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Saint Paul Public Library Uses Evaluation to Expand Community Services


Public libraries across the country strive to offer services, programming and operations that meet the needs, desires and interests of diverse communities. Saint Paul Public Library’s Community Services program focuses on culturally responsive and informed programs, resources and services to support some of the most marginalized community members in the Twin Cities—immigrants and refugees—and to address inequities in library services. 

Expanding these services is central to the Library’s mission to welcome all people to connect, learn, discover and grow.

After years of building the Community Services program, Saint Paul Public Library (SPPL) staff knew it had a strong foundation on which to build and wanted to tie the program to the Library’s strategic plan. Rebecca Ryan, Public Services Manager at SPPL, approached Wilder Research to help evaluate the program.

Cultural liaisons connect the library and Karen, Latinx and Somali communities in Saint Paul

Central to SPPL’s Community Services model are hiring cultural liaisons and expanding professional development of library staff. Cultural liaisons are staff with community engagement and public services expertise who identify with and speak the native language of a cultural community. So far, the library has Karen, Latinx and Somali cultural liaisons who are crucial to connecting, building trusting relationships and more thoroughly understanding the scope of need for resources, tools and support within these distinct cultural groups. The liaisons work across several library branches and provide a range of programming and services based on interest and need. Examples of these activities include community conversations, virtual programming like story time and computer classes.

Community Services Coordinator Phasoua Vang describes the liaisons as responsive to community needs: “They are flexible, adaptable and resilient. Staff were always very mobile. They were at community sites and library branches. When things shifted with the pandemic, and library buildings closed, they continued to serve the patrons and families they worked with so well and with so much trust.”


Community members and library staff developed a logic model to guide their work

Wilder Research worked with the Saint Paul Public Library to develop a logic model that illustrates the Community Services program goals and how they plan to get there, for both community members and library staff. Karen, Latinx and Somali patrons joined community liaisons and other library staff in mapping out an approach and clarifying the desired outcomes that aligned with community interests.

Rebecca Ryan used the logic model as a communication tool with the City of Saint Paul about the importance of the cultural liaison positions and their intended impacts. As a result, the positions were added to the city budget, rather than funded by temporary grants.

"When we finished the logic model, we finally had this thing we can point to that shows what we’re doing and why we’re doing it," said Ryan. "Articulating that was so important. We want to be working with communities to support them in a way that works for those communities."

Listening to community members and staff about their experiences

Next, Wilder conducted surveys with Karen, Latinx and Somali community members and library staff to understand perceptions of how the library is doing related to short-term outcomes identified in the logic model. Wilder also trained three community representatives to conduct interviews with Karen, Latinx and Somali community members to learn about their experiences at the library and with the cultural liaisons.

The combination of surveys and interviews proved a powerful mix, according to Phasoua Vang, "The balance of numbers and anecdotal stories was so impactful. The process pushed me to think more about evaluation. It initially felt daunting, but Wilder Research helped us frame it in a way that made sense."

What we learned about the role of Community Services

Patrons who interacted with cultural liaisons reported positive experiences with library services

96% of community survey respondents said library resources were useful to them

“Now with [the cultural liaison] on their team, it was a big difference for me and my community. [The cultural liaison] does not wait for us to reach her, but the opposite. She always comes to us, socializes with other communities, communicates and teaches and mentors our kids.”
– Somali interview respondent

Cultural liaisons contributed to staff capacity and skill building

76% of staff respondents said observing the work of the cultural liaisons inspired them to work differently with culturally communities they serve

“I have developed my active listening skills and choose particular ways to communicate better with patrons from specific cultural communities. [The cultural liaison] inspires me to work better with patrons.”

– Library staff

Actionable recommendations will guide future work

Wilder used results of the surveys and interviews to create recommendations for program development targeted at both community members and the professional development of library staff. The key findings and recommendations provide a tool to guide Community Services program development and communicate their work to the broader field so other library systems can learn from the program.

In fact, the logic model and evaluation helped the library secure grant funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to expand Community Services. According to Ryan, "We got the grant partially because we have this logic model and evaluation. We are able to articulate the power of this work and the way it’s helping our COVID impacted communities."

The funding will help the Community Services team hire liaisons to additional communities, include more staff in the work and establish a cohort of liaisons to learn from and share with one another.

Read the report: Expanding Community Services at Saint Paul Public Library

Photo courtesy of Saint Paul Public Library.

We can tell you a million stories about the impact we have on people, but identifying outcomes and promoting this kind of thinking is not deeply embedded. Working with Wilder helped us look at the numbers and understand what it meant to do outcomes-based evaluation.

Rebecca Ryan, Saint Paul Public Library

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