Determining and Displaying the Value of Libraries: Time to Take this Seriously

Now I don’t want to muddle into this very touchy subject, but I think it is important to talk about how libraries are currently trying to show their value and worth to funders and members of the public (especially given Paul Ryan’s house budget proposal released yesterday).  Post the 2008 economic crisis in the US, and with the current state of libraries in the UK, I think there are a lot of learnings librarians should be actively talking about.

Last spring when I attended CLA, I heard a presentation from Sandra Singh at VPL. Basically, she set up her speech by indicating that we need to face the facts, municipalities (and counties) are expensive to operate. Depending on the region in which you live, your local government may be responsible for a number of local deliverables, including policing, fire, infrastructure (new and upgrades), education, libraries etc. Some of these are mandated as essential services, so there is little wiggle room in budgets – while other are more prone to potential cuts.

Based on this, especially with massive infrastructure deficits looming, I believe the feeling was that libraries only have a few years to begin to display our value to funders.

Traditional Approaches

We all know by now that output measures (primarily reflected in numbers) has been the way in which library staff have tried in the past to show value for service. Funders expect, and will continue to expect these traditional measures, in part because we have taught them to. However, statistics only provide a superficial overview of the activities occurring in libraries. Statistics are no longer enough, especially in a world with shifting needs and uses of libraries by community (e.g. movement to e-material, people using space in different ways, etc.) Statistics are still good measures for one off programs, where relationships have not been formed and long term impacts should not be implied. Libraries need to become more innovative in measuring and displaying our worth.

Another traditional approach, based upon 1960’s economist cost benefit analysis, is value calculators. These techniques try to place a monetary value on a social good – using the library. These indicators may make sense to some people, but it is hard to commodify a social good in dollars.

Let’s Use Caution Moving Forward

First, during a recent OLA Education Institute series put on by Edmonton Public Library, Mark McHale a Community Librarian, mentioned a very interesting phrase – ‘paralysis by analysis’. The purpose of any research process should not turn into an academic endeavor or exercise, but should be fundamentally influenced by praxis (leading to the creation of better outcomes).

Second, conducting research beyond the scope of nominal level (descriptive statistics) is a skill set. It may be time that libraries seriously consider hiring staff (or partnering with organizations such as local universities) that have strong backgrounds in both quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Innovation – Moving to More Descriptive, Longitudinal and Qualitative Methods

So what might our funder and members of the public be looking for when determining the social value of libraries?

One question that each library system (either public or university) must begin to ask themselves, is have they either asked or listened to their funders to determine their needs, and where the library may fit. This fundamentally shifts the discussion from libraries marketing our results to funders to library staff understanding the local, state or provincial priorities and possibly finding a fit and aligning to ensure the libraries relevance.

When it comes to research what should we be doing differently?

One thing libraries need to stop trying is to prove that our actions are stopping something from occurring. What do I mean by this? For example, we all know that keeping youth off the streets may in some contexts lead to less crime. However, we cannot prove this, because the crime did not occur (since the youth were in the library). Now we could look at separate cohorts, youth that do and don’t use library services (with similar backgrounds and characteristics and try to imply these findings). But let’s not go there…. Instead let’s employ research methods that display to funders the differences we are making in people’s lives.


Aren’t libraries already starting to do this with logic modeling? Yes, kind of… kind of not. Everyone is talking about logic modeling, it is very complex, and I have seen very few cases where it is being done correctly. There may be simpler qualitative methods available to us which can do the same thing, with less confusion.

The premise of qualitative research, much like community-led library work, is the in-depth nature of the process (research and relationships with people). Longitudinal research is key. For instance, one effective method library staff could employ is to take a long running program that has the same participants coming to the program (e.g. a literacy program), and interview people at various stages of their program participation. This could be done at different library sites, such as branches or community meeting locations. Over time it would be interesting to see if common themes arise. This would help to determine if the program itself is the cause of any changes in people’s lives, not some outside confounding factors.

Let me be clear though, we can set the bar for the length of a longitudinal study – maybe to even a year or less (with computer training classes/resume writing – maybe two months)…

There are numerous examples of qualitative best practices (e.g. case studies) which library systems should be exploring to show our value and worth. A fundamental starting point in exploring these techniques can be found by reading Lincoln and Guba’s Naturalistic Inquiry (1985) and the many important works which cite this groundbreaking book.

The absolute irony is that libraries are already providing services which are relevant to a segment of the community; we just need to learn how to accurately capture and display it to the public and our funders.

A Number of Valuable Lessons – and also “Dangerous Ideas”

You might wonder why I am adding this into this blog posting.  Feel free to give it a watch – I think it ties in nicely to the budget proposal mentioned above.

From David Simon – executive producer and writer from The Wire: “We believe in the idea of trickle down, we believe in the idea of the market knows best – to the point where we are now that libertarianism in my country is actually being taken seriously as an intelligent mode of political thought.  It is astonishing.

People are saying, I don’t need anything but my own ability to earn a profit, I am not connected to society, I don’t care how the road got built, where the fire fighter comes from.  I don’t care who educates the kids – other than MY KIDS.  I am me.  The Triumph of the Self.”

~ Ken


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