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Give Your Library the Edge
Posted On May 20, 2014
The Edge Initiative is a strategic planning and resource allocation toolkit designed to help public libraries “demonstrate how their work adds value and supports strong outcomes” in the communities they serve. Developed by the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and in partnership with 12 library and local government associations, Edge was launched in late January 2014. Today, “over 1,700 public libraries are using Edge to explore the strategic needs of their community and align their public technology services with critical community priorities.” (That’s nearly 20% of all public libraries in the U.S.)

The tool allows each library to benchmark its service delivery, comparing itself with others. This helps libraries understand what needs to be done to meet and exceed best practices. As ULC president and CEO Susan Benton describes it: “By connecting public libraries with the strategic goals and outcomes of local leaders, Edge is making a difference in communities across the country.”

As the website states: “The Edge Toolkit gives libraries a look into their local data, from operations to partnerships and programming, to assess how their community is using the technology and how best practices can be put into place to align future growth and services with community priorities. It also provides useful resources to package and showcase the data to other community leaders.”

The Needs of Communities

How relevant are libraries to their communities today? That is a question that every library needs to answer, and the answers will be as diverse as the communities served by those libraries. The needs of communities and the roles played by libraries in those communities are evolving. The range of services is changing as technology advances, so it’s not only what libraries offer but how it is offered that is different today (and likely to be different in a few years’ time).

Libraries were already producing strategic plans, conducting needs assessments, and designing library services technology projects, but something was missing. Local government leaders, including ICMA, the International City/County Management Association, were clear that it was less about having bandwidth and more about what you do with that bandwidth. ULC senior program manager Jake Cowan sees Edge as a mechanism to help libraries better connect with and meet the goals of their communities. “Check Out the New Library” in the May 2014 issue of Public Management (PM) magazine shows local government managers the “undervalued and overlooked” resource that is the public library.

Part of what social service agencies need to demonstrate is that they are achieving their objectives, and they’re doing so in a cost-effective manner. How can libraries prove their worth (i.e., what the community invests in them)? The value of the library in today’s digital world is different as one moves from community to community. How does a library discern these shifts? Edge helps libraries express the value of the services provided in terms of alignment with the needs of the community and its overall goals, demonstrating continuous improvement.

How Libraries Benefit by Participating in Edge

Edge provides a snapshot of a library’s current technology services, assessing and ultimately strengthening public access technology. The benchmarks provide libraries with a system to assess and understand best practices for public access technology services, along with ways to improve those services.

Edge helps libraries apply benchmark data to demonstrate the value of technology-related services in support of communitywide strategic priorities. Benefits of the program include the following:

  • Assessment of public access technology use
  • Identification of specific area in need of improvement (and investment)
  • Increased understanding of how public technology services help meet community goals
  • Data useful to demonstrating outcomes to local leaders

How It Works

Edge is a management and leadership tool for public libraries, helping them evaluate public access technology and identify how it can be used to help communities. What should a library spend its money on? How should the librarians spend their time?

The toolkit consists of a brief webinar designed to help libraries consider what’s working and where improvements can be made, an Assessment Workbook, and case studies illustrating how libraries have implemented and used Edge. Edge benchmarks connect the library with best practices, strengthening the library’s ability to make a persuasive case for high-quality services. Additional resources, tools, strategies, and training courses are available to help libraries strengthen their partnerships, foster leadership, build public access technology services, and assess community needs.

The star of the show is the straightforward Assessment Workbook, which identifies library benchmarks in three key areas: Community Value, Engaging the Community & Decision Makers, and Organizational Management. Each benchmark has a detailed set of criteria contributing to the library assessment. Libraries indicate whether they currently have programs in these areas, have plans to offer them in the coming year, would like to offer them but cannot at the present, or have no plans to offer the services. Even if one does not plan to ever participate in the initiative, the workbook can help to highlight issues that libraries ought to consider during their own strategic planning process.

Community Value: The three benchmarks for assessing specific programs, services, and support that enable people to get value from their use of technology are as follows:

  • Digital literacy (training and individual assistance)
  • Digital tools and resources
  • Meeting key community needs, such as support for workforce development, egovernment, education, and health/wellness

Engaging the Community & Decision Makers: The three benchmarks for identifying external practices that connect the library to the community are as follows:

  • Strategy and evaluation includes relationships with community leaders, gathering community feedback, surveying patrons, evaluation of programs/services, and information-based strategic decisions
  • Strategic partnerships (and outreach)
  • Sharing best practices (e.g., participating in a community of practice)

Organizational Management helps libraries assess internal management and infrastructure through the following benchmarks:

  • Planning and policies for technology management
  • Staff expertise includes staff training, performance evaluation, and staff technology expertise
  • Devices and bandwidth (e.g., device hours per capita, bandwidth capacity, time limits, peripheral equipment)
  • Technology management, including managing connectivity, minimizing out-of-service devices, and tracking technology use
  • Technology inclusiveness (i.e., accommodating users with disabilities)

Founded in 1971, ULC is a membership association of leading public library systems in the U.S. and Canada. To become an Edge library, visit

Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser

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