The Value of Public Libraries (and the measurement and demonstration thereof)

My campaigning colleague Ian has written about the Failure Narrative that seems to be surrounding the politics and media coverage of public libraries at the moment. He makes the excellent point that councils seem to be justifying closures, cuts and alternative models of governance by using the rhetoric that “bad stuff’s happening and it can’t be done effectively by us”. He’s also written about how the government and the media do like to focus on the negative rather than the positive, which is all part of trying to perpetuate the myth that libraries aren’t relevant anymore etc. and we shouldn’t be too bothered about them.

It got me thinking (again) about how we all know that libraries are brilliant. It’s a no-brainer. The more enlightened among us even know that libraries are about more than just books, a shiny building and longer opening hours (Phil Bradley covers that all extremely well in this post). They’re about lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development of the individual and social groups. They’re about the public good, equitable access for all members of society to public domain information of all kinds and in all formats, an appropriate balance within the law between demands from information users, and the need to respect confidentiality. They’re about a fair and economically prosperous society underpinned by literacy, access to information and the transfer of knowledge.

This isn’t airy-fairy-bunkum or crazy-lefty-ideology (sorry, Mayor Davies) – this is about the fundamentals of society. Libraries are cultural, educational and civic hubs. They always have been, and they always should be. Information and information needs are changing, but information’s not going away, and nor are people! What isn’t clear, though, is how we can prove this to the bean-counters of the world (because sadly, they’re not going away either).

An awful lot of qualitative data has been pouring into the Voices for the Library inbox for several months now. We’ve been presenting it in different ways – stories, guest blog posts, a Mashup challenge, a Wordle about “what libraries mean to you“…

We’ve even had some offers of support from academic departments keen to do something with all the information we’ve been gathering. Hopefully there’ll be time at some point soon to take them up on the offer!

The link between public libraries and academia is very important and shouldn’t be undermined. The issues faced in public librarianship are Big and Serious, no matter how many times people say that you don’t need experts, specialists or professionals to run a library service well, it’s not going to become true. My friend Liz Chapman wrote a fantastic piece about the need for Masters qualifications for VFTL, and David McMenemy wrote an excellent post for us about it, in which he said:

“Too many of several generations of professional librarians have been apathetic about the collective responsibility we all have to advocate the mission of public libraries. Taking our eye off the ball in this has been an unforgiveable dereliction of our duty to society. For many professionals educated since the early 1980s they have no way of thinking outside of a consumerist box which accentuated the basest of motives for public services.”

This may or may not be the case; I’ve not been around long enough to know. What I do know, though, is that we’ve got a big problem and we’ve got to do something about it. I’m very happy to say with confidence that there are an awful lot of brilliant librarians out there, working with CILIP and other organisations to provide fantastic library services.  I know, because I talk to them and read about it every day. The Edge Conference was (again) an excellent insight into how libraries are engaging with communities and technology. CILIP are working their bums off to advocate for public libraries, engage in meaningful discussion about the future of the profession, and tell ignorant Mayors off when they’re being stupid (*cough* BoJo and Pete *cough*). The LISNPN Crew have launched an advocacy competition, which is offering a free place at the Umbrella Conference and the CILIP New Professionals Conference. Librarians are Getting Stuff Done!

On that topic – in a couple of weeks I will be taking part in a workshop entitled Measuring the Value of Public Libraries: The fallacy of footfall and issues as measures of the value of public  libraries. I’m really looking forward to it, and I hope that it will be a step away from the simplistic and inaccurate measurement of footfall (the number of people who walk through the doors, and occasionally the people who click on the council’s ‘library’ website) and issue statistics (book/cd/dvd lending), and towards more effective systems of measurement.

The event has been organised by Professor Edward Halpin, Associate Dean of Research, Partnerships and Consultancy at Leeds Metropolitan University. He said:

“The event is designed as a starting point for debate and an opportunity to construct meaningful measurement tools for valuing our public libraries, which at this time of great change is both pertinent and important to us all.”

As well as newbies like me, participants include: Annie Mauger, Chief Executive of CILIP; Dr. Adam Cooper, Department of Culture Media and Sport, Head of Research, and Programme Manager for CASE; Carolynn Rankin, Researcher and Senior Lecturer, Leeds Metropolitan University; Roy Clare, Chief Executive of the Museums, Libraries and Archive Council. It’s a really diverse mix of people with different expertise. Hopefully the outcomes will be something that we can use to satisfy the aforementioned bean-counters!


5 thoughts on “The Value of Public Libraries (and the measurement and demonstration thereof)

  1. Just fyi, Jim Morgenstern developed a very valuable manual for public libraries to identify and convey their contributions to their communities. The Library’s Contribution to Your Community is in its Second Edition – published March 2007, and was prepared by dmA Planning and Management Services for the Southern Ontario Library Service. They have trained many, many public libraries all over North America in this method.

    “This manual will assist you to demonstrate your library’s value to your community in terms meaningful to your key funders. Working from key community issues, the manual guides you through the development of your Contribution Strategy from selecting relevant library outcomes from among six contributions and twenty benefits, through collecting and interpreting your data and constructing your argument. The result is a cogent description of your library’s contributions specifically linked to issues of high importance in your community, and creating a persuasive case for support.”

  2. Hi Lauren

    1 You might want to insert an l into the trackback above to spell public!

    2 Is the workshop on measuring the value of public libraries open to librarians, or closed access only? Sounds brilliant.

    1. Haha! Edited! Thanks.

      The workshop’s closed I’m afraid, but I hope the outcomes will be public and that there’ll be further events.

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