In the current economic climate, public libraries find themselves in the position of defending and justifying their funding and continued existence to their stakeholders. Many of these public libraries seek to prove their worth to their community through the use of different measurements and metrics to demonstrate quantifiable contributions and different understandings of the concept of value as part of showing a contribution. As libraries need to justify their value to policy–makers, library usage is skyrocketing, begging the question: how can public libraries effectively demonstrate their value as critical social institutions to the communities that they serve and the policy–makers that allocate their funding? By examining varied concepts of value, this paper explores different understandings of public libraries as places and their contributions to society. The paper also discusses various approaches public libraries have taken to illustrate, articulate, and demonstrate their value. After detailing several value demonstration approaches that public libraries are taking currently or could take, this paper discusses the implications of value demonstration approaches for libraries in social and policy contexts.
Different perspectives on library value
Library value, the economy, and the Internet
The public library is a social creation and agency that binds members of a community — and its constituent community members — together. As a result, libraries evolved to reflect the changing society that they serve (Shera, 1970). The meaning of the library as a place within communities has varied across cultures, nations, and times (Buschman and Leckie, 2007). Libraries have served a range of societal needs throughout history, functioning as repository, information provider, educational institution, and social advocate (Lerner, 2009; Reith, 1984). Similarly, the philosophies associated with librarianship and the principles of educating librarians have evolved over time (McChesney, 1984; Rogers, 1984; Cox, 2010; McCook, 2011). Libraries have been adaptive and changing organizations as they attempted to fill the needs of their patrons, their communities, and society as a whole.
In uncertain economic times, the public library is an important social institution that provides much needed resources — education and training, job search resources, and Internet access for applying for jobs and social services, among many, many other services — for patrons and communities (Sigler, et al., in press). In library literature, public libraries are seen as providing value to their patrons and communities in terms providing services and resources related to information, education, economic regeneration, culture, diversity, and recreation in a public space that is welcoming of all community members (Bourke, 2005; Debono, 2002; Given and Leckie, 2003; Hafner, 1987; Hillenbrand, 2005; Kerslake and Kinnell, 1998; Leckie and Hopkins, 2002; Webster, 1995; Williamson, 2000). Clearly, the sheer number and presence of libraries suggests that they may have greater cultural value than community members, policy–makers, or librarians themselves realize (Buschman, 2007a, 2007b). For all these achievements, however, public libraries have difficulty expressing and quantifying their tangible value to society. Discussions of public library value generally rely on the presumption of the value of public libraries without quantifying and/or demonstrating that value.
Now, public libraries face several challenges in articulating and demonstrating their value:
- Changes in philosophy of governance since the 1980s have emphasized economic value as the primary metric for valuation of public goods and services, an approach that is extremely difficult for libraries and other social institutions that are educational in nature (Buschman, 20003).
- In recent years, some have argued that the library is diminishing its own value through the focus on the Internet, which some contend displays a confusion of purpose that undercuts more traditional information provision activities (Baker, 1996, 2001; Brophy, 2007; Brown and Duguid, 2002; Buschman, 2003; Tisdale, 1997).
- In other quarters, the omnipresence of Google has led others to question the value of libraries, while also increasing the pressure on public libraries to have available all types of information, based on the misconception that public libraries can — or should — be like Google (Waller, 2009). Yet, one of the key contributions of libraries “being able to provide trusted information sources and guidance using those sources, while Google, in presenting all information it can find without any sense of evaluation or guidance, is the antithesis of the approach and skills of public libraries” . Such a contribution, though, is very difficult to ascribe value, and therein lies the difficulty for libraries.
As such, public libraries face considerable philosophical, information content provision, market place, and technology challenges that impact their ability to claim and demonstrate value.
“Value” can be defined in many ways. Most associations of value refer to it in a monetary or economic sense. The Oxford English Dictionary’s (2011) definitions of “value” capture the essence of this word in comparison to materials, benefits, sum, and importance of an object, person, or thing by the person making the judgment. Therefore, “value” in and of itself is a subjective term that changes based on the thought processes of those who make the determination of its definition. Value reflects on the innate quality of something, whether that thing is a physical item or an abstract idea. In relation to libraries in the United States, a look at its founding mission and objectives sets the stage for a discussion on the value of public libraries as we consider them today.
