Giving Data Some Soul | Project Advocacy

Presenting data persuasively is an important advocacy skill for librarians.
Carolyn Foote

Carolyn Foote

At the 2014 Internet Librarian Conference, held in Monterey, CA (October 27–29), EBSCO user experience researcher Deirdre Costello shared the company’s efforts to delve into the research habits of teens. EBSCO researchers conducted one-on-one interviews, and they also sent video cameras to students so they could create their own research video diaries.

The shared results could have been interesting, but dry. However, the EBSCO team chose to capture their results in the jargon of “Harry Potter.” It was so memorable that without consulting my notes, I can recall the three types of teen researchers they identified: Hermiones, who use every research tool well and listen to instructions; Rons, who rely on the Hermiones to help them through the research project; and Nevilles, who only get good at research once they find their true passion in a subject—and then blossom.

Those analogies demonstrated the power of using data persuasively. When we do so, we share our discoveries in a way that sticks.

At the conference, Ken Haycock, research professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, acknowledged that the way librarians present data often doesn’t resonate with decision-makers. Qualitative sorts of stories do. “Data with a soul,” as keynote speaker Brendan Howley, chief strategy officer at Yup! media group, called it, quoting University of Houston professor and TED Talk sensation Brené Brown.

Typically, we gather data about how many students or how many classes we serve. How can librarians answer real-world questions and harness data’s persuasive potential? I happen to be in the midst of delving into my own curiosity about student reading habits—gathering data about our students’ use of ebooks through a variety of methodologies, including surveys, personal interviews, and video interviews. As I do so, I am mindful of transforming the data into a meaningful story about our students that will resonate with administrators.

In a presentation at Internet Librarian, I shared some of our findings. Surveyed seniors claimed a strong preference for print materials. Only six percent prefer ebooks, although they use both formats when necessary. An informal library survey showed that overall, our students prefer print almost 2:1.

Also, despite a great deal of library publicity, students aren’t very aware of the ebook collection. In addition to gathering the data, I need to craft it to help school leaders understand the real picture of student ebook preferences versus the perception of “digital natives.”

We have so many data-gathering tools at our disposal. Maybe we collect compelling data through video interviews, as my school’s librarians did when interviewing students about their learning space preferences. Maybe we gather it through brainstorming exercises. At the conference, school librarians Cheri Dobbs (Detroit Country Day School, Beverly Hills, MI) and Marcia Kochel (Galloway School, Atlanta, GA) suggested rethinking libraries through a blue-sky challenge: “What would the library look like if __ (the Geico gecko, Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres, etc.) designed it?” Attendees imagined that Ellen’s library would include dancing, guests, and prizes, while the gecko’s library would feature low shelving.

Data can also be compiled with collaborative brainstorming tools, such as, as Mary Ann Bell, assistant professor in the department of library science at Texas’s Sam Houston State University, suggested at the conference. Perhaps it involves using a tool like Piktochart to craft a compelling infographic.

What are you or your administrators curious about? Let that motivate your research. Whatever your method, don’t lose focus on the data’s narrative. As Haycock reminded us, this story might be the one thread that decision-makers remember at a critical juncture.


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