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October 18, 2012

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IDEA WATCH: Data Delivery--Getting the Story Out

IDEA WATCH: Data Delivery--Getting the Story Out

For a decade or longer in the library field, we’ve been hearing that we need to gather data about the impacts of our role on students in order to help secure our positions and funding. A plethora of library studies showing the positive and significant impact of school libraries on student achievement have been done across a wide variety of schools and states. Yet library cuts continue and, in fact, have increased. And if you ask the majority of school administrators, I’d wager they have no knowledge of any of those studies and very little knowledge of the story of their own libraries’ data.

So they’ve asked for the data, and we’ve gathered it, both locally and nationally. We operate under the assumption that our schools are data-driven. And yet it doesn’t seem to matter. So we need to ask what we can do differently, because we can no more blame this on the administrators than we can blame students for not learning. Are we “barking up the wrong tree,” or is the information just not reaching the right channel in the right way? Can we convey data in a way that it has its intended impact? And is our data meaningful without student stories behind it?

At its June conference, the Texas Association of School Library Administrators (TASLA) assembled a panel of school principals and administrators to address this question, asking them to review librarian “elevator” speeches. The administrators made it clear that they weren’t hearing many of our messages. They suggested that librarians should not overwhelm them with data, but rather unpack it bit by bit. They want to know the bottom line benefit (and also costs involved) up front—the “bang for the buck” (http://blog.schoollibrarymedia.com/index.php/2012/06/13/what-admins-think-of-librarian-messages-tasla-2012).

What Are We Saying, and to Whom?

Their comments made me wonder a couple of things. First, are we crafting messages with our data that are having an impact on our administrators? Are we overwhelming them? Are we being too indirect? Are our messages couched in too much “library-ese?” How we can convey our data more effectively without being overwhelming? Too often we are using our data reports to convey the progress of an entire year at once. Is that too much information? Is gradual better? If we are posting messages on social networks over time, does this create a helpful collective picture of our library rather than a one-shot report? And is the data we share really powerful if it is disconnected from the stories of students themselves?

Second, are we crafting messages that target our actual audience? The Spokane Moms, who led a successful legislative attempt to save Washington state school librarians, emphasize the importance of tailoring messages and data to your intended audience. Does your principal prefer video? Text? One-on-one conversation? Furthermore, what may be impactful for our principals may not be what might impact our parents, our superintendents, or our school boards.

A fascinating suggestion that arose during the TASLA administrator panel was that librarians and administrators prepare a data report together. Wouldn’t this change administrators’ sense of ownership and understanding of the data? As they partner with you to tell the story of your library, they will have valuable insights on how to craft your message appropriately for your school board or superintendent.

From Dry Data …

Curious about how journalists humanize data succinctly, I found a fascinating You­Tube video by a financial reporter illustrating how she turned numbers (the stock market news) into human stories. Her method involved keying in on what the data meant to an average person and then telling that story in order to personalize the numbers. This isn’t a new journalistic technique, of course, but it is a reminder that it takes mindfulness for library educators to tell the story of their own data and to make it personal.

In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath talk about ways to make an idea “sticky” so that it remains with the listener long after it is encountered. They include six criteria: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotion, and story.

We can present all the library data we want, both nationally and locally, but unless it sticks with the intended audience, it doesn’t move our story forward. (Notably, the Heath brothers include story and emotion among their criteria—they do not include “data” per se.)

So I’ve been thinking about how we can represent our own data—either the data from national studies or statistics from our own schools—with some personal stories evoking emotions that our administrators can connect with and believe in … something they can then repeat to others so they are carrying forward the story of what libraries provide for students.

The Heath brothers remind me that there are many ways to tell our library stories. Canadian educator Darren Kuropatwa fittingly reminds us that sometimes a story is a Trojan horse for information—a way to slip the information in, in a way that flies under the radar.

A perfect example of how an unexpected story had tremendous impact occurred in Troy, Mich. When candidates in Troy were opposing a 0.7% budget increase to keep the library open, calling it increased taxation, an ad campaign inviting townspeople to a “post-election” library book-burning party did more to create dialogue in the community about whether the library should remain open than simply sharing all the data in the world could have. The unexpected invitation to burn the library’s books led to citywide discussions about the importance of its library, and that was what remained in voters’ minds when they went to the voting booth.

… To Interesting Stories

How can we combine storytelling, sticky techniques, and data to create compelling stories about the ways our libraries impact students?

First off, I think we can portray data differently so that it is more meaningful for our audience and “cuts to the chase” more quickly. Librarians are already creating campus-based library reports differently. A collection of innovative reports can be found at http://schoollibrarywebsites.wikispaces.com/Reports. These examples provide an excellent jumping-off point for consideration, using various media, including video (Animoto), newsletters, charts, and infographics. (I do worry that we need to focus more on brevity. Think about it. Who else in the school turns in a multipage end-of-year report, other than those who produce standardized testing documentation?)

Infographics are a power tool for turning data into a “story” that can be brief, intriguing, and quickly absorbed. (Consult the site http://informationisbeautiful.com for some great infographics.) Check out this video charting the growth of the microfinance organization Kiva, for example: http://vimeo.com/28413747. (Thanks to David Warlick for sharing this at the ISTE conference.)

In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Sean Stannard-Stockton writes about the power of Kiva’s infographic:

I’ve written a number of times about the tension between logic and empathy. I think it is important that the effective philanthropy movement recognizes that while data is an important input to good decision-making, it can also dampen the very emotions that drive giving. [Italics mine.] That’s why I think it is critical that high performing organizations learn how to tell authentic stories about their impact—stories based on solid data about what works that also respects the role of emotion in the field of philanthropy.

Change the word philanthropy to education and we can see how critical it is that we bridge that tension between logic and empathy. This means we need to be telling stories that support our data; not stories about the library or librarians, but about the students, and that includes students beyond the library program. Like corporate librarians, we can help our administrators tell those stories about our campuses in general. When we support the larger mission of the school using our library and technology skills, our role as part of a team is clear.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out how our national library organizations are telling the story of research data. They craft new messages regarding research on libraries that are clear and forceful, that include stories of students, and that hit the channels administrators care about. We need their help and outside-the-box thinking right now to turn data about student achievement in libraries into something every administrator is aware of. We’ve got to get away from our “library-ese” and speak their language. School (and city) administrators are taking in information from librarians, athletic coaches, career programs, arts programs, STEM programs, and on and on. The clear, concise, creative uses of data and memorable stories will be the ones that break through.

So the next time you are trying to tell the story of a library, reflect mindfully on how you will share the data. What unexpected, concrete story can you use to make the data come alive? And how can you do this concisely so that your administrator has time to take it in? Maybe I have asked more questions than I have provided answers. But when what we are doing isn’t working, we have to reflect on our practices. Darren Kuropatwa summed up one solution well—story is the Trojan horse. And we need our data to ride in on it.

Contact Carolyn at technolibrary@gmail.com.

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