Given that books were rare and costly at the time, Benjamin Franklin founded the first subscription library in Philadelphia in 1732 with 50 members in order to make books more available for citizens of the young American nation (“The Tree of Knowledge,” 2011). This library’s motto was “to support the common good is divine” (“The Tree of Knowledge,” 2011). The first free public library, however, was not established until almost exactly one hundred years later in 1833 in the town of Peterborough, New Hampshire (Price, 2011). American towns generally began passing legislation to create tax–supported school libraries in the 1830s and public use libraries in the 1840s (see Table 1), with states beginning to pass similar legislation a decade later (Davies, 1974; Du Mont, 1977). The American Library Association (ALA) was formed in 1876. By 1919, Andrew Carnegie had bestowed more than $41,000,000 to 1,420 towns to establish public libraries (Davies, 1974). While the public library movement seems to have late beginnings in relation to other democratic institutions in the United States, the founders of the public library movement believed libraries to be the key social and cultural institutions necessary for personal and community improvement (Augst, 2001; Harris, 1976; Heckart, 1991; Morehead, 1999; Wiegand, 1976, 1996).
Table 1: Early evolution of the U.S. public library. Subscription library founded by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia 1732 First free public library founded in Peterborough, New Hampshire 1833 Towns across the U.S. begin passing tax–supported public use libraries 1840s Formation of the American Library Association 1876
Different perspectives on library value
This initial vision still serves as a driver of resources and services through which libraries contribute to their patrons, their communities, and society as a whole. However, in the current political and economic environment, the articulation and demonstration of value are becoming increasingly significant for the economic survival of public libraries. When considering the meaning of the word “value” in the field of library science, many people have contributed to the discussion and debate of how libraries show their value to society. The discussions within librarianship do not exist in the abstract, however, and are heavily influenced by other perspectives on value and the expectations for value from those making decisions about policy and funding. Table 2 provides an overview of this range of diverse, and frequently divergent, perspectives.
Table 2: Selected articulations of value by perspective. Library science — Products are consumed by clients/customers
— What libraries do
— Benefits of use of library materials
— Return on Investment (ROI)*
— “Librarians’ Axiom”**
Education — Focus on components and types of education
— Teacher evaluations
— Standardized tests
Economic — Monetary worth
— Amount for exchange
Business — Value creation
— Return on Investment (ROI)
— Public goods
Note: * ROI is listed both under Library science and Business, as a number of studies at the state level (e.g., Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, South Carolina) have been conducted to demonstrate the economic impact of libraries. See http://dpi.wi.gov/pld/econimpact.html for a listing of several of these studies.
** James (1986) defines the “Librarians’ Axiom” as public library usage increases as economic times become constrained.
According to Van Moorsel (2005) and Sykes (2003), library value is often seen through the lens of a business model, particularly a Return on Investment perspective. Van Moorsel (2005) discusses how the library should focus on library patrons, “the clients,” in order to prove its value to them. All parties involved, the library patron and the library itself in this case, should have the same definition and conception of “value” in order for the library to realize its worth to the broader society. The library is seen as a place where products (such as books and computers) and services (such as workshops and classes) are consumed by the library patron/client. Value is measured by the amount of use/non–use of these products and services. “The value of a product/service offering is determined by client use. Unused, a product/service has no value” .
Sykes (2003) takes a similar approach in defining “value” in terms of information professionals, and therefore, the field of library and information sciences. She sees value in a monetary sense, mentioning that libraries calculate the return–on–investment (ROI) of their products and services and do a cost–benefit assessment of how their expenditures contribute to the broader goals and values of the overarching organization. This way of thinking about value thereby steers the definition of value towards an economic viewpoint of the word. Another way that Sykes (2003) discusses value is in terms of perceived usefulness. Sykes explains that information specialists and librarians cannot maintain their value based on what they can or are able to do, but on what they actually do. Results are a significant aspect to defining the value of an information professional or librarian. How information professionals contribute to the larger community, whether that community is an organization, business, or city, is what gives them their value.
Many other studies have taken similar approaches to library value, with many comparing the costs of the collection and library operation to estimations of the benefits of the use of the library and its materials (Matthews, 2007). Reviewing the library science literature for definitions of value brings to attention the importance of the user and the user’s needs when it comes to finding information. What the user deems a valuable service or commodity needs to be of utmost importance to a librarian. When looking at libraries from a business angle, the job of the library and librarian is to satisfy the “customer,” or patron, and give him what she desires when she walks into a library, whether that be a novel, computer access, government information, a class or some other information. In terms of value, then, the library sees its means of creating value “in the lives of its customers” .
