Conducting a Library Literacy Needs Analysis

Note: the article below has two target audiences: librarians, and those interested in conducting needs assessments or needs analyses. I wrote it to be included in a set of tools for libraries conducting adult literacy needs assessments, and then thought there might be a larger audience interested in how to conduct a community literacy needs analysis. It is based on a process developed many years ago by professors at the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Richard Coffing and Thomas Hutchison. Hutchison was my mentor, and the chairman of my doctoral dissertation committee. As far as I know, their needs analysis methodology has not until now been adapted specifically for use by libraries.  I welcome comments and questions about its use.

How to Conduct a Community Literacy Needs Analysis:

Using the Coffing-Hutchison Needs Analysis Methodology[1]

in a library-sponsored community literacy needs assessment

David J. Rosen, Ed.D, President

Newsome Associates

October 24, 2015


The purpose of a needs analysis, in this context, is assumed to be: to develop a high quality list of needs, in order of priority, of adults in the community with low literacy or low basic skills that might be addressed by a library or a partnership of organizations led by a library.


Before the needs analysis begins it is important for the needs analyst (technical assistance provider, consultant, trained librarian etc.) and the client — the individual, group, partnership or coalition of community groups interested in having the needs analysis completed, and who are interested in using the results — to have an unambiguous understanding of:

  • The purpose for which the needs analysis is being conducted. Before beginning the process, the needs analyst should be clear about why the client wants the needs analysis results, and what the client hopes to do with them. The needs analyst should be satisfied that the client has a serious intention to address the needs discovered through the process, and that the client has, or is committed to finding, the resources to address the needs discovered. [2]
  • The resources (e.g. human, financial, programmatic, space) available to conduct the needs analysis. For example, the client may need resources to pay the needs analyst to work with the client, design the data gathering instruments, collect the data (e.g. through a survey, focus group, and/or face-to-face or telephone interview), and to provide a report to the client on the needs, and the differences in perceptions of needs of groups interviewed.
  • The resources (human, financial, programmatic, space) that will be available to address the needs once they are known
  • The steps of the Needs Analysis Process that are described below.

Needs Analysis Steps

The needs analysis begins with a deceptively simple question: Who needs what according to whom. The process (methodology, as used by Coffing and Hutchison) assumes having a client who plans to use the data to address the needs, and whom the needs analyst can work with to design and complete the needs analysis. In this methodology, Who, What, and According to whom are three separate and important steps of the needs analysis process.

Step 1: Defining the Who

In this needs analysis process, Who refers to those whose needs the client is interested in learning about; for example, in this context, it could be people who lack adult basic skills. The needs analyst might work with the client to refine this, for example, to identify the Who as adults 16 and older, who lack the reading and writing skills now expected of a high school graduate. This could be further broken down into those for whom English is a first language and/or those for whom English is a second or other language. It could be further refined to include levels of skills such as “zero reading and writing skills in English,” “basic” (up through third grade level reading and writing), “intermediate” (up to eighth grade) and advanced (through tenth grade level). Other ways to refine the Who are also possible depending on the client’s perceptions of the people they are trying to reach. The client might define the Who in a very different way for example, (also) deciding that the Who is community organizations or agencies that serve people with the need for literacy skills but that do not directly address that need, such as the staff of fair housing organizations, agencies that provide emergency services, health care providers, career centers, or agricultural extension programs. The client might instead decide that the Who is the library staff, and the needs what, for example, is staff members’ need to know about adult literacy needs in the community and literacy needs of current or potential library patrons, including the literacy needs of adults served by partner community organizations.

If the same process is being used in libraries in several different communities it may be interesting to compare how each site defines the Who, and the definitions could be shared with each site as a Check for Completeness. A Check for Completeness is a strategy used throughout this, and also in other Hutchison methodologies to challenge the client to consider other items to include. For example, the needs analyst might ask if any of these considerations are important in defining the Who: age, gender, income level, employment status, first language, or reading and writing skills level. After participating in a check for completeness, the client may or may not decide to refine the definition of the Who.

