Worth Their Weight: An Assessment of the Evolving Field of Library Valuation

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Worth Their Weight: An Assessment of the Evolving Field of Library Valuation takes stock of the new work being done in the field of library valuation, puts that work into context, and provides recommendations for building the field in terms of both research and applications. The assessment was carried out by Americans for Libraries Council (ALC) as part of its Building Knowledge for Advocacy Initiative, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and involving experts from within and beyond the library community. Coauthors of the study are Dr. Susan Imholz, consultant to ALC, and Dr. Jennifer Weil Arns, University of South Carolina School of Library and Information Science.

Worth Their Weight was prompted by the recognition that new approaches to library advocacy are needed and that these approaches must involve “making the case” for the public library in quantitative terms. Government officials generally expect library directors to be conversant with the language used in the business world, without realizing that library valuation is only beginning to use these sophisticated calculations and toolsets.

While the field of library valuation is still young, we have observed several salient trends which form the basis for this report’s key findings and recommendations. Our first observation is that over the past decade, public library valuation researchers have sought out and adopted valuation methods from the field of economics that allow the library to put a dollar value on its programs and services and show efficient use of tax dollars in cost/benefit terminology. The studies we reviewed clearly demonstrate the field’s growing sophistication, showing advancement from simple questionnaires to complex surveys, and from simple economic cost/benefit assessments to complex economic algorithms and forecasts.

Our second observation is that mastery of purely economic measures is giving way to concerns about incorporating the public library’s more intangible social dividends, and to finding new ways to express and quantify learning values and cultural benefits. We have noted that the concept of social return on investment (SROI) is gaining acceptance in the corporate world through tools such as the Balanced Score Card—which combines financial and non- financial measures to create a richer framework for evaluation— and triple-bottom-line reporting—which characterizes the social, financial, and environmental debits and credits of a business. Some of these and other concepts from the business world can be usefully applied to the valuation of public libraries. These expanded value propositions highlight the need to draw upon education research and social science expertise, and even to redefine monetary value and efficiencies in the context of sustainable, healthy communities when making the case for public libraries.

Finally, we focus on what’s needed to support the systematic growth and development of the field of library economic valuation. In its current stage, the field could benefit enormously from a formalized “collaboratory,” a web-based environment that includes forums forsharing information, multiple datasets, and open-source experimental tools. With the participation of professional library leader- ship, private enterprise, and academic researchers, such a forum might catalyze the conversion of research into effective advocacy messages.

Worth Their Weight is based on an ongoing dialogue among valua- tion experts within and outside the library community that began at a meeting that ALC convened on November 10, 2005, and formally concluded in January 2007. Participants discussed the pros and cons of different research methods and approaches used in other disciplines and fields. The meetings involved representatives from the Institute of Museum and Library Studies (IMLS), Urban Library Council (ULC), American Library Association (ALA), and the library vendor community. The meetings also featured guest speakers from other disciplines who had quantified difficult-to-measure social and economic impacts. These substantive discussions have provided researchers with an opportunity to reflect on their own work and to consider the strengths and weaknesses in the field. They have also helped ALC shape this report’s main focus— the relationship between research and advocacy.

Section I of Worth Their Weight approaches the subject of economic valuation from three directions: (1) a discussion of recent library valuation studies that illustrate important quantitative analysis techniques and other notable characteristics, including aspects of their structure, presentation, and use; (2) a discussion of alternative social return on investment (SROI) methods as they relate to public libraries; and (3) a set of detailed action-oriented recommendations for accelerating growth in the field of library valuation and facilitating its use in advocacy settings.

Section II presents summary profiles of 17 valuation and impact studies done since 1998. While these study summaries are not a substitute for reading the full reports themselves, they offer a unique overview of the field. The profiles are abridged to essential data, including authors, algorithms and methodological approach, results, and survey questions, and include links to the full reports online. The summaries are intended to provide researchers and advocates interested in this subject with a quick and efficient means of obtaining an overall appraisal of the field without wading through hundreds of pages of research reports.

Worth Their Weight: An Assessment of the Evolving Field of Library Valuation does not claim to be definitive, nor could it be in such a dynamic and fast-changing field. Rather, this report provides a base for further development of the field of library valuation and to stimulate analysis of the results of valuation studies in terms of library investment. The ultimate goal is to provide meaningful answers to communities as they ask what benefits they receive by continuing to invest in a strong public library.

APA Citation

Imholz, S. and Arns J. (2007). Worth their weight: An assessment of the evolving field of library valuation. New York: Americans for Libraries Council. http://www.actforlibraries.org/pdf/WorthTheirWeight.pdf