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Libraries Turn to Data Dashboards to Fight Mistrust

Facing book bans and programming controversies, an increasing number of libraries are publishing data dashboards for transparency, public accountability and strategic focus.

A laptop on a desk in a library with high-tech graphics in the foreground.
Book bans, program cancellations, accusations of bias — libraries nationwide are facing unprecedented scrutiny, and using technology to respond.

The Denver Public Library took a proactive step in 2022. It asked the community a simple question: “Is the library a trustworthy institution?”

The results were revealing: While a majority of respondents trusted the library, some had doubts. Yet, the Denver Public Library isn’t shying away from this reality.

Rather than burying that data, it’s available for residents to see online. Officials also aren’t hiding that the return on investment (ROI) for library services has slipped from a high of $245 in 2017 to $59.94 in the last reported period in 2021.

The data points are just a small portion of a wealth of metrics that appear on the library’s Strategic Roadmap dashboard created in 2021.

Denver Public Library's Strategic Roadmap dashboard screenshot showing ROI.
Denver Public Library's Strategic Roadmap dashboard shows a number of metrics, including ROI for library services.
Denver Public Library

The dashboard doesn’t just include the numbers, it goes deeper, providing context and explanation about the story the data is telling.

In the case of decreasing ROI, a written narrative details how ROI declined most sharply in 2020 as a result of reduced visits, circulation and programs during the COVID-19 pandemic — and is slightly increasing as more people use the library’s services again.

Library staff chose to make these metrics an open book so the public knows what the institution is doing, how it’s doing and what’s coming next.

We’re not just putting on fluffy, flowery, beautiful things. We’re being honest about where we are not doing as well as we want to be doing, or where we have opportunities for improvement.
Kirsten Decker, Manager of Strategy & Evaluation at Denver Public Library

“It’s led to more questions, but it’s also created better conversation,” said Kirsten Decker, manager of strategy and evaluation at Denver Public Library. “That’s one of the values that I see on this public dashboard, is that we’re not just putting on fluffy, flowery, beautiful things. We’re being honest about where we are not doing as well as we want to be doing, or where we have opportunities for improvement.”

The Denver Public Library partners with cloud-based strategy and performance management platform Envisio to produce its dashboard. According to Envisio, the number of library customers leveraging its software has grown 400 percent in the last three years.

“It’s a testament to the fact that there’s just a real desire to inform residents, to grow their role in the community, and through these polarized ages to have their value understood and not to lose that love that we all have for our library,” said Liz Steward, vice president of marketing at Envisio.


Book challenges have spiked in recent years. Some residents have even labeled books “criminal,” calling police and requesting that law enforcement officers respond to the library to address alleged inappropriate content on shelves.

According to a report from the Washington Post, a number of states are considering or have passed laws that make it possible for librarians to be prosecuted for providing obscene material to minors, with consequences of hefty fines and possibly jail time.

The American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) has announced that challenges of unique titles surged 65 percent in 2023 compared to 2022 numbers, reaching the highest level it has ever documented. The organization compiles data on book challenges from reports filed with the OIF, by library professionals in the field and from news stories nationwide. Unreported challenges are not included in their data, so the count is not an exhaustive list.

A chart showing the increase in book bans since 2000.
Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association

According to OIF, public libraries were the target of challenges in 2023. The number of titles targeted for censorship at public libraries increased by 92 percent over the previous year. School libraries saw an 11 percent increase in publications targeted for censoring over 2022.


While the Denver Public Library hasn’t yet been directly affected by book bans, nearby libraries have.

In the wake of controversy, the library plans to expand its dashboard to include circulation trends that would allow anyone to see what kind of books are being checked out in each ZIP code.

“What we want to be able to show is the trends in circulation, that we’re not pushing certain things to the community,” said Decker. “Somebody comes in and says, ‘Here’s what I’m looking for,’ and we’re circulating that.”

In the meantime, the Denver dashboard has focused on inclusion. Data reflects three key categories of metrics: access and enrichment, space and place, and cultural and organizational health.

It includes progress notes about initiatives, providing transparency about the status of current programs and goals. When there’s a roadblock in an initiative — such as expanding language programming to include other key languages spoken in Denver including Amharic, Somali, Vietnamese and Arabic — an explanation is provided. In the case of the stalled language expansion, a note explains that, “Challenges in hiring administrator roles have delayed this action for some languages. Others, including Vietnamese, remain on track.”


Decker acknowledges that despite the library’s quest to be transparent and give accurate information to the community, there are roadblocks in consistently capturing clean and accurate data.

The Denver Public Library provides services to all, even those without a library card, so it’s difficult to determine when questions should be asked and to whom, to collect data.

“Something that my team is often grappling with is, how can we standardize our expectations around the types of data we’re collecting?” Decker said. “We’ve made some really significant strides in terms of how we collect data, the types of questions we ask when collecting demographic questions, things like that. But we’ve really struggled to put into place really clear guidelines around when we do and don’t ask our customers for more information about who they are and how they’re using our system.”

This data challenge resonates with libraries nationwide. Industry organizations like the ALA and the Urban Libraries Council are creating frameworks and tools to help libraries navigate data governance responsibly, balancing transparency with privacy concerns.

The Denver Public Library’s journey highlights the evolving role of data in library decision-making. Constituents want to know more about what’s happening behind the scenes, and dashboards provide a response to the public’s desire for accountable, data-informed public institutions.
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.