Prioritization is another strategy used throughout this and other Hutchison methodologies. In this example, suppose the defined Who is an impossibly long list of categories of those in need. It is important for the client and the needs analyst to know which ones are most important, especially if the resources to carry out the needs analysis and to address the needs are limited, which they almost always are. One prioritization strategy advocated by Hutchinson is to ask the client to look at the long list after it has already gone through a Check for Completeness, and prioritize it using these considerations: “Suppose you could only address one criterion from this list. What would it be?” “Now, suppose you could address two criteria…” and so on, depending on the level of resources available for the needs analysis and to address the needs. Sometimes Hutchison also suggests that the needs analyst could suggest considerations for prioritization, for example in this case: overall importance to the purpose for which the needs analysis is being conducted, or needs upon which other needs depend.

The outcome of the Defining the Who step is a well thought-out and clearly defined population or populations whose needs will be assessed.

Step 2: Defining the Needs What Categories

The needs analyst asks the client to generate categories of need for the defined population in which the client is interested.

In the library context, the client might suggest as a need category direct services to be provided by the library, either in the library or in community agencies, or both; for example: reading, writing, numeracy/math skills, English language learning for immigrants, or high school equivalency exam preparation. Confidence-building, especially if the population includes people who have attended years of school but have not learned to read and write, may be an important need for adults who want to acquire these skills. Some libraries may be interested in meeting community needs for digital literacy skills such as how to use the Internet, how to understand the format of web pages, how to navigate web pages, and how to evaluate the quality of information from the Internet as well as other sources. The client may suggest as a need category low-literate adults’ need for information, for example about eligibility for TANF or SNAP (food stamps) support, housing assistance, subsidized child care services, or about books for children or teens. If the client has a limited idea of the categories, a check for completeness may be useful, and might draw on what kinds of needs categories that the needs analyst knows other library literacy programs have tried to address.

There are also Document Checks for Completeness, including for example in this context the Adult Literacy Through Libraries library literacy action agenda document, that can be searched for needs categories. A search might uncover needs categories such as: low-literacy hard copy and/or digital reading materials; suitable reading instructional materials; the loan of computers and/or portable digital devices (e.g. tablets or laptops); the need to access computers that have assistive technology and/or universal design features; the need to learn keyboarding skills; unique cultural needs; or the need to understand what services a library can provide, including what different staff members can offer to low-literate adults.

The client might (also) be interested in these needs categories:

  • Advocacy for increased community funding for adult literacy services
  • Professional development for library staff, library graduate students, and/or community based adult literacy instruction providers, provided face-to-face, online or both, and including topics such as: library collection development for low-literate adults; library programming and services for adult new readers; plain language communications; library marketing, promotions, and outreach to adult learners; building community literacy collaborations; cultural competency and sensitivity training; or managing adult literacy tutor training.

The outcome of the Needs What step is a list of categories of need that relate to the population(s) defined in the Who process.

Step 3: Defining the According to Whom Categories

Most needs assessment or needs analysis processes include ways to define Who and Needs What categories. As far as I am aware, however, the Coffing-Hutchison methodology is unique in asking the client to consider whose opinion(s) matter. In this step, the client is asked whose opinions on the needs matter most to them: experts, such as basic skills teachers, adult literacy program administrators or researchers; the people with the need(s), such as community adults who have poor reading skills; policy makers, such as library board members or boards of other organizations, mayors, city councilors, governor, legislators, etc.; or organization administrators, such as library administrators. If there is a long list of According to Whom groups, it needs to be prioritized.

The outcome of the According to Whom step is a list, in order of priority, of those from whom needs opinion data will be gathered.

Step 4. Designing the Needs Analysis Instruments

The needs analyst organizes the client output from the first three steps in a table like this. (Examples are included to illustrate what may be put in the cells of the table.)