In a climate that emphases value of social institutions in terms of financial measures, the majority of concepts of value suggested in the library literature do not successfully translate the activities, services, and resources of a public library and their contributions to patrons, communities, and society into dollar figures. In part, this is an issue that public libraries and the library and information science research community invited, through efforts such as Output Measures for Public Libraries (Zweizig and Rodger, 1982) and subsequent assessment approaches built upon output measures that emphasized quantity (e.g., how much) of resources provided by the library and how much of the resources consumed by the patrons and not the value of the products that libraries produced and/or added. Indeed, these initial efforts were instrumental to the development of national Public Library Statistics collection effort currently managed by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS, 2011a). In short, the predominant library assessment framework that evolved and to some extent still exists today, is how often materials (print, digital, other) circulate or how often resources (e.g., public access computers) are used — with the assumption that more use is of greater value than less use.
Another challenge however, is tied to the nature of what libraries do. Many libraries consider themselves to be, to some degree, educational institutions. Funding for public libraries — like that for public schools — is primarily allocated by a local municipal body from tax monies. As such, libraries and schools might be expected to have similar definitions of value. But public libraries, given their multiple missions within a community, are not necessarily viewed as part of the larger mix of educational institutions such as K–12 institutions. As such, metrics from other educational institutions are not easily transferable to public libraries, thus not offering a means to articulate and demonstrate library value — at least to date.
Research indicates, however, that this may not be the case. From an educational perspective, value is most often calculated for specialized forms of education, such as vocational education or bilingual education, or “supplemental” education, such as pre–kindergarten or post–secondary education (Labaree, 1997). Emphasis is placed on the evaluation and determination of value of various individual components of education. The value of typical K–12 public education is evaluated through teacher evaluations, standardized tests, and similar metrics, but not often determined or promoted as a whole entity (Rothstein and Jacobsen, 2006).
Schools, like libraries and other public sector or non–profit organizations, have perhaps been slow to adopt the terminology of business in their self–evaluation or promotion. In economically challenging times libraries have provided valuable services to and for their community, and in adopting the business model of determining value they have been able to transition to a customer–centric perspective and illustrated the value of the services they provide. As educational approaches to value, as yet, have transferred to libraries, another option is to try to learn from business and economic perspectives, which are most closely tied to value in a financial sense.
The Oxford English Dictionary (2011) records its second definition of “value” as “the material or monetary worth of a thing; the amount at which it may be estimated in terms of some medium of exchange or other standard of a similar nature.” Since “thing” is a vague term, it is easy to bridge the concept of the monetary worth of intangible items such as information and data, factors which have always been viewed as essential to economic success, to their evolution as commodities in and of themselves.
The monetization of intangible concepts such as information and knowledge has created complications from a business or economics perspective. Time–tested formulae do not exist by which the monetary value of these concepts can be measured, though certainly information does have a value and that value can vary by timeliness, quality, individual and/or societal need, and a range of other factors (Kingma, 2001). If said information, knowledge, and/or data results in the creation of a commodity, then, perhaps, a monetary figure can be imposed. But when information itself becomes the commodity, is it possible for economists and business analysts to impose an accepted, validated, and reliable fiscal value? This is an area in which libraries struggle, as providing access to information is, at the very least, one of their core functions.
Grace Tyng–Ruu Lin and Jerry Lin (2006) delve into the idea of value creation, stressing that “to achieve competitive advantages, a firm must create more value than its competitors in the industry” . While it may be a ubiquitous perception that libraries have vast competition in the area of information dissemination, few, if any, organizations provide such an all–encompassing wealth of information in relation to the public library. Search engines and other Internet resources lack the ability to provide education, literacy training, or guidance in using or selecting information sources (Waller, 2009), though they can and do lead people to educational resources, training materials, and other potentially useful sources. Because libraries’ revenue streams are derived from funding by their local communities, however, there is not an empirical way to prove their financial worth in the same way in which business analysts can gauge, for example, the value of Google.
