YA Strike Zone October 2014
YA Strike Zone
Toward a YA Key Performance Indicator and Making Our Own Strike Zone
[Editor’s Note: YA Strike Zone, previously in our print and digital magazine, is now an evoya feature!]
For the past nine years, I have made a practice of interviewing the ranking YA staff of conference-hosting cities. Lurking just under their stories about truly good works resides a consistent grievance about how scarce resources prevent them from doing their work. In this essay, I attempt to respond to what is by far this most prevalent concern.
Let’s face it, we are playing an unfair game. The gods are against us. Our YA patrons are often reviled. Our institutional partners frequently don’t respect us. We don’t have the resources, time, money, skills, staff, or space we want to perform our jobs.
Employees throw up their hands in frustration and futility and ask, “What can we do about it?”
Professionals, however, ask a different question. Professionals ask, “Okay, what’s our next move?”
Yes, we do play an unfair game in which institutional, historic, and cultural forces conspire against YA library professionalism. But we need to acknowledge that we’re at least partly to blame. We are at fault because we continue pretending libraries are just so different from every other kind of civic institution that we hover above accountability to our publics, and our young people, for demonstrating our value.
Unlike most any other successful institution, libraries do not state clearly, simply, with evidence, what they do for communities so that the broader public can easily understand. Within that context, YA services do not state clearly, simply, with evidence, what they define as success so their own libraries or the public can understand.
Of course we offer value. Of course we make significant contributions. Of course we matter. And at the drop of a hat we will share lots of anecdotes, tell lots of stories, point to lots of kids and many programs. But anecdotes, stories, and examples increasingly do not persuade public and school agencies—their backs against the wall financially and ideologically—when so many other needs cry out for dwindling resources.
So, the game is unfair. Yes, it is.
At the risk of further extending the “YA Strike Zone” sports metaphor, I’d like to offer the recent story of the Oakland Athletics professional baseball organization as an answer to “Now, what?” and you don’t need to understand baseball.
In a small market, and with about half of the resources of every other Major League team, the “As” continue year-after-year to out-perform even their wealthiest competition, and they do it by concentrating on the evidence that produces their key performance indicator: winning. Winning is clear. It is easy to measure, and everyone understands it.
Against nearly 170 years of baseball history, the As use evidence (as opposed to ritual, anecdote, “gut,” or heirloom legacies) to align the resources they need to achieve their goal. Decisions about resource management and allocation (time, money, skills, and talent) are determined by evidence supporting performance toward their single and most important indicator of success.
Library science, however, fails to articulate its own coherent vision of a singular, clearly intelligible, and measurable contribution to civic culture. Consequences follow. Administrators dictate the terms of our service and experience, not our own YA-specific mission. Local youth-serving institutions largely force us to go hat-in-hand to connect with young people. We offer only emotional pleas when vying for resources. We rely upon antiquated reports documenting mere outputs (like circulation statistics or program headcounts) instead of more effective outcomes (what users found useful). Our YA professional association continues to issue long, undifferentiated, and un-prioritized lists of thou shalt “guidelines” and “calls to action.” Worst of all, and with rare exception, we continue to attract YA users from only a sliver of the youth community—a sliver, I hasten to add, not particularly balanced across the major social categories of class, gender, race, or nationality.
Such lists do not constitute a success measure any more than simply increasing public service hours insures quality service. Nor do our circulation statistics and program headcounts translate for the public. Further, don’t we deserve to know what success means and how we got there? Shouldn’t we present our administrators, boards, councils, colleagues, and young people with confident and easily understood measures of our professional contributions? Doesn’t the public deserve to understand our contributions to the wellbeing of our communities—without being held emotionally hostage to accusations of being anti-youth if they don’t support us?
Every other thriving institution and profession makes it easy for stakeholders to understand success. For a sports team, it is winning; for the military, it’s victory; for business, it’s profit; for physicians, it’s health; for students, it’s grades. These key success measures constitute the “strike zones” for these respective endeavors. YA services refuses to identify success it can call its own. YA services doesn’t articulate a broad or common measure easily understood by the very public we rely upon to support our work.
Yes, libraries are all different. Yes, different libraries offer different strengths and services for varied communities. Yes, it would be difficult to articulate a single measure of success. But the question remains on the table: Now what? What’s our next move?
My answer is to summon forward leadership, from within our own ranks, to facilitate and engage a discussion about an easily-understood, evidence-based, and powerful measure of success. Let us debate and discuss this question in our staff meetings, at our conferences, in our research and professional publications, in our classrooms, as well as with our teen advisory groups, among YA volunteers, and even among non-library using young people. Then, let us come together, unified in our efforts, to support and promote this success measure. If we have yet to achieve it, then let us realign our resources so that our practices aim at it.
Yes, we play an unfair game. Thriving institutions win anyhow. Why can’t we make that our next move?
Anthony Bernier teaches at San Jose State’s School of Library and Information Science where he concentrates on research and teaching on the administration of equitable services with young people. A fourteen-year YA specialist librarian and administrator veteran and former chair of YALSA’s New Directions Task Force, he recently edited The Collected Wit and Wisdom of Dorothy M. Broderick, a Festschrift honoring Broderick, VOYA’s cofounder (VOYA Press, 2013). He lives in Oakland (CA) and rides a BMW R1100RT.