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Using key performance indicators to measure library performance

April 4, 2018

By Leo Appleton

Help desk at Goldsmiths, University of London Library

A framework that explores ways libraries can demonstrate their value and impact to stakeholders

Libraries across all sectors serve a particular purpose and set out to achieve the goals and objectives of the library’s stakeholders. These objectives will differ according to the nature and strategic function of the library and the expectations of its user community. If the library achieves its aims or goals, there is a high likelihood that the library’s users and the communities it serves will consider it valuable (financially or otherwise). Managing objectives strategically, then, allows libraries to achieve its desired outcomes and those of its users. Library stakeholders and customers also expect to receive high-quality service, and libraries now exist in a culture of striving to achieve excellence and deliver continual high-service performance.

“Service excellence is not necessarily achieved using traditional quality assurance processes but that it is more likely to be attained through strategic planning processes aligned with key performance indicators that provide accountability” (Holmes & Parsons, 2016, p. 25). In this article, I would like to discuss the key performance indicators (KPIs) that libraries use in measuring performance. Librarians are faced with measuring usage, quality of service and strategic performance (i.e., how well the library is achieving its outcomes). These are each different measures, but there has been a misguided tendency to label all metrics used to measure any of them as KPIs.

Many libraries, for example, collect usage statistics and (incorrectly) report them as KPIs. An academic library might proudly report the number of students who attended induction sessions in an academic year or how many books were issued or how many electronic articles were downloaded. These types of statistics, without any reference to an outcome, are simply measures of usage or busyness. Although they may be useful for other purposes (such as making a business case for increased funding), they do not measure the library’s performance and are not KPIs.

Another trap that librarians often fall into is badging “satisfaction measures” as KPIs. For example, the same academic library might report that 98 percent of students were satisfied with their induction session. Again, this is not a measure of performance, although it does go some way to checking and assuring the quality of the service and this too is important in the pursuit of excellence and continual improvement. This all needs to be measured while simultaneously measuring how well the library achieves its strategic objectives for its intended outcomes.

Critical success factors

One area of management to consider when discussing performance measurement is critical success factors, the areas in which a business or organization’s performance must be satisfactory in order for it to perform well. Critical success factors need to be systematically monitored and measured through the use of performance indicators (PIs). Examples of critical success factors for a library to deliver excellent service might include:

  • Efficient and reliable suppliers

  • Motivated, skilled and technically expert staff

  • Accessible service models

  • A robust IT network infrastructure

  • Customer-focused mission

The success of these areas can be measured through performance indicators, which should show, at a glance, what is being achieved. Traditionally, library managers have found it difficult to establish these performance indicators and have tended to “measure the measurable” instead — in other words, to concentrate on operational and financial data, which is focused on “inputs” (such as financial or staff resources) and “outputs” (such as catalog records or study spaces).

What actually needs to happen, and indeed has become more common in recent years, is for library managers to change their focus from inputs and outputs to outcomes and impacts. Neither the quantity of library usage nor the quality of library services provides evidence of the impact that libraries have on their users, which is why we need to focus on the outcomes of library usage in order to discuss impact and value.

Many commentators write enthusiastically about libraries, especially public libraries, as the center of society. Brophy (2006) suggests that “libraries are at the heart of social systems; they exist to serve the needs of people, to help them live, learn and develop and to act as part of the social glue which holds communities together” (Brophy, 2006, p. 3). But to truly demonstrate this societal impact, public libraries need to be explicit about having “social well-being” or “social inclusion” outcomes.

