Quality and social value in the public libraries

The public libraries will have to substantiate their influence, importance and effect in relation to social values … and to document that they have a favourable economical effect

The number of Danish municipalities will from 2007 be reduced from over 270 to about 100 as the result of a public structural reform. This reform of the public sector is going to be of great importance for the library landscape in Denmark. The fusions between a number of public libraries will bring influence to bear at all levels. There will be changes in management positions, different IT solutions will have to be coordinated, different service profiles to be adjusted and different organisation cultures will have to be integrated.

The structural reform takes place in a period of contract policy, where the government’s contract with the citizens is a tax freeze. For the municipalities this means that their economy is put under severe pressure because of the citizens’ heightened expectations in terms of service, increased expenses due to demographic changes, and an harmonisation reform between the municipalities which redistributes incomes. Reports from the political system also point to the fact that the completion of the structural reform will be more expensive than expected.

The challenge for the libraries in this process is – apart from locally taking part in the process – also to position themselves in the educational and cultural landscape, i.a. with a view not in all cases to land on the lowest economical level of service – which might be a result of the municipal reform.

There is no doubt that the public libraries as a whole have substantial backing both in the population and in the political system. However, this has not prevented library debate this autumn tending to focus on quite substantial closures of library branches. And we are talking in terms of closure of quite major branches.

The situation for the libraries is complex. On the one hand there is considerable backing. On the other, the libraries have come under economic pressure. Like other institutions libraries have been subjected to demands of increasingly being able to document their efforts. This request is a result of both the municipal reform and government policy. The author of the present article believes that the demand for documentation will increase in the years to come. It will probably be more extensive than we have ever seen before and can hardly be fulfilled by simple gauging of financing, processes and the scale of services. The public libraries will have to prepare themselves for being able to substantiate their influence, importance and effect in relation to a number of social values, and they will undoubtedly also have to be able to document that they have a favourable economical effect.

This poses the question how the public libraries will be able to demonstrate their social value. Certainly there can be no doubt that the majority of the population has great sympathy for the libraries and consider them a benefit. This positive attitude is part of the legitimacy that the libraries enjoy. Maintaining and strengthening of legitimacy probably presupposes that the public libraries perform tasks and deliver services that are appreciated, and that they do it a way that is economically responsible and cost effective, and – perhaps not least – in accordance with the targets set.

Over the past few years there have been a number of studies concerning the libraries’ economical importance in relation to society, and the majority of these studies indicate that the proceeds of the investment are positive.

However, some of the methodical prerequisites in some of the purely economical studies could be questioned, and the question is, of course, also whether they provide the right answers to the wrong questions. On the other hand, there is hardly any doubt at all about the value that the population as a whole attributes to the public libraries.

Most recently this has been demonstrated in Svanhild Aabø’s dissertation, which concerns the Norwegian population’s readiness to pay for their public library system. The results clearly indicated that the Norwegian population was in fact willing to pay more than they already did to maintain the library system. The study also proved that even citizens who did not use the public library were willing to pay in order for other people to be able to use it. Here we are talking about the so-called altruistic motive. In a way there is nothing very surprising in this, as we are all paying for welfare services that we do not actually use. The interesting point is, of course, how the willingness to pay is associated with a number of factors such as age, level of education, degree of urbanisation etc. Because this could provide a hint as to the legitimacy and its changes, if this type of study is conducted over time. This study becomes part of several major – particularly American and British – investigations into the question about the kind of value – also in economic terms – society gets from its investment in libraries. Methods that are not unlike the ones Svanhild Aabø applied in some of her studies that all show a positive socio-economic profit when investing in the libraries.

Library-professional literature also offers many studies that clearly indicate that the public libraries have a very positive effect – both economically and culturally – in the local communities which they service. Here we can speak in terms of effects at the individual level and effects in relation to local communities and trade and industry. The effects are often outlined in categories like:

  • Increased quality of life and access to culture and art
  • Equality and free access to information resources and contribution to coherence in the local community
  • Improved personal development and recreational activities
  • Less social isolation and a social space
  • Education, public information and business information
  • Commercial and economic effects, including a better educated work force, resulting in increased tax base, higher property prices etc.

These effects or influences on behalf of the public libraries are accentuated differently according to the public library’s structure, objectives and prioritisations.

There is not doubt that the statistical data collected by the libraries are in themselves unsuitable for documenting the quality of the importance of the public libraries within the broader societal areas. It is not easy to conduct assessments and surveys to determine the societal value of a library’s services. Statements from the population is one way of doing it, of course, but it is hardly sufficient, as these cannot provide answers to questions as to whether one might gain the same value more cheaply and possibly through other procedures or within a different framework. The problem can be illustrated by the difficulties involved in e.g. measuring the value of teaching information competency. Up till now is has to a large degree been sufficient to ‘promote’ it as a praiseworthy activity. It is quite another matter to demonstrate that it works and that it has positive effects.

Assessments of the public libraries are not made any easier by the fact that as institutions they are increasingly being dedifferentiated, i.e. that through their ever increasing integration into municipal educational and cultural life, the public libraries are given new assignments which many citizens do not immediately relate to library tasks. This creates problems in relation to analyses of value, as the picture becomes more complex. It may – but not necessarily – mean that the citizens’ perception of the libraries changes. Analyses are also made more complicated because the public libraries will have to enter into more and larger digital networks and cooperative partnerships.

The secret is, of course, to establish sensible partnerships about analyses and instruments while at the same time not spending too many resources on it, but sufficient enough to enable the library at any time convincingly to prove both the value and the importance of the institution.

Aabø; S. – The Value of Public Libraries: A Methodological Discussion and Empirical Study Applying the Contingent Valuation Method. University of Oslo. Oslo. 2005.

Markless, S. & Streatfield, D. – Evaluating the Impact of your Library. Facet Publishing. London. 2006

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Professor, Royal School of Library and Information Science.