Libraries are sometimes referred to as a Third Place; not home, but not quite work or school. The Third Place is a comfortable, welcoming, productive community environment. It operates and thrives on elements that may seem mutually exclusive, such as comfortable and productive. Likewise, the public library exists as a non-profit service, yet is increasingly subject to for-profit market valuation.
In a time of increased scrutiny over public dollar expenditures, libraries are under pressure to demonstrate their value. It occurs to me that assessing the value of public libraries may benefit from a Third Way, or a middle ground of sorts, that lies somewhere between the unabashed application of market logic and the complete spurning of it. Daniel Bailey’s recent ode to the importance of the public library argues that our beloved institution is a public good and therefore above and beyond market logic. He laments the stranglehold that the market-based ideological framework has over library funding, concerned that “TINA (There Is No Alternative) style discourses have come to circumvent any deeper questioning of public library sustainability” (Bailey, 2014). To be clear, I’m with Bailey: I see the library as an essential public good and am distraught about the ongoing widespread library budget reductions and closures. But I wonder: is there a Third Way of assigning value to the public library?
Measuring Impact Instead of Performance
Fortunately, libraries are beginning to make their way out of the fog of circulation statistics, recognizing that simple input/output metrics can neither capture the full value of the public library nor tell a story compelling enough to grab the attention of policy-makers. As Bailey points out, library valuation has coalesced around the adoption of econometric tools, formerly reserved for business and industry. For sure, the argument that the community receives four dollars in benefits for each tax dollar spent on library services is both succinct and attention-grabbing (Aabo, 2009). It is also a step in the right direction, away from tracking performance goals toward evaluating impact (Streatfield, 2012). In addition, new methods originating from the field of environmental economics have given us a way to put a monetary value on intangible, non-market goods- the very things that reflect the original and continued mission of public libraries, including: civic engagement, literacy, social inclusion, and cultural heritage preservation. Thus, I think there may be room to accommodate a broader vision of library economic valuation, if not only for practical purposes (when in Rome…) but also because library valuation methodologies are becoming increasingly sensitive to quantifying what was previously unquantifiable.
The Third Way
Nevertheless, the degree to which library economic valuation can effectively measure the full social impact of the public library is still a matter of debate. Many believe that focusing exclusively on monetary values may obscure the library’s true value. But there is a Third Way. It transcends circulation statistics and anecdotal evidence as well as a purely economic rationale, and instead focuses on linking library outcomes, or impacts, to specific public policy goals. By aligning library services and programs with the pressing interests of local leadership, such as civic engagement, eBusiness/eGovernment, education, and employmement, the Third Way positions libraries as essential partners in the business of civic leadership. The Global Library Initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has found that employing a range of empirical impact evidence works best to illustrate the role of libraries in the realization of key social goals. By combining both numbers and stories, the Global Library Initiative valuation studies aim to provide a nuanced demonstration of library value that makes a compelling correlation between the act of funding libraries and the ability to achieve public policy goals (Sawaya et al., 2011). Surely, this kind of work is proof that not all ‘deeper questioning of public library sustainability’ has been squashed out of existence.
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Many thanks to the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) blog, and especially to Daniel Bailey, for keeping the public library conversation going. The thoughts I have expressed above originate from my article, Demonstrating the Value of the Public Library: Economic Valuation and the Advocacy Imperative, which you can have a look at here.
Aabo, S. (2009). Libraries and return on investment (ROI): A meta-analysis. New Library World, 110(7), 311-324. doi: 10.1108/03074.800910975142
Bailey, D. (2014, February 23). We must defend public libraries from the threat of a market-based ideological framework [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/39640
Sawaya , J., Maswabi, T., Taolo, R., Andrade, P., Grez, M., Pacheco, P., Kochanowicz, M. (2011). Advocacy and evidence for sustainable public computer access – experiences from the Global Libraries Initiative. Library Review, 60(6), 448-472. doi:10.1108/00242531111147189
Streatfield, D. (2012). Impact planning and assessment of public libraries: a country level perspective. Performance Measurement & Metrics, 13(1), 8-14. doi: 10.1108/14678041211228535