Monthly Archives: September 2010

Making the Case for “Public” Libraries

Ensuring library services are meeting the needs of community members is an essential requirement for library services.  By being accountable to our local communities, we ensure that within our restricted budgets, programs and services are continuously evaluated and adjusted to meet the changing needs of community.  Therefore, based on evaluation – we must be open to the challenges of shifting how we identify, plan, develop and implement library services.

I agree with John Pateman that libraries have entered a Pandora’s box, by solely relying on statistics to justify our existence – “The minute that we started to count everything and quantify what we do – from book issues to fines income – we created a huge stick with which others can beat us… the real story is not that book issues have gone down from X to Y, but that MILLIONS of books are still borrowed from libraries every year” (CILIP Update September 2010).  In theory, as John further discusses in his article, libraries in and of themselves are public good, and this fact should be justification enough for continued support of public libraries.

However, as we can see from the U.S. case, the library as a publicly supported institution, can come under attack.  One of the first sectors to come under attack during the recent financial sector created ‘financial crisis’ is the public sector (ranging from teachers and educators, to firefighters and police officers, to libraries – link for Illinois example).  As discussed by Naomi Klein in her timely book Shock Doctrine, Milton Friedman and the Chicago Schoolers’ are prepared to take advantage of public confusion during times of economic crisis.

**OF NOTE – See NYTimes article on Privatization of Public Libraries from September 26th, 2010

So What Should We Learn From this and How to Respond?

While libraries are public goods, we need to be able to be prepared to make this justification.. and there is no time like the present!!  So, how should we proceed?

I am not advocating for replacing current measurement tools used by libraries.  Many of the indicators which we are using are very powerful and meaningful output measures.  These measures, which are primarily frequency level quantitative measures (which are difficult for using in multivariate – causal based analysis), provide a measuring stick for usage of library programs, materials and other services.  They measure concepts such as circulation statistics, gate counts, program attendance, and other quantifiable items.  Funders and the public have been taught to expect these measures, and will continue to demand them.

As described in the toolkit (see chart below), evaluation measures should continue to include these measures.  However, in order to display the impacts that library services are having on community, libraries need to capture and frequently report the narrative (qualitative) impacts.  The advantage of doing this is that this form of evaluation ‘picks up’ on the nuances of the social and human component of library services.

For example, if 70 people attend a library program and if this number is used as the performance indicator – the number does not provide information on the impacts and outcomes of the interaction between library staff and members of the public, or between community members.  These interactions, impacts, and outcomes are already occurring – where library staff are involved in the delivery of services (either within the walls of the library or out in the community).  What is needed, are effective mechanisms for library staff to capture and communicate effectively, from the voice of community, the relevancy of library services in meeting community identified need.

At a minimum, this information will allow for improved service development and increased justification for continued public support for the social good public libraries facilitate within the community.  In addition, it will provide us with the information to show the relevancy of our services to our local communities.

A great resource which discusses how to measure the impact of library services is Evaluating the Impact of Your Library.

Final Thought

So as library systems how are we doing?  A quick measure of success to determine how well we are collecting honest community evaluation is to think about the pace of innovative new practices being implemented within library systems.  If we are doing a good job of collecting this information, collaborative community based evaluation, should lead to service changes based on community identified need.

~ Ken

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