Libraries vs. Recession

A while ago I went to a cracking SINTO seminar about what public libraries can do during These Economic Times to support their patrons/customers/clients/service users/human beings (delete as appropriate to whatever your LA has decided to call them) and what they can do to keep themselves afloat (which is going to get even more difficult by the looks of things) through partnerships and/or communication with less-explored avenues such as The Media and businesses.

Anyhow. I wrote it up for the Public Library Journal and it was published a week or so ago. It’s possibly going to be put online, but until it does, you can read it here.

Libraries vs. Recession

Foreword: LAUREN SMITH reports on the recent SINTO seminar investigating how public libraries can help communities during the economic downturn.

Introduction

SINTO (www.sinto.org.uk) is a consortium of library and information services in Yorkshire and the East Midlands. The SINTO seminar held in Sheffield on 15th October 2009 looked at the information needs of communities in a recession, the services that libraries can provide and, most importantly, how to promote the value of library services at a time when they are threatened by budget cuts.

Setting the Scene

Councillor Sylvia Dunkley, Cabinet Member for Culture, Sport and Tourism, Sheffield, gave a few introductory words about the increasing importance of libraries for people who have been affected by  the economic downturn. Their work within the community provides support for people who need help with languages, CV writing, debt management, IT skills, searching for jobs and setting up businesses. Libraries in the local area also run reading groups, family history searches and local history, which, although ‘soft’ issues, are important to local people and are ways for people to build morale, a sense of purpose and develop confidence and interpersonal skills. She highlighted the difficulties faced by public libraries as they are asked to do more, at a time when cuts in public sector spending mean services are stretched. Councillor Dunkley called for libraries to look at what more can be done to promote their services – the rest of the seminar explored this need.

Rising to the Challenge

Christine Rooney-Browne, author of Rising to the Challenge: a look at public libraries in times of recession, gave an inspiring and thought-provoking presentation. Challenging a prediction made by a futurist that public libraries will be obsolete by 2020, Christine outlined the relationship between public libraries and business cycles, giving a number of examples of front-page news articles reporting human-interest stories of public libraries coming to the rescue of those in need in times of economic hardship. Libraries serve as sanctuaries from recession ;non-discriminatory environments with welcoming spaces, knowledgeable staff and free resources. The evolving role of libraries as a result of a shift in societal expectations has enabled libraries to shine in times of crisis and to be responsive, relevant, flexible and valuable.

It is easy to understand how and why public libraries are so valuable from an insider’s perspective, but library managers need to really make it clear to stakeholders just what it is they do that is so important for communities and society. There are a number of ways for libraries to collect information about their services and the ways they are used by communities in order for them to strongly demonstrate their vital role. Although anecdotal evidence is not always an appropriate method when presenting information to stakeholders with financial backgrounds, it does provide valuable qualitative data that can paint a rich picture of public libraries within society. As an alternative or supplementary source of evidence, it is possible to measure and present the monetary value of library services; consumer surplus, cost of time and contingent valuation. Using the method of contingent valuation, the British Library was able to demonstrate that its annual value to the British economy was £363 million, that without the British Library the economy would lose £280 million per annum, and that for every £1 invested in the British Library, a £4.40 return was made (British Library, 2004). Although these methods of valuation may not be entirely appropriate for public library services, they certainly present dramatic results and may be effective in catching the eye of funding bodies.

Christine is currently working on methodologies whereby social value can be communicated in effective ways, building upon the community analysis research model (Greer & Hale, 1982; Whipple & Nyce, 2007), the social impact audit (Blake et al., 1976; Usherwood and Linley, 1998; Bryson et al., 2002), and ethnographic research (Brophy, 2007). The evidence generated by qualitative studies over time would hopefully be along the lines of research conducted in New Orleans, where libraries were able to implement effective methodologies and prove their value in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricanes.

Councillor Dunkley’s call for libraries to build partnerships was echoed in the presentation. Public libraries need to exploit revenue streams and sell themselves to stakeholders as the valuable assets they are, not the drains on public sector funding that some may think of them as.