Outcomes of library usage

Outcomes will differ depending on the type of library. The example above illustrates public libraries and their social missions, while academic libraries would invariably be supporting and delivering to educational and research missions and a legal information service or law library might support lawyers in the courtroom. The influences and effects of library usage on users is complex and difficult to prove, especially if the actual outcome is not realized until sometime after the library usage (e.g., career progression) and if the affected individuals or communities might not relate their situation to previous library usage. To put this into context, the lists below offer some possible outcomes of different types of library usage:

Public libraries

  • Social cohesion

  • Community identity

  • Economic regeneration

  • Community well-being

  • Literacy

Academic libraries

  • Information literacy

  • Student attainment / academic success

  • Research impact

Health libraries

  • Better informed / evidence-based practice

  • Clinical competency levels

  • Digitally literate patients

Outcomes are essentially the results (positive or negative) that users of libraries experience. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that specific elements of library and information provision do have positive impact against intended outcomes, and this is often presented through “value and impact” studies.

Using indicators to measure performance against outcomes

Data about usage quantity can show, to some extent, how much a library’s services and resources have been drawn upon, but usage is not synonymous with value or benefits to users, even though that is a common perception. Key performance indicators need to demonstrate both the quality of the service and the benefits of using a service. There is no internationally agreed upon or tested method for assessing the different aspects of library outcomes, but using indicators to measure performance against strategic objectives or outcomes is one method.

In the model below, I define a library outcome (such as an information-literate community, delivery of world-class research, or social cohesion) as a key result indicator (KRI). A “key result” is the ultimate strategic aim, and a key results indicator should give a clear picture as to whether the library is achieving this result. Because KRIs are the results of many actions and activities, there is a sub-level behind each KRI that can be measured through performance indicators.

Key Result Indicator (Outcome)

Performance Indicators

Percentage of a community regarded as information literate

- Percentage of library users who are confident in searching for and retrieving information resources

- Percent increase of library users who are confident in searching for and retrieving information resources

- Percentage of library users who are confident in navigating electronic library resources

- Percent increase of library users confident in navigating electronic library resources

- Decrease in number of inquiries compared against increase in use of electronic resources

Percentage of a community regarded as socially engaged

- Percentage of community (potential library users) attending reading groups

- Percent increase of community (potential library users) attending reading groups

- Percent increase in loans of dual-language resources

- Increase in requests for dual-language resources

- Number of outreach activities delivered

- Number of new library memberships resulting from outreach activities

Percentage of an institution’s research outputs regarded as “world class”

- Percent increase of articles and research papers submitted to institutional repository

- Number of citations of items contained within institutional repository

- Percent increase in number of citations of items contained within institutional repository

Performance indicators (PIs), while important, are not critical to delivering the intended results. Instead, they help to align the activity of the service with the library’s overall strategy (in this case, achievement of its outcomes). Key performance indicators, on the other hand, are a subset of these measures that are the most critical for achieving successful outcomes. Characteristics of KPIs may include:

  • They are nonfinancial measures.

  • They are measured frequently (daily, weekly, monthly).

  • They would be acted upon by the head of the library service.

  • They clearly indicate what action needs to be taken to remedy the situation if negative or adverse performance is indicated.

  • They have a significant impact on achieving outcomes and results.

  • They tie responsibility down to a team.

Any one KPI will have some or all of these characteristics. It is difficult to list a set of definitive KPIs because they are relative to the desired outcomes and the strategic drive of an individual library or organization. However, they would not be dissimilar to some of the performance indicators already listed, but the context and strategic priority of the library and information service would need to be considered.


Librarians have always been professional and meticulous when collecting statistics, data and metrics, and this should continue to be the case, as it ensures rich data and information about our services, quality and performance. In the right context, KPIs can be an invaluable and powerful tool in this endeavour, including measuring top-level performance against a library’s strategic outcomes. At the same time, we must not overlook usage and satisfaction data, which complement KPIs in measuring the overall performance of libraries.


Brophy, P. (2006) Measuring Library Performance: Principles and Techniques. London : Facet Publishing.

Holmes, A. and Parsons, F. (2016) The Institutional HE Quality Perspective. In Jeremy Atkinson (ed.) Quality and the Academic Library: Reviewing, Assessing and Enhancing Provision, London : Chandos, 17- 26



Leo Appleton

Director of Library Services