Advancing the Public Library Mission Through Maps and Data

I recently attended the grand reopening of the Baltimore City Enoch Pratt Free Library and was captivated by the gorgeous new public place for Baltimoreans to meet and learn. The expanded children’s department, with its exquisitely restored fish pond, made my heart sing at the thought of capturing children’s imaginations through play and reading. But even more impressive was the expanded Job and Career Center. This soaring new space and expanded set of resources was a reminder that the role of the public library has to constantly evolve to meet to the needs of its citizens. I’ve since learned about the wide range of services that public libraries now provide to fulfill their varied missions. Public libraries are as important to adult job seekers as they are to young readers.

To be successful at adapting to these new roles, librarians need up-to-date data about their patrons and their patrons’ needs. The King County Library System, a PolicyMap client in Washington State, is an example of a library doing just that.

At King County Library System (KCLS), a 50-branch library system encompassing urban, suburban, and rural areas outside Seattle, library staff work to ensure they’re reaching every member of their service area. Understanding the diversity of the service area is essential to offering programs and services that are responsive to local community needs and interests.

KCLS serves a large foreign-born population, and they rely on information about languages spoken at home to inform their collections placements. The library system wanted to keep their Russian collection, for example, in the neighborhood that needed it most. By looking at a map of languages spoken at home, they selected the branch for the collection near a neighborhood of Russian-speakers.

KCLS also depended on data and maps to inform special programs, such as their Hot Spot Internet pilot, to provide internet access in neighborhoods with low rates of internet use. By layering data about poverty, internet access, unemployment, and proximity to schools and colleges, along with their data on patron frequency, circulation stats, and staff capacity, KCLS selected the branch that best met those criteria for the pilot. The pilot was successful: A poll administered by the branch at its conclusion revealed that they had indeed served their intended audience.

Exploring and mapping socially-oriented data has been a starting point in community discovery for KCLS staff. Using PolicyMap, staff access data on topics that are meaningful in the public library context, at granular, local levels that are useful for both system-wide and branch-specific decision-making.


Libraries are a public good that PolicyMap is proud to support. Contact us to learn more about best practices of librarians using their own data with PolicyMap to succeed in filling their evolving roles.