by Alexis H. Sarkisian
Navigating information is one of the skills for which those working in libraries are best known. Librarians and library staff are also skilled at asking just the right questions to get to the answers that their ‘public’ is seeking. Asking questions and interpreting information are two essential skills needed for creating surveys that get you the information you need to know. Essential for librarians is for us to understand that we have the necessary skills to create surveys and that best practices for creating surveys come from an inquiry style.
It is important to know that there are organizations which focus upon creating surveys and of course it would be best to work with an organization of this type because they have the experience in identifying needs and knowing how to phrase questions in the best manner. However, many librarians do not have the budget to hire outside organizations, so if you follow these next steps, and review the examples listed at the end of this article, you will be able to implement a survey which will get you the needed information.
Step 1 – What?
What information are you seeking? Remember to make your focus of information very specific. For example, do you want to learn more about what your adult patrons are interested in reading? Do you want to determine if the library hours are meeting your community needs? Why do people use the library? Why do people not use the library? Does the community want additional or different programming? What is the image of the library? These are very specific questions and very specific questions need to be asked to get to the correct information.
Step 2 – Where
Where people are surveyed is very important. For example, if you are seeking to know what people who come to the library think, you would survey them in the library or on line with programs such as Survey Monkey which is designed to help organizations build a useful survey. The fees are nominal.
If you are seeking information from those who do not use the library, it is important to survey them outside of the library. For example, you might have surveys placed at various municipal locations in your area. You might have surveys offered at the local grocery stores during peak times, or you might want to conduct telephone surveys.
The important consideration is that you must meet the people whom you are targeting at a place where they are. This will insure that you reach the people whom you want, and there is very little speculation as to whom they are.
Step 3 – When
Timing is very important when surveying because as we know, people are often in a hurry, so if you stop them and ask them to take a survey when they are in a hurry, you might not get the response you are seeking. It is best to have the timing of the survey be somewhat flexible. For example, if you are seeking to have patrons give you feedback on library hours, etc. you might have the survey at the circulation desk/on line for a couple of weeks so that you can reach your intended audience.
However, if you are conducting a program, and want to get immediate feedback about that program along with ideas for future programs, the survey is best offered on the spot.
Step 4 – How
Many mistakes are made when creating a survey by wanting to obtain too much information. Remember, keep in mind why you are doing the survey and allow the why to guide you in your questions. Questioning the questions you ask is very important.
For example, do you really need to know a person’s name or do you simply need to know that they live in your community? Do you need to know a person’s age or do you need to know their age range. For example are they between 20-40 or 40-60? Do you want to know why people come to the library or do you want to know how many times they come to the library in a month? This is where your librarian questioning skills will come in handy.
The length and format of the questions is also a consideration. Do you want people to select their answers from a list of options? Do you want people to write in their answer? Do you want a combination of both? Does a particular question such as age range need a write-in or do you move the survey faster by offering choices for decisions. It is always best to have a combination of specific answers and write-ins. This way you get specific answers to questions that require specific answers and you also can obtain personal feedback.
Remember, you don’t want your survey to take too much time. People are busy, and taking a long involved survey that requires more than 3-5 minutes is too long.
Step 5 – Why?
When a person takes a survey, they often want to know why they are being asked to take it. Make certain that you know why you are conducting the survey and how you will use the information once you obtain it. For example, if you are seeking to enhance the library programming lineup, be sure to state that on your survey, and be sure to link any changes that you make to the programming line-up to your survey. It makes a difference when people know that their information is actually going to be considered and used.
Once you have constructed your survey using the 5 W’s as your guide, it is helpful to test it with a couple of people who represent the group you are targeting. Ask them for feedback regarding time, ease of use and understandability. Then, evaluate the information that you have received. Is the information obtained giving you the information that you need to know?
You might need to make minor modifications. Once you do, implement the survey and you are on your way to becoming more knowledgeable and experienced about your community!
The following resources were reviewed and are suggested as examples of how other libraries have created surveys to meet their needs.
The Marist Survey, http://www.nyla.org/index.php?page_id=801
Library Survey’s and Questionnaires – Please scroll to the bottom for survey software options, http://web.syr.edu/~jryan/infopro/survey.html
West Branch Public Library, IA, 2008, http://www.wbpl.org/library-information/community-survey-2008
Washington State Library Survey,
About the Author
Alexis H. Sarkisian is a Library Marketing/Communication consultant. Alexis has presented numerous workshops for NTRLS including those on marketing,
public speaking, communication for leadership and determining the value of your library. Alexis is an adjunct instructor at Dominican University in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. You can contact her at