Is There a Third Way for Library Valuation?

Eyecatcher by Donald Lee Pardue (CC BY)

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

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


8 thoughts on “Is There a Third Way for Library Valuation?

  1. This was a pretty thought provoking post for me. I think that considering the valuation of libraries in terms of impact rather than performance makes so much sense. Quantifying how many people walk through the doors of the library doesn’t say much about what the library does or does not do for those people. I think this is an extremely relevant post to our class because the class is all about rethinking how libraries should impact our communities, which, in the end, should positively affect library funding. Great post!

  2. I am glad to see this issue or attaching an economic value to libraries discussed here. I read your article in SRJ a while back on the topic, but had not made the connection that it was you who wrote it. The graduate program where I studied economics was a virtual Ph.D. factory for people doing this kind of valuation, but it was usually applied to some sort of natural amenity–like the value of a wild and scenic river, or the value of an unpolluted mountain vista.
    While the method has its critics, it does provide some way of weighing how important a library is in terms that can be compared with other things, which is important if we are trying to argue that we should get a bigger share of the tax dollar. You are on to something good here. Thanks!

    1. @boblucore Colorado State, was it? I’m no economist, but I was first introduced to environmental economics at Scripps Institution of Oceanography when I was lucky enough to take a class there as an undergrad at UC San Diego…at the time there was much discussion of putting a dollar value on biodiversity for future generations. What is the price (that we as a society) would be willing to pay to afford my now-5 year-old daughter the opportunity to grow up and know the joys of an environment teeming with different life forms? Pretty esoteric stuff, but compelling.

  3. Apologies – I was unaware of your publication in SRJ. I tweeted a link!

    This is such an important area to explore and consider. Gathering and utilizing the stories that take place in our public libraries, as you note in your post, can humanize and justify the sustainability of the library. I’d like to see more libraries capture these stories and share them.

  4. No apologies necessary, @michael! And thanks so much for the Twitter support; it’s been super fun (and a little intimidating) figuring out how it all works. It is truly fascinating to see how fast ideas (and publications / posts) fly around. I am now connected with people that I can learn a lot from, and hopefully collaborate with one day. Thanks for this opportunity.

  5. Yes, Colorado State. When I was in grad school there, in the 1980s, the Economics Department had just split into two departments. The folks in the Ag and Natural Resource Economics Department were really publishing like crazy in what they called “contingent valuation.”

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