While it is possible to draw similarities between libraries and an information–oriented company such as Google, libraries offer a physical location not only in which people can be assisted in their information searches, but in which people with limited or no knowledge in a subject can access a resource or be taught by information specialists even the most rudimentary skills in which to accomplish their goals. The ubiquity of Google as a locator of information, in contrast, presupposes a level of technological knowledge, not to mention access to the technologies through which one can access the site.
Since public libraries can be viewed as organizations providing a product (access to information) to consumers (the public), and since consumers already have preconceptions about libraries (whether good, bad, or neutral), it follows that libraries, much like any other organization providing a product, should take a proactive stance on how they brand and market themselves. By creating business plans that include branding and value creation, libraries can enhance their existing and established product lines and thereby highlight their fiscal contributions to the public, “Brands, after all, are nothing but the information — real or imagined, intellectual or emotional — that consumers have in their heads about a product” . Thus, undertaking branding and marketing efforts can help public libraries to define and create value (perceived or real) in the marketplace.
The concept of Return–on–Investment (ROI) is a common and frequently used metric for businesses to calculate the all–in costs, from development to production to marketing to sales, of products. The Encyclopedia of Business and Finance explains that ROI “is determined after the sale of a product or service minus the deductions for the total amount of effort (resources, etc.) put into its design, development, implementation, evaluation, and marketing. The formula for determining ROI is: ‘Price’ minus ‘Cost’ divided by ‘Sales.’” . As such, a positive ROI proves that the initial cost outlay for a product was a worthwhile investment. Following this business model, several libraries, as well as the American Library Association (ALA), have created Return–on–Investment (ROI) calculators to emphasize the cost–saving nature of their information products.
One such example is the peer–based ROI calculator created by the Library Research Service for Colorado’s public libraries (http://www.lrs.org/public/roi/calculator.php). Using four basic categories, Colorado public libraries can select from a similar library system to calculate the monetary benefit to their communities. Using a total of 12 categories based on the one created by the Maine State Library (http://www.maine.gov/msl/services/calculator.htm), the Library Research Service has also created a slightly more complicated ROI calculator for taxpayers to estimate the return on tax dollars offered by libraries (http://www.lrs.org/public/roi/usercalculator.php). The ALA’s Library Value Calculator (http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/advocacy/advocacyuniversity/toolkit/makingthecase/library_calculator.cfm) was created by the Massachusetts Library Association and uses 18 categories to calculate taxpayers’ returns. While certainly providing a clear visual to theoretically calculate tax investment compared to returns for communities, complications arise when reviewing the valuation systems used for the categories.
Using these two major examples of ROI calculators to prove the fiscal worth of libraries, single–source prices appear to be a common method of measuring value, such as Amazon for book costs and Barnes and Noble for eBook download costs (http://www.swissarmylibrarian.net/librarycalculator/valuecalc_costs.html). The sources used are a good starting point by which to gauge costs; the aforementioned ROI calculators, however, do not actually average costs, since “average,” by definition, indicates a measurement of more than one source. Additionally, none of the calculators adjust for diminishing value, depreciation, inflation, or other cost fluctuations. Cost valuations remain static, which, while certainly assisting with advocating for the community value of libraries, is not necessarily a true measure of ROI.
Even with these attempts, libraries still come up against the same problems as economists when attempting to quantify an intangible asset such as information. As Aatto Repo points out, “Economists define information as a phenomenon to reduce uncertainty and it is usually studied in terms of exchange values” . Repo, however, identifies a subcategory — information as a public good — within the greater study of economics. He defines this area as:
Goods ... [that] are not divisible into units that can be sold separately. Consumption by one person does not reduce the amount available to others ... Common examples of public goods are streets and roads, national security, and public libraries. Though it is hard to define exactly where the borderline between public and private goods lies, it is obvious that many available information products and services have some characteristics of public goods. 
Because it seems people, including policy–makers, are comfortable and familiar with ROI calculators and other business–based metrics, using these tools to quantify the value of public libraries may be a useful method. But to truly calculate community value, measurements on services provided by libraries, including information and knowledge–sharing, technology, literacy and homework classes, and employment resources, to name a few, are of a fiscally indefinable nature.
Library value, the economy, and the Internet
Times of economic difficulty most clearly demonstrate the value of public libraries and the ways in which they contribute to the economy. The current economic downturn has led to substantial increases in public library usage as patrons seek Internet access, assistance in applying for jobs and social services, and seeking entertainment options, among many other services (e.g., Griffiths and King, 2011; Carlton, 2009; Yates, 2009; Gwinn, 2009; Jackson, 2009; Kinney, 2010; Sigler, et al., in press; Van Sant, 2009). In providing lifelines to the economically disadvantaged, public libraries provide enormous value to patrons and communities.
