Gathering and Using Evidence of the Value of Libraries

“Sixty Minutes To Save Libraries”

Last week I attended the MashSpa event which was organised by my colleague Julian Cheal. My contribution to the event was to co-facilitate a session on ““Sixty Minutes To Save Libraries”: Gathering Evidence to Demonstrate Library Services’ Impact and Value” . The session attracted participants primarily from the academic and public library sector. Unfortunately the session was held in a small and overcrowded room and so it wasn’t possible to break out into the four or so groups which we had initially intended and so there was only a single topic which could be discussed. However the participants seemed to be in agreement with the approach which myself and Nicola McNee, my fellow co-facilitator, took which was to argue. perhaps rather dramatically, that in order to try to save libraries from the cuts we should be gathering and using data which can be used to demonstrate the value (including the financial value) of library services.

I was pleased that participants appreciated the importance of gathering and using hard evidence in order to be able to justify services. Although the importance of anecdotes and stories was appreciated (with the Voices for the Library service being acknowledged as particularly important for those working in Public Libraries) it was acknowledged that in today’s political and economic environment we need to be able to gather and use hard evidence and data.

But did we succeed in identifying ways in which evidence could be used to demonstrate the value of services provided by Libraries? Looking back at the notes taken by my colleague Marieke Guy it seems that there was an awareness that in some areas academic libraries have not been engaged in collected evidence. However in other areas such as gate counts, opening hours, etc. SCONUL has been collecting data from academic libraries. As described on the SCONUL Web site:

SCONUL has been collecting and publishing statistics from university libraries for over twelve years, with the aim of providing sound information on which policy decisions can be based.

Further information is provided which informs readers that “All UK HE libraries are invited to complete the SCONUL Statistical Questionnaire, which forms the foundation of all SCONUL’s statistical reports and services. The questionnaire details library resources, usage, income and expenditure for any academic year.

However, as was discussed at the session, the SCONUL data is not publicly available. It seems that the SCONUL Annual Library Statistics is published yearly – and copies cost £80.

It was felt that closed access to such data was not only counter to moves towards openness and transparency with the public sector but also meant that developers were not in a position to explore the data and provide analyses and interpretations which may not be included in the SCONUL reports. There was a recommendation that a case should be made to SCONUL for opening up access to these statistics. It was also suggested that since institutions collate this information themselves individual institutions may chose to publish their data openly.

However in subsequent discussions about data on access to ejournals there was a concern that opening up access to usage statistics could lead to publishers deciding to increase subscriptions for popular ejournals. It was also pointed that providing evidence of ejournals with low levels of usage could be embarrassing (e.g. if academics had requested the library to subscribe to ejournals of particular interest to themselves).

The dangers of data being misinterpretted were also discussed. It was felt that there is a need for data to be analysed within its context of use – decreasing numbers of physical visitors to the library may be compensated by increased use of online services.

As well as the discussions about evidence of use of various library services it was also felt that it would be useful to gather evidence of ways in which those working in libraries were working  which could be used to inform political debates. We found, for example, that a significant monitory of attendees at the Mashed Library event were taking time off work to enhance their professional development – although it was recognised that such evidence  could be used in various ways (“to demonstrate levels of commitment” vs “removing staff development budgets“)

“Are UK Public Libraries Expensive to Run?”

Coincidentally (or perhaps not!) last Sunday John Kirriemuir published a post in which he asked “Are UK public libraries expensive to run?“. John pointed out that “in the UK for 2008-09 the cost of public libraries came to a shade under £1.2 billion“. Is this expensive? John pointed that that “at approaching 62 million people, less than £20 each per year for every citizen of the UK“. That is equivalent to:

A starter, verdue and a dessert at Pizza Express. The basic Sky TV package. A fraction of the cost of seeing one Premiership football match. 16 litres of unleaded petrol. 6 or 7 pretentious drinks in Starbucks (it’s just coffee). A pair of cinema tickets with drinks and popcorn. Just half of the cost of an adult ticket, on the gate, for Alton Towers. Any of those.

John then went on to point out the additional costs which would be incurred by attempted to reduce the expenditure on public libraries.

To take an extreme position closing all public libraries in order would not produce savings of £1.2 billion pounds since:

  • That’s 25,000 less employed people paying tax
  • …and 25,000 more unemployed people claiming benefits.
  • The knock-on effect to the suppliers of goods and services libraries need, will take a hit
  • …as will the providers of goods and services bought by those 25,000 library staff
  • …and author and publisher payments will be down, so less tax to be gained there as well.
  • There’s the unquantifiable number of people who use library services to get back into employment, through re-skilling, self-education or finding work. Close libraries and that’s more tax gain lost, more people still claiming benefits.

