Discussion topic: proving our worth

It’s a fair generalisation to say that libraries rarely make a profit. When you’re looking only at the money, libraries cost more to run than what they bring in as income – if they bring in anything at all. This means that libraries often have to demonstrate the value that they provide in other ways. This new discussion topic is about ways that we have of articulating, measuring and proving our worth. It sounds like a dry topic, but give us a chance – we’re sure you’ll find something useful in it.

The money to fund libraries often comes from somewhere other than the library itself – it comes from the parent institution, such as the company or university or school. Or it may come from the government, at different levels depending on the nature of the library. Funding may come from donors, big and small – some libraries have huge endowments that allow for long term planning; others rely on small donations from philanthropic individuals to survive. What all these scenarios have in common is that libraries have to be able to articulate what the impact of that funding is. What will it achieve or produce? What does the library deliver?

Graphs from Open Clipart

Graphs from Open Clipart

There are multiple ways to answer this question. Sometimes people use metrics – number of print or online resources, usage figures, gate counts. These are usually used to demonstrate that the library has good resources and that they are being used. Another way to measure the impact of the library is to use the business-oriented return on investment measure, which seeks to determine the amount of money saved by investing in libraries. All of this links into advocacy, which is an ongoing process that seeks to influence decision makers. A common tool of advocacy is what’s known as the elevator pitch – a short statement about what your library offers to its community.

Over the next two weeks we’re going to explore these tools and techniques. To get started, think about what your library does now to articulate and prove its worth. Some questions you might like to share with your partner are:

  • How do you measure success in your library?
  • Are library statistics gathered? How are they used, and what do they tell you about the library?
  • Who makes funding decisions about your library? How are those decisions made? Is funding very difficult to get?
  • What is one story you can tell about a positive outcome that was achieved by your library?

If you’d like to share your responses to those questions with the wider ILN community, you can do so via our Twitter or Facebook pages, or in the comments section below.

Posted in Discussion topics, Round 2015A and tagged , , , , , , .


  1. Exactly Victoria – we’re eager to see libraries being trumpeted as the amazing places that they are, but sometimes we’re too humble! We need to improve how we communicate our value to those outside of our profession.

  2. Not true. In Denmark there’s a report published in January 2015:

    It proves that the value of libraries succeeds the money invested on BNP.

    To translate from Danish this is what the report is about:

    The public libraries is the most used cultural institution in Denmark with 36 millioner visitors yearly. They fulfill many social tasks and are perceived as playing a vital role for welfare and culture

    The libraries’ traditional role is on the other hand under change; from representing a unique access to knowledge through a narrow platform to being one amongst many knowledge suppliers on a sea of platforms. A consequence of this competition is that especially the younger part of the population won’t choose the library. The development has been shown to be a rising number of digital loans and self-serviced libraries with longer opening hours. In this way libraries try to manage in the competition with a certain success, which shows in a good brand and good statistics in visitors and lending.

    The report has resulted in headlines in the news here in Denmark, as the investigation has shown that libraries contribute with billions to the BNP, and is due to the fact that it’s unusual to make an analysis of a cultural institution’s value in society. This is also the first time an analysis has been made on public libraries, where one doesn’t just measure a citizen’s willingness to pay, but takes the next step and measures the value created measured on BNP.

    • Thanks for the link Solveig, and for the translation! There are some extraordinary things happening in Danish libraries, it’s great to hear that their value is being articulated strongly. That’s a fantastic advocacy tool!

  3. This is a very relevant topic … just wan’t to share the result of my mini- qualitative study on understanding library engagement and extent of the long-influence of services and programs of the our library to the senior students from the College of Education – Bachelor of Secondary Education program who are vying for academic honors through their experiences of using the library. Four themes emerged from the study including valuing library engagement as a process, valuing engagement as a collaborative endeavor, valuing library engagement as integral to college life and library engagement as empowerment. As a process, library engagement has to be nurtured though time thru exposure to books, reading, physical and virtual libraries. Library engagement as a collaborative endeavor is a product of innate characteristic of a person as a social being who loves to belong and be with other. The library is likewise seen as important partner in the educative process of teaching and learning, hence, it becomes integral to college life. Library engagement as empowerment has three subthemes: valuing library as source of enlightenment/wisdom …as life changer … and as a source of inspiration. It means how experiencer make meaning out of his library experiences by sharing it with others. It only shows that indeed library has positive impact on student lives.

    • Thanks for sharing Mary Ann – was this research published anywhere? We’d love to post a link to it, it sounds like something of interest to lots of our community members.

      • No ma’am, this is just a pilot study for my subject qualitative research in the graduate school. The proposal to make it a full blown research paper is on-going. I’ll let you know if we have done with it. Thank you for your interest.

  4. Hello all
    The Arts Council of England, who are the body the Government have engaged to deliver public library policy in England (This is a very simple explanation of their work, apologies to English librarians who may take issue with the explanation), did some work a year ago and published a report on the economic contribution of public libraries. This was a literature review, so no original research was done, They identify three hypotheses regarding how libraries contribute to the wider economy, and also covers studies of educational and social benefits. It is probably worth quoting the final paragraph of the Executive Summary in full:

    “However, evidence is already sufficient to conclude that public
    libraries provide positive outcomes for people and communities in many
    areas – far exceeding the traditional perception of libraries as just places
    from which to borrow books. What the available evidence shows is that
    public libraries, first and foremost, contribute to long term processes of
    human capital formation, the maintenance of mental and physical
    wellbeing, social inclusivity and the cohesion of communities. This is the
    real economic contribution that public libraries make to the UK. The fact
    that these processes are long term, that the financial benefits arise
    downstream from libraries’ activities, that libraries make only a
    contribution to what are multi-dimensional, complex processes of
    human and social development, suggests that attempting to derive a
    realistic and accurate overall monetary valuation for this is akin to the
    search for the holy grail. What it does show is that measuring libraries’
    short term economic impact provides only a very thin, diminished
    account of their true value. ”
    Arts Council England (2014) Evidence review of the economic contribution of libraries, Final Report, June 2014 (p.5)

    So more study needed as far as public libraries are concerned.

    • Hi David,

      I think the sentence “attempting to derive a realistic and accurate overall monetary valuation for this is akin to the search for the holy grail” is telling – it says a lot about the weaknesses in some of our evaluative models. Have you had a look at the later post about ROI studies? Check out the article on In the Library with the Lead Pipe (referenced at the end of that post), it’s a really good discussion of the topic.

      Thanks for sharing this!

  5. Ups – when I wrote BNP in the article from Denmark I mean GDP! (English-speaking readers won’t understand what BNP Means – sorry!)

    • I enjoyed reading your comments about proving our worth and the following quote came to mind:
      “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” Walter Conkite

    • It’s funny those little differences – we are always getting caught with the term ‘fortnight’ – it’s in common usage here in Australia but meaningless to other parts of the world.

  6. Pingback: Discussion topic: Advocacy and lobbying | International Librarians Network

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