Volume 12 No. 8 • December 1998
Special Report •
Measuring the Unmeasurable Value
by Jo Lyon
Many public library managers are, he says, well aware of the fact that
their libraries do an awful lot more than is reflected in issue figures,
visitor numbers, and the like. What he was looking for was a way for them
to make that visible to their various stakeholders. “The library profession,
it seems to me, has been a little backward in taking on board qualitative
data as a recognized way of looking at the value of services. Social scientists
have been doing it for more than 50 years, but librarians, and their policy
makers, have always tended simply to look at things you can put a number
on. What we were looking for was a rigorous method which would allow us
to identify and present those aspects of the service that you can’t measure
in the ordinary way, in a form that could have an influence on politicians
and public policy makers.”
Auditing the Social Value of Libraries
Usherwood and his colleague Rebecca Linley developed such a method and carried out a social audit of the public libraries of Newcastle City Council and Somerset County Council; the research was funded by the British Library. The resulting report, New Measures for the New Library, outlines the project, its findings, and the objectives that informed it. Usherwood’s original inspiration came from Social auditing: evaluating the impact of corporate programmes (Blake, D. H. et al., New York: Praeger, 1976), and more recently he became interested in the work of the New Economics Foundation, which has “audited” U.K.-based organizations. “What they’re basically doing is taking the approach that there is a lot of qualitative data which you can audit in the same way as financial auditors might audit figures, and this gives visibility to what the organization is actually doing. This can then be evaluated against its social objectives. So we took the social objectives of Newcastle City Council and of Somerset County Council, and we evaluated their libraries’ activities using the social audit technique. What we came up with was some answers about what the library was and was not doing, and some of the management reasons that were helping or hindering it in achieving its objectives.”
Usherwood and Linley took a stakeholder approach to their research, soliciting the view of three main groups: the politicians, the library professionals, and a range of library users and potential users. One-to-one interviews were conducted with the politicians and the professionals, and focus groups were run with users and nonusers. “It was a question of triangulation,” he explains. “We were checking what the users said against what the politicians said against what the professionals said. From that we began to build up a picture of what the library was actually doing in terms of things like social cohesion and community identity—matters which can be seen as the social and caring aspects of a library service—and we obtained a vast quantity of data which we looked at, audited, and presented in the final report.”
Every effort was made to conduct the research rigorously. “One of the
issues that is sometimes raised when we talk about social auditing is that
of bias—people say, ‘How do we know that the data you put in the report
isn’t simply selected to prove what you wanted to prove?’,” says Usherwood.
“My answer is twofold—firstly, you basically have to trust social auditors
in the same way that you would trust financial auditors. You have to believe
that we are doing a trustworthy job. And secondly, all the way through
this project we worked with a steering group, made up of library professionals
from the relevant authorities, plus representatives from several other
bodies, including the Audit Commission, the Library Association, and the
British Library. They saw the data we were obtaining, and they were able
to assess that our final report was an honest review of the data we obtained.
Also, two-thirds of the way through the project we produced a preliminary
report which we presented to a workshop attended by politicians and practitioners
so they could have a look at what we were doing and form views on it. We
actually used that as part of the research process, in addition to seeing
it as a way of disseminating what we were trying to do.”
Reaching Some Striking Findings
It was an approach that resulted in some striking findings. The final report demonstrates that the recognized and established functions of the public library, in terms of education, information, culture, and leisure, remain important; but at the same time it identifies social and caring roles, showing that public libraries promote social cohesion and community identity by fostering connections between groups and communities.
Says Usherwood: “One of the surprises for me, although perhaps it shouldn’t have been, was the social impact of local studies collections. This was especially strong in Newcastle, where the shipping industry has disappeared, but people are using the local studies material on shipbuilding to help fix a social identity. Another very interesting thing was the role of the library in keeping small shopping communities going, rather than, as you might expect, it being the other way round. In other words, in small towns people will go into town in order to go to the library and then visit the local shops, not vice versa. We also made some interesting observations on the value of small libraries—if you’re just measuring things like number of issues, there’s a lot of pressure to close small libraries. But if you put it in the wider social context—such as stopping old people from feeling isolated, or providing small communities with an identity, and then add all those things up, you might well come to a different conclusion on whether you want to open or close a service point.”
The project is, as far as he knows, the first time anyone’s done a social audit of public library services, or used this technique. He hopes it won’t be the last. “I hope there will be more of this kind of work done. At the end of the report we’ve put what we call a framework for understanding, which we believe can actually be used by librarians themselves, although their ability to do it or not to do it will depend to some extent on how much of a research infrastructure the library authority has. ... Basically it’s a technique that can be used by a variety of information organizations, but what you have to have is a belief in the validity of qualitative data. The key point is that qualitative data, rigorously gathered, is valid evidence of the value and impact of a library service.”
Feedback so far has been promising. “In Somerset, we’ve gone back and discussed the results with the managers and politicians, and made presentation to a committee of the authority, and there was a committee decision taken which seemed to be swayed at least in part by the social audit technique. That was a great immediate response. We hope to do something similar at Newcastle, and we’re also hopeful that the library plans that the DCMS [Department of Culture, Media and Sport] is working on at the moment might in the future say more about qualitative data as a way of valuing the service.”
Usherwood also acknowledges that the results of a social audit could prove to be a valuable marketing tool, in the sense that they can provide many kinds of valid evidence of the value of a service to your fundholders, be they politicians, as in the U.K., or boards of trustees, as in the U.S. They can also make visible to the public just what the library can do—these results can personalize it and help people relate to it.
Examples quoted in the report include this from a user in Newcastle: “I lost my dad and I couldn’t get over it, and the doctor told me to go and get ... a certain book to help us get over it from the library. So that was a great help [because] I’d never heard of, and never thought, anybody felt like that ...” And this from a member of the library staff in Somerset: “I have readers who come in almost the same time every week and ... when I’ve missed someone ... I have phoned to see if they are all right. ... We have a vast number of ladies living by themselves, and I think it’s that extra eye being kept on them.” As well as making fascinating reading, such findings provide potent material for the promotion of library services.
He stresses, though, that this is only possible if the research itself
is conducted impartially. “As researchers we present the data, but the
spin that people put on it really depends on them. The reason I say that
is that when this work was first going on, the Library Association was
very keen to use it as part of its campaign for National Libraries Week.
We had to point out to them that if we found out that libraries had no
social impact whatsoever, then that’s what we would say. That’s not what
we found, but I’m very keen as a researcher to make that point: We’re not
providing evidence to order. Having said that, if libraries did carry out
a social audit, then yes, they could well end up with the kind of images
that marketing people could use to communicate ideas to fundholders, members
of the public, the media, and so on. It’s a very powerful technique.”
Jo Lyon is deputy editor of Information World Review, the
monthly newspaper for the European information community. Her e-mail address
New Measures for the New Library; A Social Audit of Public Libraries by Rebecca Linley and Bob Usherwood (British Library Research and Innovation Centre Report 89), is published by the British Library Board (ISBN: 07123-97124) and costs £20, or roughly $30. Copies and further information are available from Bob Usherwood, Centre for the Public Library in the Information Society, Department of Information Studies, The University of Sheffield, Western Bank, Sheffield S10 2TN, U.K.; +44 (0) 114 222 2635; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The authors also presented these findings at the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) conference this summer in Amsterdam; the text is at http://ifla.inist.fr/IV/ifla64/054-94e.htm.
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