The 2023 Core Forum was held from October 19 to 21 in New Orleans, a town that is always a delight to visit. The Core Division was formed by the merger of three ALA Divisions in 2020, during the height of the pandemic lockdowns, so this was just the second Forum that has been held. Last year’s was in Salt Lake City, which means the Core Forum went from quite possibly the most strait-laced city in the country to a city with a…somewhat different reputation. I attended a number of interesting sessions at the Forum that I’ll discuss in a bit of detail.

The best session I attended was “Beyond Big Ideas: Translating Your Mission, Vision, and Values Statements Into Practical Metrics” by Dallin Witt of the Salt Lake City Public Library. As should be obvious from the title of the session, Witt framed the idea of developing metrics around the Mission, Vision, and Values statements of libraries, as well as their priorities. He defined each of these statements as answers to questions:

Mission statement – Why do we exist?

Vision statement – What do we aspire to become?

Values statement – What core principles guide this organization’s decision making?

Priorities/objectives – What are we focusing on to achieve our vision?

He argued that metrics can:

  1. Move the MVV statements from the abstract to the concrete.
  2. Identify and track change.
  3. Promote accountability.
  4. Serve as a tool of communication.
  5. Serve as the cornerstone of goal setting.

Witt said that libraries should use a variety of metrics because there is no single “library quality index” and that you need to develop metrics for each priority. The big question for developing a metric for a given priority is what will success look like? Furthermore, the scope of a metric will usually be narrower than the priority. You won’t be able to measure absolutely everything about a priority, only one or two dimensions of it. He also suggested that libraries shouldn’t use too many metrics, and that it is best to use as few as possible. Witt also spoke in favor of using metrics that are cheap and scalable, not because they are better, but because they are good enough. He said you should allow for a frequent reporting cadence and that you shouldn’t use metrics that you can only take once or twice a year. Witt argued in favor of using proxies as metrics. For example, if a library has a priority of providing competitive pay, benefits, and training opportunities to staff, a formal pay study is expensive and very time consuming. But staff retention rates may make a good enough proxy.

Witt next discussed types of metrics. Input metrics measure the resources available to support the operation of the library (things like collection size and budget). Process metrics measure the efficiency with which resources are converted into services (for example: cost per circulation and time to hold fulfillment). Outcome metrics measure the degree to which the public is actually using the service being provided (such as circulation and visits per capita). When developing metrics be sure you are measuring outcomes not outputs (for example, track the number of participants in a summer reading program, not the number of billboards promoting the summer reading program).

He then turned to challenges with developing metrics. One was defining “return on investment.” What is return and what is the investment? True comparability of metrics can be difficult or impossible. He also cautioned against using subjective metrics, arguing that rubric graded metrics are weak and can lead to motivated scoring. Witt said that it should be possible to miss your goal by a fraction of a percent and you can’t really get that with subjective metrics. He also warned about Goodheart’s Law, which states that “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

He concluded by running through an example of refining a metric to maximize its effectiveness. The metric is supposed to measure the value of public library programs. The first draft metric is: Total program attendance. Sounds good, but it’s a little vague. One really popular program could account for almost all of the attendance. The second draft metric is: Mean attendance at literacy programs. This is better, but again, one or two popular programs could account for a lot of the attendance, since it is a straight average across all sessions. The third draft metric is: Median attendance at mission-aligned programs. This is a strong metric because you will cut off the highly attended and lightly attended sessions and you are counting only those programs that are mission-aligned.

I realize I’ve rambled on quite a bit about that session, but it really was good. Since I went into so much detail with it, I’ll just mention a few more quick things:

I saw one session by a presenter from a state institution in Mississippi who said that his library added Access to their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work, under the acronym IDEA. Why? Because some busybodies in Mississippi state government have taken to Googling the websites of state institutions looking for DEI or EDI, so they can threaten them over these initiatives and try to revoke their funding. But good luck Googling IDEA and finding anything specific.

The final keynote address of the Forum was by Ben Jaffe, the Creative Director of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. He told the story of how his parents Allan and Sandra Jaffe moved down to New Orleans in 1961 and took over the management of Preservation Hall. At the time, Preservation Hall was an art gallery, and the Jaffes found that, although there were old musicians still alive who had been part of the development of jazz, they had no place to play in public. Because of Jim Crow laws still on the books in Louisiana in 1961, mixed audiences couldn’t attend musical performances together, so the Jaffes continued to call Preservation Hall an art gallery and claimed the musicians were models who just happened to be playing music while someone painted a picture of them.

On a final note, there was a Core Forum trivia contest on Friday night, and my team, the Beignets, won. I’m not saying I was a key player on the team, but I’m not saying I wasn’t.