Libraries have long understood that economic downturns lead to increased usage of the library and its services, creating new types of “value” for their communities. References to this relationship date back to as early as 1880 in library discourse — this relationship is now known as the Librarian’s Axiom and has been demonstrated through numerous studies (Davis, 2009, 2011; James, 1985, 1986; Lynch, 2002). During the Great Depression, the demand for library books and for reference services skyrocketed, but the increased demand coupled with budget decreases left many libraries with decimated collections by the end of the Depression (Kramp, 2010).
However, the needs of patrons during the Depression also led to expansions of services for unemployed adults and of children’s services, including teaching language skills, job seeking guidance, and children’s story time (Kramp, 2010). All of these represent new values that the library could provide to the community in response to economic needs. Subsequent recessions have increased demands for these types of library services, though even in the best of economic times, libraries are a vital resource for individuals in economic distress (Berman, 1988; Nyquist, 1968). Between 2006 and 2008, the number of Americans with library cards increased by five percent, in–person library visits increased by 10 percent, and library Web site visits increased by 17 percent (Davis, 2009, 2011). “These increases in use translate into 25 million more in–person visits, 11 million more uses via computer, and about four million more uses by telephone” .
This current prolonged downturn has shown new ways to fulfill established values of the library, particularly through computer and Internet access (Sigler, et al., in press). On average, circulation in libraries rose 5.6 percent between 2007 and 2009, and visits increased by 5.0 percent (IMLS, 2009, 2011b). In 2009, more than 14 million people were considered regular users of library computers for Internet access (C. Hill, 2009). In individual libraries, the impacts can be overwhelming, with some systems seeing a 25 percent increase in visits in one year or a 500 percent increase in computer usage in a three–year period (N.M. Hill, 2009). In 2010, 50 percent of the computer users in Wichita public libraries were using them for job and career purposes and more than 10 percent were using the computers to apply for unemployment benefits (Urban Libraries Council, 2010).
The need for use of technology to access social services is particularly acute. With one in six Americans living in a household where there is difficulty feeding the members of that household and nearly half of older adults are facing poverty, many Americans who have never previously applied for social services now find themselves seeking government support (Chen, 2010; Reuters, 2010). However, most of these support services must now be applied for online (Jaeger and Bertot, 2011).
With public libraries serving as the trusted social outlet for free public computer and Internet access and assistance, people with no access, insufficient access, or insufficient digital literacy primarily turn to the library to apply for and access vital social services (Bertot, et al., 2006a, 2006b; Jaeger and Fleischmann, 2007; Jaeger, et al., 2007). Because public libraries are so well positioned to offer e–government services, use of public library computers for this purpose is high, especially among users who have no other access to the Internet outside of the library, making library computers and training “integral aspects of the value libraries provide communities” . In a typical library, this translates to increased usage of books, audio books, and DVDs for entertainment, particularly materials on job–seeking and resume writing, and in Internet usage, with patrons primarily searching for employment, unemployment benefits, and social services (Holland and Verploeg, 2009; Martell, 2009).
Libraries have also developed new means to provide value using computers and the Internet in response to other needs. For example, public libraries stand as the only free public access to point by which members of the public can reach e-government if they have limited or no access (Jaeger and Bertot, 2011). Federal, state, and local governments increasingly rely on the public library as an access point through which all members of society can reach e–government Web sites, with many government Web sites and publications even directing people to go to the public library for assistance in filing taxes, welfare requests, immigration documents, and numerous other essential government forms.
A significant proportion of the U.S. population — including people who have no other means of access, people who need help using technology, and people who have lower–quality access — rely on the access and trust the assistance available in public libraries to use e–government Web sites (Jaeger and Fleischmann, 2007). This reliance has caused libraries to play major roles in the implementation of key policies, such as Medicare registrations and the move toward online tax payments; libraries have also played central roles in more extreme circumstances, providing access, for instance, to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) materials in the aftermath of a major disaster (Bertot, et al., 2006a, 2006b; Jaeger, et al., 2007). In fact, the vital roles public libraries played in the aftermath of the major hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 by providing access to FEMA forms and other e–government materials essential for emergency response and recovery clearly demonstrated the significant value of the library to its community (Bertot, et al., 2006a, 2006b; Jaeger, et al., 2007).