The presentation was a source of many examples of ways in which libraries in the USA as well as across the UK have used innovative publicity methods, and can be viewed at www.slideshare.net/libraryofdigress.

Financial Services Agency

Robert Matthews from the FSA explained the National Strategy for Financial Capability, a service provided by the FSA which aims to provide financial guidance and education for those facing difficulties. Presentations are given by FSA staff and volunteers in a variety of locations, including workplaces, and are sources of valuable support and advice. There is the potential for public libraries to be used as venues – the only requirement is that there must be 20 or more people in attendance. The FSA’s main website is www.fsa.gov.uk. He also pointed us to the Money Made Clear website (www.moneymadeclear.fsa.gov.uk) and two sites for younger people; http://www.ypam.org/ and http://www.whataboutmoney.info/.

Job Centre Plus

Jill Marsden from Jobcentre Plus explained the services that Jobcentres provide and made suggestions about how libraries may support job-seekers, through access to the Internet and printing facilities, IT classes and practical guidance. Key outcomes of the discussion at the end of the presentation was that there is often confusion as to how far public library staff should go to support job-seekers and what the expectations of customers are, and that the links between JCPs and libraries could be improved. It was clarified that JCPs do provide in-depth classes and workshops and libraries should not be expected to offer these. It was recommended that libraries could add the www.direct.gov.uk website to Internet browser favourites lists to make it easier for people to find the website.

Business Link

Lynn Harrison explained the role of Business Link Yorkshire and the ways in which they provide support, guidance and inside knowledge for people setting up businesses. The standardised service means there is no postcode lottery and that customers are offered independent and impartial advice. The Business Link website is another site that may be useful for library visitors seeking business advice, and drop-in sessions may be conducted within libraries. It is the feeling of Business Link Yorkshire that no business should fail because of a lack of awareness of access to free information and advice. It is therefore important for library staff to know where to refer people and what business support is available – often customers may ask for advice about where to get grants, which are not currently widely or immediately available.

Libraries and their Value

Following on from the presentations, the attendees were split into two groups for workshops. Tim Davies from Rotherham Public Libraries led a session in which the groups shared information about what libraries in the area already do and what they would like to see libraries be involved with in the future. Some initiatives have been introduced specifically to counter the recession:

  • Hosting and/or organising Credit Crunch Roadshows
  • Tweaking normal publicity material to emphasise the low cost of library services, availability of potentially useful services and stock, etc.
  • Collating useful information on ‘Recession Buster’ section of the service’s website. For example, ’10 Ways to Beat the Recession’
  • Collating job information on library websites. For example, ‘Where’s That Job?’ and listing useful newspapers, trade magazines etc. held in stock
  • Referrals to i-Point – a service provided by Connexions South-West (http://www.i-point.org.uk/). Making this site available on library computers
  • Exploiting internal and council links to provide careers advice sessions
  • Attending Area Assemblies and other local democracy to raise visibility and talk about the services on offer
  • Producing and hosting a ‘Best of the Web’ directory which includes sections on business information, information for families, etc.
  • Consortium-style ‘Ask About Business’ scheme between libraries in Greater Manchester and the North-West. This acts as a referral service and enables resource-sharing. It also organises seminars for local business, to raise awareness of the resources available in libraries. This scheme is currently being investigated by major public business libraries in Yorkshire and the Humber.

Sharing this information was useful to many group members because, although they may have been aware of activities that public libraries could introduce, feedback from libraries which had  experience of trying these ideas provided valuable information and recommendations.

It was largely agreed that public libraries need to make sure that marketing efforts are concerted. A number of barriers to consistent and successful promotion were identified:

  • Time
  • Money
  • Strategic and specialist/expert support
  • Lack of recognition of existing good practice
  • Lack of ability to “shout about” libraries and library staff
  • Inability to recruit more staff should marketing strategies be successful

Building a Local Communication Strategy

David Lindley from The Libraries Agency led a stimulating workshop about how public libraries can build a local communication strategy. He encouraged members to think about how they could market and promote the role of public libraries through effective internal and external communications. He highlighted five points to consider when planning the promotion of library services:

