What is the most important data you collect and analyze?

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The theme for our April online issue is “Your Data Toolkit: Gathering and Using Data to Improve Instruction.” To that end, Maria Cahill asked school librarians, “What is the most important data you collect and analyze?” This turned out to be a challenging question! Keep reading to see Dr. Cahill’s analysis of the results.

We hope you use these surveys to help you reflect on your own practices.  Subscribers can view our archive of past surveys here or check out the complete April issue here.

First, we apologize for putting our school librarians through such a difficult task: we asked them to choose the most important type of data they collect and analyze. As one of our respondents replied, “This question feels a little like ‘which is your favorite child?’ They are important for different reasons.” We recognize that different data are used for different purposes and all of the options we listed have value.

In truth, we fretted a little bit over how to ask the question, as well as how to collect responses. In the end, we decided it was important for librarians to “have” to choose. In case you wonder, we too ground our work in evidence-based librarianship. The option choices were guided by findings from empirical research of school librarians’ evidence-based practices (Richey and Cahill 2014).

As reflected in the chart above, approximately one-third of the 314 school librarians who participated in this survey selected circulation statistics as the most important type of data they collect and analyze, and this source ranked highest across all levels: elementary, middle, high, and other schools. One school librarian explained, “Circulation data often get discounted as less important than student assessments or other metrics. However…harnessing the power of circulation stats is critical…book circulation is like the proverbial canary in the coalmines–if you aren’t circulating books there’s a problem!”

Indeed, circulation data is so easy to capture that all school librarians should be collecting and analyzing it. That said, multiple sources of evidence can and should be used by school librarians to guide their practice. One highly respected, district-level administrator recently commented to a school librarian preparation class, “School and district administrators are much more interested in knowing how school librarians are impacting teachers and students [than what the circulation statistics are].” Therefore, we were pleased to see that many school librarians prioritize evidence of collaborations with teachers and the collection of student assessment data. Comments from school librarians explain the importance of these two sources of evidence:

  • Schools are about student learning. We need to show evidence that our work aligns with the educational goals of the buildings and districts in which we operate.
  • The collaborations I have with colleagues are key to the rest. When I collaborate, my database usage and e-book circulation increases accordingly, my student interactions increase, etc. 
  • Administrators often have no understanding [of] what teacher librarians do. Collaboration data fleshes out all the other numbers.
  • Decisions about curriculum at my school are based on student assessment data…this data is most relevant to how I do my job.
  • Student assessment data informs my teaching, and that’s the most important part of my job.

Before closing, we want to share one more important message from a school librarian: “Statistics alone are worthless. You should also be providing a narrative and photographic evidence of activities when reporting to ‘the powers that be.’”



Richey, Jennifer, and Maria Cahill. “School Librarians’ Experiences with Evidence-Based Library and Information Practice.” School Library Research 14 (2014).

Maria Cahill, MLIS, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky in both the School of Information Science and the Department of Education. She received her master’s degree from the University of South Carolina and her doctorate in education from the University of Tennessee. She is author of numerous papers in such journals as Knowledge Quest, School Libraries Worldwide, and School Library Research and has served in numerous professional leadership positions, including on the Educators of School Librarians Section of the American Association of School Librarians and the American Library Association’s Literacy and Outreach Services Committee.

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