How can a library seek to serve the non-user, the person who doesn’t come to the library at all? How can a library seek to increase funding through donations and endowments? Maybe the answer to both of these questions lies in the perceived value of the public library. I think I speak for leaders of all non-profits when I say that I wish we didn’t have to appeal to givers; that the funding will just always be there for our organizations.
One common method of determining value in the public library field is to add up the total number of items circulated, the total number of people assisted, the total number of attendance at programs, the total usage of library meeting rooms, the total number of computer hours used, and assign a value to each of those categories based on the current market value. At Waukee Public Library, if we were to compute the total value of library service to the population, we would arrive at a figure of over $3,300,000. That constitutes a return-on-investment of $6.41 for every dollar given to the library. Yet despite the results, it’s the effort I want to talk about.
I just finished reading Father Greg Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart. In it, he laments that funders fund outcomes, not effort. It is difficult to measure the value of the process when you only focus on the results. For libraries, we have looked at statistics such as increasing the number of card holders, circulation, and attendance at programs. Now we are seeking new ways to measure, yet we are still looking at the results as the location of the data. But that mindset overlooks a critical element: our intrinsic value to a free society. Our challenge has always been to teach the public how to release the potential energy stored in our collections. How can we measure one of our most important virtues- the opportunity that lies within our walls?
I think if we knew how to measure opportunity, we would have invented a new currency in library-land. One might derive some direction by looking at how society measures the value of an education. I know that there are metrics that have been used to indicate the earnings of those who have earned a high-school education vs. those with a college education. The difference is that in most instances, the decision to attend college is a personal choice and it cost money to attend college. Because public libraries are free…does that mean that people value us less?
People take us (and other “free” things) for granted. And often, librarians make the mistake of taking it for granted that we are universally valued. The Information Age has turned into an Information Revolution, giving more people more power than ever before to exercise self-determination in their own lives, as well as in their countries’ governance. No matter what the media, our role is still to provide access to, and guidance through, information.
During tough economic times, it is especially important for public libraries to come to the bargaining table with the same tools as other worthy organizations. We need to embrace methods such outcome based evaluation and activity-based budgeting as a means to securing funding and as a means of deciding where to direct our resources. As a body that uses taxpayer monies, we need to be transparent and accountable, and as a learning organization, we need to know what works, for our own sake and in order to broadcast our successes. Measuring outcomes is new to us, but the result will be a greater understanding of the value of public libraries.