1) Audience

2) Behaviour

3) Content

4) Design

5) Execution/evaluation

1) The importance of effective communication with an Audience of governing bodies (stakeholders) and supporters (partners, agencies, supporters, press, press-offices) was addressed. A number of groups were identified as the people who need to know the value of what public libraries do because of their power to influence decisions affecting public libraries:

  • Councillors
  • Extended council services
  • Schools
  • Directors/ Chief Executives/ Chief Officers
  • PCTs
  • Police/ community safety/ health centres
  • Partnerships/agencies
  • FSA/ Jobcentre/ Business Link
  • National bodies – MLA, DCMS, SCL
  • Regional bodies – LAA boards
  • Unions

2) Library managers must influence the Behaviour of the Audience through effective communications. If current methods are not working, another way must be identified. At the end of each piece of information there should be a “call to action” identifying what the communication was for and what the recipient ought to do about it.

3) The Content of public libraries – their products and services, value and benefits, uniqueness and performance should be clear in press releases and other communications. Products and services should be explored by public libraries and promoted in exact rather than abstract form. A web toolkit is available which can calculate the annual value of public libraries – (details from David Lindley)

4) A strategy must be Designed. There are effective ways to market services even with a restricted budget; internal newsletters, press releases (through press offices), contact with councillors, monthly reports for directors and invitations to visit the library for police, nurses and press representatives, for example. A collection of a variety of news items (children’s, reading, health etc.) could be gathered and drip-fed to a variety of outlets – the higher the number, the more the sense of Behaviour change.

5) In order for the Execution of a campaign to be successful, everyone involved must know when and how the campaign is happening and know how to respond to its success through an effective infrastructure; ensuring that people are available to take telephone calls, for example. If the messages do not work, look at why, and consider a change in emphasis, processes and disciplines. It is important for the top departments within library services to know what is taking place and for senior managers to buy-in to the strategy and support it.

A number of free resources, including ready-made poster templates, are available on the Libraries Agency website: http://www.librariesagency.com/

A library use value calculator is available at http://www.maine.gov/msl/services/calculator.htm.

Recommendations and Conclusions

The seminar provided a variety of partnership and marketing strategies which public libraries could implement to improve public awareness of their services as well as effectively demonstrate that public libraries are a cornerstone of communities. Public libraries need to be innovative and bold with their promotional activities and schemes and be willing to embrace new technologies. Although public libraries must be careful not to compromise their integrity and position as neutral gatekeepers of information for the community, online sources of publicity, including Web 2.0 features, are often of little or no cost and could be explored as a direction for publicity campaigns. A key area in need of revamping and developing is library websites themselves; they have the potential to be the first point of contact for potential library customers and if they fail to meet the information needs of the user, the user is likely to go elsewhere. Libraries need support from high-level strategic areas and other council departments. Endeavours to publicise public libraries should involve an element of challenging libraries’ image.

Lauren Smith is a Masters student in Librarianship at The University of Sheffield.

LNSmith1@sheffield.ac.uk

References

Blake, D.H., Frederick, W.C. and Meyers, M.S. (1976). “Social auditing: evaluating the impact of corporate programs”, New York: Praeger.

British Library (2004). ‘Measuring our value’. http://www.bl.uk/pdf/measuring.pdf [Accessed 21 October 2009]

Brophy, P., Butters, G. (2007). “Creating a research agenda for local libraries, archives and museums across Europe”, New Review of Information Networking, Vol. 13 No.1, pp.3-21.

Bryson, J., Usherwood, B., 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].

Greer, R.C., Hale, M.L. (1982). ‘The Community Analysis Process’, Public librarianship: a reader, Robbins-Carter, J. (ed.), Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, pp.358-367.

Linley, R., 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].

Nyce, J.M., Whipple, M. (2007). ‘Community analysis needs ethnography: an example from Romania’. Library Review, v.56 (8), 694-706.

Rooney-Browne, C. (2009). ‘Rising to the challenge: a look at the role of public libraries in times of recession’. Library Review, Vol. 58 No.5, pp. 341-352.

Schuller, T., Watson, D. (2009). ‘Learning through life: inquiry into the future for lifelong learning’. NIACE.

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