How Public Libraries Can Help With Data Literacy and Build More Inclusive Data

A group of colorful hexagons. In the center of each hexagon are outlines of human heads with lightbulbs above them.

Earlier this summer, TASCHA Principal Research Scientist, Maria Garrido, and Senior Research Scientist, Chris Rothschild were invited by Infopeople to conduct a four-week online course intended to provide California librarians with the opportunity to learn about assessing marginalized voices in data and its importance from a public library perspective. The course was designed to explore how public library staff can support building community engagement to collaboratively develop programs that address social problems through getting better and more inclusive data.

In our data-driven world, there is an increasing need for communities to produce and use data effectively to better inform policy making and engage in civic action and dialogue. Just as public libraries have worked to support reading literacy and technology literacy, we also can ensure that all groups have opportunities to participate in the production, analysis, and use of data to address issues affecting their communities. By providing community members with the skills and opportunities to participate in defining, understanding, and solving social problems through better data, libraries can enhance the role of these groups by informing policy-making, resource allocation, and overall assessment of communities’ well-being.

Infopeople course description


TASCHA asked Garrido and Rothschild to reflect and share some key takeaways from their experience.


  • From your perspective, why is it important for libraries to engage communities in thinking about inclusive data aimed at addressing social issues?

Why do we need more inclusive data? And what is the role of libraries? As public libraries in the U.S. and across the world continue to evolve and reshape their roles to better serve their communities, untapping new spaces to further demonstrate their social impact remains one of the most significant challenges facing the library sector. We see one of the most promising emerging spaces for libraries is their potential to participate, and engage their communities to participate, more meaningfully in data creation processes that better reflect the realities of their communities.

Although libraries have for years invested effort in assessing their impact with individuals and communities, this effort largely focuses on community use of library services and institutional capacity-building, with very limited participation in data ecosystems outside the boundaries of the library. However, expanding the role of libraries to be key partners in data creation efforts to address the social and economic well-being of their communities is by no means an easy endeavor. Lack of capacity and skills among library staff, competing priorities in their everyday work, and increasing pressures on library budgets are among the most challenging obstacles the library world must overcome to meaningfully collaborate with their communities to create better and more inclusive data for social development.


  • Who were the library professionals enrolled in the course? What was their background (if any) in data?

We had a very diverse group of professionals participating in the course, working in different contexts (urban, rural), and with different experiences using data as part of their work. The group included children librarians; youth librarians and literacy coordinators; librarians managing collections and circulation; academic librarians; and reference librarians, among others. This diversity truly enriched the conversations and peer-feedback people received as part of the class. It was a great learning experience for us as instructors as well.


  • What issue areas or community concerns did students bring into the course for discussion? What problems were the students most keen to solve in and with their communities?

The librarians in the course came from different areas in California working in different social, economic, and cultural contexts. The social issues they identified as pressing in their communities clearly reflected the differences within their specific settings. There was a range of community issues, some of which included combating stigma and raising awareness about mental health, and supporting communities that are heavily impacted by the economic impacts of COVID-19. There were also participants working on library specific issues aimed at expanding certain programs to marginalized communities, assessing the value and reach of services such as electronic collections (eBooks, for example), and implementing new services such as Library by Mail.


  • What elements of data production, analysis, and use did the students find most interesting? Which topics generated the most discussion?

It seemed that students were most interested in critically thinking about who is and who is not represented in data sets – from design, collection, to analysis – and the implications of this lack of representation in policy and program design. Data equity was the backbone of the course. Through the readings, discussions, and assignments, participants critically assessed the comprehensiveness of publicly available data and reflected on how accurately it reflected the stories in their communities. We think this was the most interesting aspect of the course and also the most novel for libraries to tackle.


  • Engaging diverse voices in data collection was one of the main topics of the course. How did you approach this?

In order to engage diverse voices in data collection efforts to address social issues, participants were instructed (encouraged?) to first identify whose voices are missing, what factors affect their lack of representation, and whose additional voices are critical to create not only more data but better data – data that more accurately and comprehensively reflects the realities and lived experiences of the communities. For this purpose, we used The Marginalized Voices Framework – a great tool that helps uncover the different voices missing from data sets; identify some social, economic, and cultural factors that affect representation based on the context; and outlines strategies to increase the diversity of voices in data.

If libraries want to engage their communities in identifying social issues most pressing to them, the framework can help librarians identify those voices who must be present in these conversations, the different stakeholders, and the community assets that can participate in collaboratively designing solutions to the problem. Most importantly, it helps to understand the voices that may not be visible in data and think through ways to better engage different groups. When designing the course, we infused the philosophical foundations and practical applications advanced by the framework with other readings and assignments.


  • What are some examples of the data tools students took away from the course?

All the assignments we created for the course were also developed as tools librarians could take to their library and adapt to their own realities and needs. In few words, the assignments were the tools themselves. We designed the course hoping students would walk away with an outline of an actual community engagement plan, and each assignment constituted an element of this plan. There were five main tools that were offered as part of the course: 1. Identifying a social issue of concern with your community; 2. Community-based asset mapping; 3. Stakeholder mapping; 4. Assessing data with your community; and 5. Identifying marginalized voices in data.


  • What are some examples of the assignments that students completed throughout the course?

The idea for the course was for students to work on different elements to build their community engagement plan. Some of the great ideas that students developed are:

  1. Better understanding challenges when creating pipelines for community youth into STEM/STEAM degrees and professions. This would include a community conversation, involving preschool educators, young child caretakers, and the local school district, along with library staff and members of the community (ideally both those who use and don’t already use the library) to discuss preschool programming the library can create, with a special focus given to kindergarten readiness skills and STEM/STEAM programming.
  2. A workshop and a community conversation about ways to better measure and address adult literacy in communities.
  3. A community event targeting youth living in low-income segments of the community to identify the types of mental health support they need and raise awareness around mental health issues.
  4. A series of conversations with local organizations to gauge digital needs of people in the community experiencing homelessness and also the digital needs of seniors.
  5. An event to raise awareness of the library’s digital offerings, to get feedback from the community about how these do and don’t meet their needs, how they could be supplemented or modified to better serve them and to determine what type of training and support we can provide to increase the utility of our online services.


  • What was the most interesting aspect of this experience for you as instructors?

[Garrido] This was a great learning experience for me and helped me grow professionally and personally both as an instructor and also as a researcher. As applied researchers, our first and foremost hope and source of inspiration is that our research findings can have practical applications and are useful to the communities we collaborate with. This is often easier said than done. In my experience, this course opened an incredible window of opportunity to bring all of our work around data equity into practical and tangible applications. The course material was informed by our scholarship and the work of other scholars that inspired our research. Devising ways for transforming this scholarship into practical tools was very inspirational to me. This process helped me think through other elements I hadn’t considered and it allowed me to grow intellectually.

[Rothschild] I agree that practically applying our work was incredibly interesting and rewarding. The tools and theoretical frameworks we used in the course were founded on rigorous research we and others have done in the past. Like a lot of research, however, much of the practical relevance and utility is obscured by journals that require fees for access, esoteric writing structures, and limited adaptability. It was wonderful to have the space to bring so many pieces together into a platform that can be meaningfully used by librarians. What really excited me was grounding conversations about the tools we provided and their application to libraries though a reflexive lens. We focused on being reflexive over being reflective as it allows for a self-critical view of our individual roles in research and community engagement. It was wonderful to see the participants  reimagine how they saw their positions as librarians as being able to support (or hinder without the appropriate approaches) change in their communities.


Learn more about Garrido, Rothschild, and their work