Who Needs What categories According to Whom Data Collection Instruments
1. Low-literate adults in the community not enrolled in literacy programs Reading



Computer skills

Job readiness skills

Representatives of social service organizations and career centers ·  Online survey

·  Telephone or

in-person interviews

2. Low-literate adults in the community not enrolled in literacy programs Reading



Computer skills

Job readiness skills

Low-literate adults not enrolled in literacy programs ·    Focus groups

·    Telephone or

in-person interviews

3. Librarians, social service counselors How to best serve low-literate adults ·  Low-literate adults not enrolled in literacy programs

·  Adult literacy instructors

·  Low-literate adults enrolled in literacy programs

·  Telephone or

in-person interviews

·  Focus groups

Step 5. The analyst develops the data collection instruments, for example telephone or in-person interviews with:

  • Representatives of social service organizations and career centers
  • Low-literate adults enrolled in adult literacy programs
  • Low-literate adults not enrolled in adult literacy programs
  • Adult literacy instructors

Sample Interview Protocol

Below is an example of an interview protocol that might be used in these interviews. In an actual protocol, of course, the questions would be aligned with results of the high priority needs categories:


“I have some questions about the needs of low-literate adults in the community who are not enrolled in literacy programs, but who may be interested in learning to improve their basic skills. I am doing this as part of a community needs analysis requested by [the library; a group of community organizations including….] There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. They will help me learn what you think the needs are of those adults in our community who have low basic skills. I (or my colleague) will be taking notes on a flip chart about what you say. I am also audio recording this interview because I may need to listen to it again to clarify something. I will be the only person listening to the recording. Toward the end of our session, I will ask you to choose what you think is the most important of all the needs (for example by dot voting, or asking interviewees to raise their hand when the need is read out loud). I will be writing this up in a report, but in the report your name will not appear next to any of the responses. Your name will only appear in the report as one of the people I/we interviewed. If you want to see a copy of the report, it will be available on the website of —— After this date —— .“

Interview Questions

  1. What do you think the needs of low-literate adults are for reading? Why do they need to improve their reading skills? What specific reading skills do you think they need?
  2. What do you think the needs of low-literate adults are for writing? Why do they need to improve their reading skills? What specific writing skills do you think they need?
  3. What do you think the needs of adults with low basic math skills are? Why do they need to improve their math skills? What specific math skills do you think they need?
  4. What do you think the needs of adults with no or poor computer or Internet technology skills are? Why do they need to improve their computer or Internet skills? What specific skills do you think they need in order to use a computer or the Internet well?
  5. What do you think the needs of adults with low basic skills and little or no successful work experience are? Why do they need to improve their work readiness skills? What specific work readiness skills or knowledge do you think they need?

Following the last question asked, participants will raise hands or dot vote to show what they believe to be the highest, second-highest and third-highest need categories. The person who is recording the answers to the questions on flip chart paper should have printed the need category (reading, writing, math, etc.) at the top of the sheet. The needs analyst could decide to only allow voting on the categories, or to also allow voting on the specific needs within a category. There are many ways of doing this depending on what the needs analyst believes the client wants to do with the data and how refined or detail it needs to be. For some clients it will be sufficient to know that “Reading” and/or “Job readiness” are the highest priorities; for others, they will want to know more, for example if what is needed is reading and writing skills to pass a high school equivalency exam, or oral and written English skills needed to pass a U.S. Citizenship test and oral interview.

Step 6: Reporting the results of the Needs Analysis

For each needs analysis data collection instrument used with each According to Whom group, the responses recorded in the notes, and their priorities are listed by the analyst. A reader of the analyst’s report should be able not only to see what needs categories (and specific needs) were mentioned, and what needs had the highest priority, but also how this may have differed among According to Whom groups.

Step 7: Presenting the report to the client

Ideally the needs analyst meets with the client (e.g. individual, staff of the organization, or representatives of the partnership of organizations) and walks through the report with them to make sure they understand the needs categories and needs. Following this, if time is available, it is often helpful if the needs analyst asks the client group what they have learned about the needs, what if anything they would still like to learn and, most important, which needs they believe are most important for them to address.


[1] Hutchison developed another methodology, the Operationalization of Fuzzy Concepts, that a needs analyst could use, if needed, to help a client to refine the purpose. See Coffing, Richard T.; and Others. Self-Instructional Module for Learning the Hutchinson Method of Operationalizing a Goal or Intent. University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Education. June, 1971. Retrieved 10.24.15 from

[2] Coffing-Hutchison Needs Analysis Methodology, April 1974. Retrieved 10.24.15 from

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