Proving Your Worth
by Dick Kaser
There’s no denying that libraries have been brutalized by the current recession, especially public libraries.
There’s not just mere talk of shutting down branches. Branches are being shut down, including 12–16 branches (at the time we go to press) at the trend-setting Charlotte & Mecklenburg public library chain in North Carolina, which is facing a $17 million budget cut.
A survey of 835 libraries conducted by the Charleston Conference in 2009 found that funding for 1 in 4 libraries in the U.S. and U.K. decreased more than 10% in 2009, with 1 in 3 academic and public libraries expecting additional cuts in 2010. A JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) study confirms the trend and projects that U.K. academic libraries will be hit hardest in 2011.
Consequences of these cutbacks include branch closings as well as abbreviated hours of operation, reduced staff counts, declines in physical collections and/or digital information services, and ongoing pressure to scale back on the deals libraries make with big journal publishers for digital resources.
On the bright side, some view this as a half-full glass, an opportunity in the making and a chance for libraries to assess their strengths and reposition for the future. I side with the camp that takes the high road. In that regard, I’ve come across some interesting ammunition for those facing the budget ax. After all, it could be you next time.
At the NFAIS (National Federation of Advanced Information Services) annual conference this spring, Paula Kaufman (University of Illinois) reviewed the results of her ongoing research project aimed at measuring academic library ROI based on the role that library resources play in a university’s grant-funding initiatives (http://liber.library.uu.nl/publish/articles/000269/article.pdf).
On the upside, Kaufman’s Phase II study results show that for every $1 spent by a research university, up to $15 is returned in grant-funding income. And that $15 is not peanuts. However, the ROI varies based on the nature of the institution and the level of grant funding it is capable of receiving. For example, some liberal arts institutions regrettably see only a 1-1 ROI at best. Of course, the payoff for academic libraries is not just in research money, so the University of Illinois study will continue to look at other benchmarks to assess library ROI. For public libraries, the Institute of Museum and Library Services recently reported that 169 million people in the U.S. (69% of the population) visited libraries last year and that 77 million of them went there to use the internet. This implies that public libraries are preventing a digital divide from occurring in our own nation. According to the report, public libraries are helping people find jobs, obtain training, conduct research that launches new businesses, stay healthy, and interact as good citizens with government agencies (www.gatesfoundation.org/learning/Documents/OpportunityForAll.pdf).
One oft-quoted rule is that for every $1 spent by public libraries, at least $4 in economic value is returned. This was true at least in a study conducted at the St. Louis Public Library a decade ago, and some subsequent studies have shown an even higher rate of return. OCLC is collecting case studies at www.oclc.org/roi.
The interest in ROI computation for government libraries, corporate information centers, and knowledge management initiatives is nothing new. A study by Barbara Weiner of the Hazelden Library and Information Resources (Center City, Minn.) in 2000 showed a rate of return at her library of 4.3-1.
No matter what number you come up with, carry it around in your hip pocket just in case the budget man comes to your door asking you to prove your worth.