Capturing the Impact of Libraries
This extended abstract of the report draws heavily on the Introduction to the report.
In November 2008, DCMS commissioned BOP Consulting to undertake a short study that identifies existing data and synthesises research on capturing the impact of library services. The work supports DCMS’ library Service Modernisation Review. The overall aim is to provide evidence of the type of data and research that is effective at capturing the impact of libraries on their local communities and, crucially, securing the support and engagement of key stakeholders.
Libraries’ policy stakeholders are essentially interested in how: the intrinsic benefits delivered through libraries (e.g. enjoyment, participation, learning); can contribute to extrinsic benefits or ‘social goods’ (e.g. improved well being, greater civic participation)
There are essentially two mechanisms by which this happens:
- the wider effects of learning – both formal and informal
- social capital formation - establishing networks and relationships and/or facilitating links to resources.
Why look to libraries to provide these social goods? the centrality of literacy and learning to the libraries mission which has been enhanced over the last decade
- libraries as trusted institutions – users and non-users identify public libraries as inclusive, non-market, non-threatening non-judgemental spaces. They can engage ‘hard to reach groups’
The literature review shows that public libraries in England are now involved in the delivery
of a wide ranging menu of services, activities and resources. This very diversity of provision also, arguably, presents difficulties in demonstrating and communicating the impact of public libraries. In many of the ‘new’ areas of libraries activities – for instance, early years support, adult basic skills provision, health support, information and guidance – libraries are not, and will never be, the lead delivery agency. This means that the interactions that people have with libraries in these areas will generally be less intensive and, correspondingly, have a more mild impact than other service providers for these activities.
It is therefore important that evidence regarding libraries impact should not claim one-to-one causative relationships, but should concentrate instead on showing how libraries can ‘make a contribution towards’/have ‘a bearing on’, a range of socio-economic priorities.
Across all areas public libraries need to improve the comprehensiveness and consistency of basic management information on services and users, to aid:
- Performance management and improvement
- Demonstrate libraries contribution to short term policy goals (e.g. ECM outcomes), principally at local level,
- Establish the base data for more complex impact analyses such as cost effectiveness/SROI approaches
Without having credible baselines it is not possible to tell a compelling story about the ‘new’ public library, and how the library service can contribute to a wide range of stakeholders’ agendas.
A library Census day?
One way that libraries could consider to improve their baseline data - without requiring it to be captured every time people interact with the service - would be through undertaking a Census of Library Users. This would most likely be a biennial census and would be a relatively light touch way, from the public’s perspective, of significantly improving on what already exists. Of course, a Census would not be cheap. There again, at approximately £1bn per annum, neither is the public library service in England – and yet there appears to be chronically few resources devoted to researching and evaluating its impact