Effect documentation on the agenda

Libraries need to have the competences to document the effect of their work systematically; inwardly to be used for prioritisation, learning and development, and outwardly to be used for legitimising resource application and raison d’être. However, a prerequisite for this is the development of methods that the professional staff will consider meaningful.


All library employees handle significant tasks for the individual user and for society. The staff often have very clear views of the correlation between day-to-day activities and the democracy promoting intentions of the Library Act. These views are confirmed in everyday life through observation of and dialogue with users, colleagues and collaboration partners, and examples are legion: The library makes a difference to the child who needs to be stimulated to read or to improve his/ her motor function; to the student who is about to write a paper and needs up-to-date, relevant and validated knowledge; to the citizen who wants to find out about rights and obligations. The library also makes a difference when people are pulled out of loneliness and into communities through participation in cultural activities. The library’s offers, activities and materials leave traces with the users.

However, the question is whether this experience and knowledge are systematically collected and documented. Internally whether they are activated in continual improvements and developments of services and in a strengthening of prioritisation. Publicly whether experience and knowledge are used to profile what libraries are here for, what difference – or effect – the work of the libraries has. These questions are ad-dressed in a project launched at the beginning of 2012 in collaboration between nine libraries in the Capital Region of Denmark and the Metropolitan University College. The Royal School of Library and Information Science (RSLIS) participates as knowledge partner, and the Danish Agency for Culture has supported the project financially. The libraries, RSLIS and the Metropolitan University College all use their own resources.

Why an increased focus on effect?

A long-term and heavy strain on the national economy has initiated the entirely necessary discussion about resource application and outcome in the public sector. This has, among other things, led to demands on public institutions to tighten resource awareness, focus on value creation and en-sure continual qualification. Public institutions need to use available knowledge and data actively, and to be able to apply assessment methods to clarify what works. They should be able to document how resources contribute to value creation in the form of effects, qualitatively as well as quantitatively. These requirements also apply to the libraries, which over the last 5-6 years have made significant savings on the budgets and are subject to continual pressure due to developments in information and media technology.

But – documentation and measurements are already prepared and carried out in many contexts, so what is the problem? A key problem – from a professional perspective – is that the known methods inspired by New Public Management add on irrelevant additional work and focus extensively on measuring quantity and not quality. Yet both parameters are important in terms of looking at outcome. The focus on quantifiable measurement implies a risk of developing organisational hypocrisy, i.e. that the requested numbers are only reported upwards in the organisational hierarchy, and not applied in development and learning. Therefore, there is a potential decoupling between the expert work and the applied methods, and the result is managers and administrators who spend time counting and accounting at the expense of core tasks. In the library con-text, the question is how the library sector can explore and apply more appropriate methods to lean on.

The four-room model

The Centre for Cultural Policy Studies at RSLIS has developed a four-room model for development of the modern public library. The most recent version of the model was described in Folkebibliotekerne i vidensamfundet (Public Li-braries in the Knowledge Society) (2009). The model consists of four overlapping rooms: Inspiration room, Learning room, Meeting room and the Performative room. The report states that the purpose of the model is

  • To create a framework for a discussion of the library’s general and legitimacy
  • To map the library’s concrete and functions
  • To prioritise the individual rooms
  • To develop programmes support the individual rooms

Measuring the effect of efforts is explicitly not the purpose of the model. However, the model does include clear assumptions that ‘a different library’ will emerge when working within the logic of the model. As for instance when it indicates that the Inspiration room contributes to experience and innovation, the Learning room contributes to experience and empowerment, the Meeting room contributes to empowerment and involvement – and finally, when the Performative room contributes to involvement and innovation. At the same time, profiling and prioritisation of these rooms are expected to contribute to the citizens’ opinion and identity formation and to the development of independent citizens and new concepts at society level.

The library profession has adopted the model because it makes sense to their professional work, and this is why the project is based on it. For further details about the four-room model, please have a look at the report, which is found here: www.bibliotekogmedier. dk/publikationer and in English on, NO 2. 2010, page 4.

The project ‘From Model to Effect’ explores new paths

The project that spans 2 1/2 years is entitled From Model to Effect and it aims to develop dynamic methods and tools that can activate and operationalise assumptions about effect in the four-room model. The intention is to develop more meaningful and productive ways of documenting effect. The idea is to focus on the libraries’ results and learning to create more value for the users, to optimise the use of resources, and to make it possible to communicate the library’s work and significance in a well-documented way.

The Metropolitan University College is in charge of putting theoretical and methodological approaches into play in close collaboration with the nine libraries. The starting point is processual effect documentation, which includes understanding when and how an effort has an impact or does not have an impact on results. In other words, effect is seen as value creation that can be rendered probable – but not necessarily provable – by means of qualitative or quantitative methods. The participating libraries are invited to make concrete efforts in one of the four rooms in order to investigate, explore and reflect relevant documentation methods and data about the effects of their professional practice. How can the effect of an effort be traced through quantitative or qualitative data? For instance, are the effects observable, perceptual, countable, describable or narrative?

Effect assessment and narrative methods

At the theoretical level, the project is based on effect assessment combined with narrative method. Every effort is based on ideas about why an effort would work and why it is appropriate in the endeavour to reach specific objectives. The foundational question in effect assessment is whether these ideas also work in practice. Effect assessment is used to study processes and effects based on a programme theory (a hypothesis) about how an effort will lead to expected results. In connection with the assessment, the participants need to ask the following questions: What works for whom? When? Which path do we expect to see between the activities we carry out and the targets we aim to achieve? Can the programme theory be confirmed or disproved? Thus, the programme theory contributes to rendering visible the rationale in professional practice and thereby makes it possible to improve future efforts. Furthermore, the programme theory helps illustrate which methods would be appropriate for documenting the effect of an effort (e.g. statistics, questionnaires or qualitative interviews).

Effect assessment works with causal relations and distinguishes between results that can reasonably be ascribed to completed efforts, and results that cannot. Combined with programme theory, causality is understood as the existence of certain regularities (i.e. that certain efforts lead to certain effects), but these regularities depend on people’s motivation, interpretations and actions. Effect assessment supports professionals in articulating their implicit expectations about regularities, and hereby, the project aims to combine effect assessment with narrative method.

In narrative method, stories are considered to be an organising and meaningful principle in our (work) life. The narrative method can support the endeavour to create quality and meaning in the development of work practices, as well as reflection on the significance of selection and rejection deselection – and thus it promotes the staff’s efforts to create greater insight into and a better feel for the effect of their own work in a deliberate and reflective way. Narratives are also used to communicate value creation to the surrounding world.

The libraries’ competence development – an interplay between theory and practice

The ambition is that new tools will intensify the libraries’ focus on effect on just a few, but professionally meaningful areas, and that the usefulness will become evident to all employees. The management and key employees in the project need to be familiar with the underlying theories and their reasoning in the project – and they need to be open for scrutiny. Library staff need to learn to document systematically and to use both qualitative and quantitative methods as an integrated part of their professional work – and to be competent to assess when different methods are suitable.

To the Metropolitan University College, this project partnership is an excellent example of how an educational institution with the welfare society as target group can develop knowledge, educational programmes and other products. As a University College, it is of the utmost importance to contribute to practical knowledge and simultaneously develop knowledge on how professions adopt theory and methods, e.g. effect documentation methods. In coming years, we expect to be able to apply this knowledge in other professional contexts in the public sector.

Senior consultant Centre for Leadership and Governance, Metropolitan University College Ingelise Konrad has for many years worked as a leader in the library and culture sector, but now works as a senior consultant with leadership and governance.