The ability of public libraries to meet the needs of patrons and communities in times of economic crisis is heavily reliant on the computers and Internet access that have become central to public libraries. In direct contradiction of the arguments that libraries are no longer necessary due to the Internet, the Internet serves to assist libraries in helping their communities.
The 2010–2011 Public Library Funding and Technology Access Survey (Bertot, et al., 2011b) demonstrates the ways in which public libraries provide a wide range of valuable and value–added services to their community through use of the Internet. Libraries provide both means to access important technological resources as well as assistance and training in using these resources. These resources include critical employment and online government resources (e–government), which librarians consistently rank as the most important services they provide their community (Bertot, et al., 2011). Libraries additionally recognize the importance of providing educational services to support K–12 students (Bertot, et al., 2011).
With high unemployment levels and the increasing ubiquity of online–only job information and applications, not only do 90.9 percent of public libraries provide access to online job resources, but 74.5 percent of libraries report helping people create resumes and 71.9 percent of libraries help people apply for jobs online (Bertot, et al., 2011). In fact, 91.8 percent of library respondents ranked services to job seekers as one of their most important contributions to their communities (Bertot, et al., 2011). To help job seekers, libraries provide point–of–use assistance (79 percent), formal training classes (38 percent), online training materials (29 percent), and one–on–one training (28 percent). Only 13 percent of libraries surveyed offered no technology training (Bertot, et al., 2011). In this sense, libraries are combining the library science conception of value (meaning value of services to the customer) with an educational approach to adding value, in the sense of training the customer to utilize the resources.
The same is true of e–government and related services. With 89.7 percent of libraries helping people understand and use government Web sites, 80.7 percent and 67.8 percent (respectively) helping people apply for services and complete forms, libraries continue to provide multi–level services to their customers (Bertot, et al., 2011). In the instance of providing educational resources for K–12 students, libraries continue the practice of aligning themselves with overtly educational objectives as a means of providing value for their customers.
Another area in which public libraries are creating value is through the creation of partnerships with other local agencies that are designed to meet important individual and community needs. During the economic downturn, demands for e–government access and assistance in public libraries have increased as greater numbers of patrons are applying for unemployment and other social supports, seeking jobs, and otherwise dealing with economic hardships (Bertot, et al., 2011). As a result of increased usage and dwindling funds, many public libraries and government agencies around the United States have created partnerships based on e–government to provide enhanced or entirely new services to members of the public. These partnerships range from health agencies and libraries providing people living in food deserts with opportunities to order food online to social services agencies and libraries streamlining the online process of applying for benefits across agencies to libraries serving as centers for immigration applications (Bertot and Jaeger, in press a, in press b; Bertot, et al., 2011; Jaeger and Bertot, 2011; Sigler, et al., in press). These innovative and transformative e–government–based programs have evolved from economic hardship.
Looking at the value of libraries from the library patron’s perspective, a study conducted by the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina (Barron, et al., 2005) considered the value, in economic and social terms, library users placed on the presence of a public library in their neighborhoods. This study revealed that in addition to promoting the economic viability of the state as a whole and the businesses within it, 92 percent of users surveyed think the library improves the overall quality of life and 73 percent of survey participants feel the library enhances personal fulfillment (Barron, et al., 2005).
In order to facilitate dialogue and discussion about the future of libraries and museums and their value to society, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) created a wiki in 2010 called “UpNext: The Future of Museums and Libraries” (http://imlsupnext.wikispaces.com/Home). From 3 March 2010 until 12 May 2010 people who work in, study in, or are just passionate about museums and libraries could share their insights and thoughts concerning the future of these two public institutions. One discussion thread, entitled “Societal value of public libraries,” has several posts that mention the changing role libraries have in their communities and how they are shifting from a solely intellectual sphere (where scholarly knowledge can be found) to a more practical place where a variety of different services can be utilized that fulfill the daily needs and wants of the community (IMLS, 2010). If the library’s mission is to serve their communities, it only makes sense that libraries reach out to their neighborhoods and citizens to understand its needs and how the library can serve them better.
