixed Methods –

Adult public programming covers a broad swath of knowledge worlds—from humanities programming like film series or campus-wide reading and discussion  groups, to practical efforts to run classes on tax preparation or business plan writing. The twenty-first century library is rapidly evolving in the public eye, but there is little baseline data on how libraries are perceived. Programming is clearly changing how libraries may be perceived by their users, yet terms like “library-like environment,” referring to quiet spaces, often draw on an outdated metaphor of what occurs in and around libraries that engage in rich programming and community-building efforts. To find reliable baseline data, it is necessary for the following framework to describe a strategy for aggregating information, helping to map the range of programming types offered by libraries, and how these experiences might be shifting the national narrative. To both characterize this situation and to understand the texture and variation of public understanding so it can be useful to those in the field, this framework recommends using both qualitative and quantitative strategies—an approach referred to as mixed-methods research. It is intended to be useful to innovators who are pushing the limits and wish to describe their impact and for those who seek to see how their programs and communities are situated in the national discourse.


American culture is heterogeneous. It may have dominant trends, but its regions face different cultural, economic, and social pressures; while its population may be represented in aggregate, there is no predictable pattern for where innovators and agents for change might find themselves inspired by a program at a library. Therefore, in the following sections, we recommend an assessment strategy that can be pursued to characterize the range of program offerings, a backdrop quantitative approach for understanding general trends, and a parallel set of investigations into the range, depth, and breadth of programs to more fully represent local conditions, key methods that respect the privacy rights of users, and a strategy for establishing baseline data related to programming experiences that can be used by individual libraries, library systems, and national associations to assess programming impacts.

– The Changing Perception of Libraries –

New York Public Library president Anthony Marx put it bluntly: “Books are a 500-year-old delivery system for providing access to information. We aren’t getting out of the book business, but now we are providing new ways to access information.” In fact, this trend has emerged nationwide, as public libraries have shrunk the proportion of their print materials in favor of growing other services and parts of the collection.¹ Contemporary library services are discordant with social narratives that characterize how people use and interact with these essential cultural institutions, which leads to lack of awareness of programs and reduces the ability of both libraries and library science programs to characterize how purposes are achieved.

To address this concern, the NILPPA planning process identified the need to broadly characterize what the public believes about library programs, and how public programming is shifting public understanding about the nature of library services. To accomplish this goal, it is important to think comprehensively as a sector and to situate individual libraries and library systems in that larger landscape.

– A National Impact Study Strategy –

Based on these explorations into the methods and strategies for assessing national-level impacts of programming in the United States, the goals of the following research methods are explicitly aimed at understanding aggregate impact. This suggests that, across a vast number of U.S. libraries, impacts may vary and individual institutions represent a range of outcomes. As a representative population of library programs, the amount of data from any individual institution need not be large. Rather, as a sector, it is possible for many libraries to participate in census-type data collection, individual case study, or impact day sampling that can generate a robust database that can be mined and analyzed for a wide variety of impacts without undue burden on any institution. Moreover, this research strategy would not require complex training in social science research methods.

If only the academic libraries in the country contributed one questionnaire with a randomly selected program participant and one fairly detailed programming professional report on impact of a specific program type to a centrally managed database, researchers could undertake detailed statistical analysis, link these data to baseline program offering statistics, census data, and other community-level metrics to provide robust contribution evidence of how specific types of programs, or programming in general, is having impact in communities. Therefore, this planning phase has recommended a three-phase roll-out of an ongoing assessment program that will create usable data and data tools that can support programming professionals and provide an ongoing reporting mechanism that speaks to impact and evolution of library programming into the future.

– Notes on Methods –

The common social narrative surrounding reliable research is often assumed to reference a medical epidemiological model that involves randomized controlled trials (RCTs) as a gold standard for explaining causation. In these studies, all factors are treated as equal within a given population and the only variable is a treatment or treatment regimen. In the social sciences, however, researchers seek to explain the truth of a situation and to characterize how unique cultural and social pressures or conditions might account for different outcomes. Variation within any specific cultural group is sufficiently large to suggest that causation may not be the best test of a specific intervention, but rather, that a more open process that considers contribution of an experience to larger change might be assessed by looking at the wide variety of variations within communities.

