Measuring the value of public libraries

VftL are delighted to present a blog post from newest team member Christine.

Methods for measuring the value of public libraries: a literature review

In today’s climate of accountability, a better understanding of the value of public libraries is becoming essential to preserving and encouraging public and private investment (Imholz and Arns, 2007, p.12).

In the UK competition for public funding has always been fierce and the newly elected coalition government have made it clear that cuts in public spending over the next few years are inevitable.    Public libraries will be re-evaluated alongside services provided by health, education, defence, transport, broadcasting, culture and the arts sectors.  There is an urgent need to adopt methods that enable the sector to appropriately communicate its value to a variety of audiences.

The research project…

Last year the Library and Information Research Group awarded me their first Scan Award to produce a comprehensive review of existing quantitative and qualitative evaluation methodologies for demonstrating the value of public libraries in the UK.   The findings of my research have been published as an article in their Journal.  This article presents an overview of current methods for measuring performance, discusses quantitative and qualitative methods to determine economic and social value, identifies examples of successful studies; and introduces methods from the non-profit sector which could prove useful in the future.  Although not exhaustive, the research is extensive and introduces a range of methodologies from the UK, USA, Australia and Canada.  It also identifies potential methodologies currently used in the non-profit, environmental and commercial sector.

Findings…

At the start of this review it became clear that a limited amount of public library valuation studies have been carried out in the UK in recent years.  Although several academic researchers had published journal articles and reports on the topic there has been little in the way of groundbreaking research since Bob Usherwood carried out his Social Impact Audits a decade ago.  While it is possible that some local authorities may be working in isolation to implement bespoke evaluation methodologies it has been difficult to uncover examples of best practice in the UK.  Therefore, it was necessary to expand the research into the broader areas of economics, sociology and psychology.  This enabled a more thorough understanding of the increase in evaluations, incentives, benchmarking, objective setting, accountability; and social and economic auditing.

Overall, the research has revealed that quantitative evaluations produce valuable statistical data and can effectively estimate the financial outputs of public libraries, thus enabling a greater understanding of economic value.  Yet their scope is limited as they fail to recognise service outcomes such as the impact that the public library has on the lives of individuals and communities.  Therefore, in order to gain a greater understanding of the social value of public libraries we must consider adopting qualitative evaluation methodologies.  However, it is unrealistic to expect to be able to measure social value with as much confidence as we do economic value because as a methodology it is still underdeveloped.  As Tuan (2008, p.7) points out, methods for evaluating economic value have been around for centuries, whereas methods for measuring social value have only been around for three or so decades.  Also, as there is no official ‘social auditing body’ that promotes uniformity in social value creation methodologies and no defined infrastructure for assessing social value, “measuring and/or estimating social value will continue to be practiced more like an isolated art form than widespread science(Tuan, 2008, p.7).  This is of relevance to the public library sector where our ability to produce social value is considered by some to be one of our greatest commodities.   Perhaps the greatest challenge with regards measuring the value of public libraries is that:

There is no litmus test for value because defining value in the context of libraries is complex, individual stakeholders are unique, performance measurement is essentially spatial, and operating in an environment that is neither causal nor predictive creates complications (Cram, 1999, p. 1).

 

Ideas for the future…
Although this review has revealed that there is no perfect methodology for measuring the value of public libraries, there are many possibilities.  Methodologies exist to evaluate the full range of services that public libraries deliver and we are seeing a number of emerging methodologies for assessing the impact of digital services and access to ICT.  The challenge for those tasked with evaluating outputs and outcomes, therefore, is to find the methodology that best fits their project and the objectives of their research.  Therefore, it is recommended that the public library sector work together to create a comprehensive methodology which encourages use of common measures, language and practices for collecting and analysing data.  Implementation of a standard methodology could enable the sector to communicate the true value of public libraries to the UK economy and society as a whole.

Access to Christine’s full article is available here.

References

Bryson, J., Usherwood, B. and Streatfield, D. (2002).  Social Impact Audit for the South West Museums Libraries and Archives Council.  Centre for the Public Library in the Information Society.  Department of Information Studies, The University of Sheffield. [SWMLAC Report].

Cram, J. (1999).  Six impossible things before breakfast”: a multidimensional approach to measuring the value of libraries. In: Proceedings of the 3rd Northumbria International Conference on Performance Measurement in Libraries and Information Services 1999, Newcastle upon Tyne 2000.

Imholz, S., & Arns, J. W. (2007). Worth Their Weight: An assessment of the evolving field of library valuation. Americans for Libraries Council. http://www.ala.org/research/sites/ala.org.research/files/content/librarystats/worththeirweight.pdf

Linley, R and Usherwood, B. (1998).  New Measures for the New Library: A Social Audit of Public Libraries.  Centre for the Public Library in the Information Society.  Department of Information Studies, The University of Sheffield.  [British Library Research and Innovation Centre Report 89].  http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/is/research/centres/cplis/research/index.html/.
Tuan, Melinda T. Measuring and/or Estimating Social Value Creation: Insights into Eight Integrated Cost Approaches, Final Paper 12.15.08. Publication. Seattle: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2008. http://www.gatesfoundation.org/learning/Documents/WWL-report-measuring-estimating-social-value-creation.pdf/.

 

Christine’s full article is available here http://www.lirg.org.uk/lir/ojs/index.php/lir/article/view/469/494.

 

Bio

Christine Rooney-Browne is an Arts and Humanities funded PhD student based at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland.  She passionately believes in the potential of public libraries to educate, challenge and inspire and is currently investigating the social value of public libraries. Her research interests encompass public library evaluation, social auditing, and the nature of public library services in the twenty-first century.  Christine also has extensive experience in marketing, having worked both in the public and private sector.

 

 

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