Due to the current socio–economic climate of today’s information–driven world, the library as an institution is compelled to redefine its role in and value to society. Libraries have had to look to different ways of measuring their value to society and clearly expressing that value, whether it is from a more economic and monetary standpoint or one that focuses on social contributions. Bringing together the library’s past and founding ideals of providing knowledge and information for all citizens with the current practical demands and needs of those in their communities, libraries provide the much needed resources and support many people seek out during tough economic times. Increasingly, it is less about the resources that libraries offer their communities, but rather how libraries combine their resources, services, space, outreach, and expertise, to resolve and meet community challenges in the areas of education, government engagement, employment, and other articulated community needs. The key challenge is clearly articulating and demonstrating value in measures and language that resonate with policy–makers.
In a policy environment that emphasizes business metrics for value like ROI and that seeks quantifiable social goods to prove economic contribution, the public library faces enormous challenges in conveying value beyond the practical considerations of the value of a patron checking out an e–book, for example. Many of the activities of the public library are expressly intended to have a social rather than economic benefit — community space, as an example, is meant to build a sense of community. Finding ways to leverage an economic value from a service or resource intended as community value is a considerable challenge, and yet it is one that is critical to the ability of libraries to meet the demands of policy–makers seeking economic contributions from all social services. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that most politicians approach value in terms of a business perspective that, as detailed above, does not fit comfortably with the history, goals, or activities of the public library.
One area that clearly offers great potential to measure and express the economic value of public libraries is in the Internet–based services and resources that assist in education, technological literacy, job seeking, applications for social services, and other measurable contributions to the economy. If libraries can express the numbers of jobs and social services applied for and received, for example, they can show real economic value — adding employees to the economy, simultaneously decreasing the need for unemployment benefits and increasing the number of taxpayers, while also reducing the need for specific government agencies outside of libraries to assist people applying for social services. A 2010 study estimated that 30 million people had used library computers and Internet access to search for employment, with an astounding 3.7 million people actually being hired for a position they applied for through the library computers (Becker, et al., 2010). The enormous contributions of the public library in the ongoing economic downturn need to be recorded and demonstrated to those making funding decisions. Demonstrating these types of numbers may be the language that libraries need to speak to policy–makers in an environment that seeks even traffic lights to have a demonstrable economic contribution.
The potential of Internet–based services and resources to be the key to demonstrating library value to policy–makers is particularly ironic in light of the resistance to the Internet in libraries that has been strongly expressed in some quarters of librarianship itself. But the changing nature of public libraries through time means that they have been able to adapt to changing social needs and economic circumstances. The Internet is evidence of this ability to evolve. While the definitions of the institution we call the public library may shift and change depending on the social and economic climate of a particular era, their importance to patrons and communities is evident and unmistakable. It behooves public libraries, particularly in the current economic and funding environment to devote considerable thought and collaboration to finding ways to articulate and demonstrate value in the economic language that is essential to communicate with policy–makers.
About the authors
Paul T. Jaeger is Assistant Professor and Co–Director of the Information Policy & Access Center (http://ipac.umd.edu) in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland.
John Carlo Bertot is Professor and Co–Director of the Information Policy & Access Center (http://ipac.umd.edu) in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland.
Direct comments to jbertot [at] umd [dot] edu
Christie M. Kodama is a Graduate Research Associate in the Information Policy & Access Center (http://ipac.umd.edu) in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland.
Sarah M. Katz is a Graduate Research Associate in the Information Policy & Access Center (http://ipac.umd.edu) in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland.
Elizabeth J. DeCoster is a Graduate Research Associate in the Information Policy & Access Center (http://ipac.umd.edu) in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland.
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2. Van Moorsel, 2005, p. 29.
3. Matthews, 2007, p. 136.
4. Lin and Lin, 2006, p. 93.
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7. Repo, 1989, p. 68.
8. Repo, 1989, p. 72.
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Received 12 September 2011; accepted 9 October 2011.
Copyright © 2011, First Monday.
Copyright © 2011, Paul T. Jaeger, John Carlo Bertot, Christie M. Kodama, Sarah M. Katz, and Elizabeth J. DeCoster. All rights reserved.
Describing and measuring the value of public libraries: The growth of the Internet and the evolution of library value
by Paul T. Jaeger, John Carlo Bertot, Christie M. Kodama, Sarah M. Katz, and Elizabeth J. DeCoster.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 11 - 7 November 2011