Closing libraries also means people have to pay more for information, knowledge and communication services. That ranges from a person chatting to housebound relatives online, to a senior finding travel and bus information, to someone learning a foreign language to add to their CV, and thousands of little examples in-between. There’s no enquiry or reference desk, no staff or librarians to answer those information queries any more. Close public libraries and the costs of information pursuit and communications are shifted directly onto those least able to pay for these things.

It would be possible to pick holes in these figures, and of the dangers of making comparisons, as the post does, in between the costs of Trident and public libraries – if sectors of the public are concerned of the costs of the former, couldn’t the associations backfire?

However I feel that there are benefits to be gained by opening up the debate more widely.  And it was pleasing to hear earlier today that John has been invited to contribute to a discussion of the future of public libraries on a programme to be broadcast on the BBC’s World Service.

What Next?

What should the next steps be in gathering evidence which can be used to demonstrate the value of services provide within the sector? Should we be seeking to open access to relevant data – or should we be concerned that such data might be misinterpretted or highlight short-comings and deficiencies in the services we provide? And how should we use the evidence and the data? Should we be looking to move the discussions out of the blogosphere and into the public arena, such as the programmes broadcast by the BBC? Or might this be counter-productive? Perhaps we should stay quiet under the recession is over?

I’d be interested in your views. And since John Kirriemuir’s interview on the BBC World Service will take place in two week’s time, we have an opportunity to help him make even more persuasive arguments.

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  1. There’s a lot of data out there already that can be, and has been, used by many library campaigners. More (properly sourced) is, of course, welcome.

    When you say:

    “Should we be looking to move the discussions out of the blogosphere and into the public arena, such as the programmes broadcast by the BBC?”

    …erm, this last six months at least there’s been frequent media debate – TV, radio, newspaper – about the “value” (in different contexts) of public libraries to both the taxpayer and the user (these often of course being the same person!). As one example of many three, possibly more features on BBC2 Newsnight alone with a focus on public library spending, so you’re coming rather late to this party (in fact we’re in the “coffee after dessert” phase, unfortunately).

    It has been intriguing to note that there has been much more media focus on public libraries than other, more costly, services provided at a local or national level. Politicians seeing it as a soft target, or some other reasons?

    • Thanks for the reply. Note my main focus, addressed in a session at Mashed Spa, was the value of academic libraries – this has not been as widely discussed as public libraries.

      • The BBC World Service interview (and five more I’ve done since then) went well – though next time I send you information via Twitter DM in response to a question, I would appreciate it if you’d ask first before you quickly putting it on your ‘blog’. That is plain good manners, and also ethical.

        The Voices for the Library team, and others associated with it, have done many, many interviews across TV, radio and newspapers in the last month especially, though of course they’ve be campaigning continuously for a long time. Their website is at:

        That, and Ian Anstice’s blog:

        … are good starting points for detailed and up to date news on library closures and issues around them.

    • Feck – wrong link in previous reply and I can’t edit or delete it. Can you add a comment preview option, and/or ability to edit mistakes such as that out of comments?

      To correct, Voices for the Library is, of course (checks manually!), at:

      • I’ve corrected the link. Don’t understand your comment, though – I wrote the text about the World Service interview in order to promote it after you had mentioned it on Twitter. Was it a secret interview or am I missing something?

      • Thanks for the correction.

        No of course it wasn’t a secret interview; don’t be silly. I DMed you about when it was in response to you asking me non-publicly, then was surprised to see it on your blog shortly afterwards. You didn’t say you would make that public; ask first in future.

  2. Hello Brin,

    You mentioned public libraries a lot. As John pointed out, there has been a considerable amount of debate over an extended period of time regarding these essential public services.

    Can I point you in the direction of the excellent Voices for the Library? This is a grass roots campaign and website set up, voluntarily, by concerned libraries. You can find it at:

    I would encourage ALL library users, and anyone who cares about libraries of any kind, to examine what has been written there.

    It is disappointing, though perhaps not surprising, that multi-million pound funded library organisations and their staff have often been absent from the ongoing debate regarding libraries. I assumed that your suggestion of “Perhaps we should stay quiet under the recession is over?” is an active policy for some of them?

    Whilst individual volunteers and campaigns such as Voices for the Library have been far more vocal, prominent and effective.

  3. Librarians really do have to in the first instance figure out the philosophy of libraries, they really do. Then they can begin to find evidence and prove the theory. Library Science I think though it is fair to say is still a young science, understanding is still very fragmented at the moment.