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One of the major drawbacks to applying the epidemiological controlled testing strategies in free-choice learning at a library is the stabilization of the actual study frame—that is, the specific population that experiences the same condition. Prior to the understanding that all cancers were similar, it was common to exclude from tests either a gender or ethnic heritage as variables, which have since proven to have substantial impact on response to treatments. Similarly with library programs, all social factors—including gender or gender identity of attendees, or unique conditions of one community that surrounds a specific event or program that are not replicated due to socioeconomic variation or even the weather in another community, and/or other social factors—can influence any exploration of a phenomenon for each of the participants in a particular event. A first experience with a poetry reading is likely to be completely different for someone who has enjoyed book group activities than it is for someone who has never been to a book discussion before. Therefore, this framework outlines a research strategy that establishes a general sampling frame as the entire population that might be accounted for in research. It also focuses on trying to explain the range of experiences that are possible, to characterize variation within the field and then use that variation to explore versions of programs to help understand the range, depth, and breadth of impact rather than narrowly attribute a change to a generic lowest common denominator “program” that does not represent the richness of the field.

While it would be convenient to consider “the general public” as a “simple” sample frame, our advisor meetings revealed that the sample frame, of necessity, for any overall assessment would require a stratified sampling frame. In the creation of a research framework, three communities should be consulted: programming participants, library users who do not attend or who avoid public programs, and library non-users. Each offers a unique perspective into this project.

Within these three unique groups, we suggest that various conditions, including program facilitator, tradition of program presentation at a library, and other factors, may surface unique outcomes or impacts from programs that are attributable to these variations. That is not to say that the impacts will be negative or positive, but rather, that the users’ experience of the program and the impact on them may be received in different and unique ways that are all useful in understanding the possibilities that can accrue from any event. Based on this categorization of communities, and irrespective of any national sampling strategy, we suggest that a “simple” sampling scheme for any national survey would need to compare across these community categories to identify how discourse is changing – as a backdrop to fully explore how individuals are using their libraries.

Based on this stratified sampling scheme and the recognition that varied programming types appeal to different communities and cultural sectors, this report recommends that a parallel set of studies be undertaken first to characterize the general narratives that surround libraries, and how these narratives are shifting as a result of expanded programming by libraries with consideration of community level cultural variation and type of library.

– Proposed Research Plan –

The following three-phase research plan will create usable data and data tools that can support programming professionals and provide an ongoing reporting mechanism that speaks to impact and evolution of library programming into the future. Through these three phases, competencies of programming professionals will start to emerge and mature to ensure programming practice is becoming part of the overall principle of library literacy, mapping the growth of professional practice and feeding a national dialogue with useful data that can help the profession grow as a whole.

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¹ Swan, D. W., Grimes, J., Owens, T., Miller, K., Arroyo, J., Craig, T., Dorinski, S., Freeman, M., Isaac, N., O’Shea, P., Padgett, R., Schil- ling, P.& Scotto, J. (2014). Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2011 (IMLS-2014-PLS-01). Institute of Museum and Library Services. Washington, DC.

Do you consider it unethical or a violation of privacy to ask library users about their motivations, interests and experiences related to your library’s programming? Are there additional areas that you think the Next Steps should focus on?

Read responses and provide your own feedback using the comment box below. Comments are moderated and will be posted within 24 hours. Please let us know whether you would like to make your comments public or keep them private.

Comments ( 1 )
  • Jude Schanzer says:

    If you ask patrons to have an active part in creating programming that serves their needs, it is probable that they will not find the questions to be an invasion of privacy. It is a conversation. We do informal “exit polls” which start with, “I hope you enjoyed the program.” From this we receive very valuable input and we develop strong, informative relationships with our users.

    • Institution Name/Affiliation: East Meadow Public Library/Programmer
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