    Libraries need to figure out what their values are, this ranges from:

    “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” James Madison

    “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and what never will be.” Thomas Jefferson

    Jefferson also I think points out that it is our right that our knowledge be available to everyone and free. In more modern times the value of libraries:

    “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn” – Toffler

    “In today’s knowledge-based economy, what you earn depends on what you learn.” William J. Clinton

    A public library is of value in every context of our lives. So this is a very broad subject.

    A library is an instrumental value, not an end in itself, the end[1] we must remember is to be found in our intrinsic values, “what is meaningful or valuable in life”[2]:

    “It’s been upward in the sense of increasing enjoyment of the work, freedom, and pay. For the most part, I achieved all this mobility through two means: volunteering and self-education”

    We use the concept of standard of living in the context of the economy (material goods), but I think we can also define standard of living as the level of joy in our lives. All those things that add some joy. The Science of Happiness tells us that one thing that makes us happy is freedom, and the writer above tells us that his standard of living has raised not only with the material goods made possible, but a sense of freedom, which adds to the joys of life. We enjoy goals as well (‘the hunt’ in Science of Happiness terms), and I would guess there is a relationship between a more enjoyable ‘hunt’ and intelligence in the field. More rewards should follow I would think. So this augments the joy in our lives as well. That the person quoted above uses ‘surplus’ time to voluntarily do these things, I think is more a reflection of nowadays we have the information that we never used using the Internet, and so it is an option to volunteer in this way that has not been in the past.

    What other terminal values are libraries instrumental in? And don’t forget everybodies’ values hierarchies are different, retired folk, e.g., may value all the books they didn’t have time to read when they worked and perhaps comnfortable and social seating (a few terminal values here), while the person quoted above is perhaps more task oriented. Values I would guess depend on context and the value of the library in that context (…life stages, what other organising frameworks for the context of our lives are there?).

    I think we can reason then that libraries have to talk about their value in a way that the different people in different contexts find of value. Perhaps also offering a grand unified theory also :)

    And there endeth my tuppence ha’penny worth on the subject. It’s not normalised (so have fun!). I think syntactically it’s OK but not 100% sure (my own scratchpad exploring the syntax of values can be found here… ). I’ve also tended for the past 3 years to bookmark anything I see on the web with clues as to the value of libraries here…


    [1] Which has no extrinsic value (an end in itself), unlike libraries, which are not an end in themselves, but of instrumental value only (though they do very much have intrinsic values :)

    [2] Intrinsic value (ethics) – Wikipedia

    Gareth Osler
    Library Web

  4. If I can correct a typo:

    That the person quoted above uses ‘surplus’ time to voluntarily do these things, I think is more a reflection of nowadays we have the information that we never used using the Internet

    Which should read:

    …I think is more a reflection of nowadays we have the information that we never used to have using the Internet

  5. As a final footnote, how about if I bring into question the question of ‘a framework for researching the value of the public library’? Frameworks, models, organising principles.

  6. p.s. Coincidentally (or perhaps not!)…

    Coincidence; alas, still haven’t made it to a #mash event, despite them all being excellent from reports and tweets. So wasn’t aware of your session, which as you say was focused on academic and not public libraries anyway.

  7. A thought also. I have suggested above the question of frameworks (models, organising principles) for understanding the public library. If it is accepted libraries are a useful tool in every context of our lives, then this could be used as a framework for researching and understanding the value of libraries, and evidence can then be sort to prove the theory. A more indepth multidisciplinary dialogue with society should follow, and libraries might also offer something along the lines of a grand unifying theory (given they have the World’s knowledge layed out before them!).

    As important an area of research though as the above is technique. ‘Bibliotherapy’ has been a popular term recently – a few bookmarks of my own from stories on the web can be found here… This is anicdotal evidence. If there exists formal research in the field I cannot recall it off the top of my head. If a lot more research could be done on technique behind the role of the library in raising the health of a community then the techniques and methods learned can be applied by trained library managers and librarians accross the full breadth of the public library service.

    So I am suggesting here a second research front, of library method, the techniques with which libraries can apply themselves in society and for a community given the contexts that are important to a library. If a strong base of evidence is then sort (including at individual community level), and combined with the weight of a strong discipline and sense of purpose, the public and purseholders would I think be appreciative. The emphasis I am making is of a faculty having the tools and techniques and backed up by empirical evidence and for a compelling argument to follow.

    Who would like to describe Library Science as a ‘faculty’ at the moment?



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