Towards an assessment of public library value: Statistics on the policy makers' agenda

Kristine Pabērza (Department of Information and Library Studies, University of Latvia, Riga, Latvia)

Performance Measurement and Metrics

ISSN: 1467-8047

Publication date: 23 March 2010

Abstract

Purpose

This paper aims to present a methodology, early findings, possible applications of results and lessons learned from the research study “Public libraries: value, trust and satisfaction”, which has been conducted within the public library development project ‘Father's Third Son’ in Latvia.

Design/methodology/approach

A combination of quantitative and qualitative methods was used (although the findings reported here are largely drawn from the quantitative study) drawing on various theories of information behaviour and use‐oriented information service evaluation.

Findings

The study gives a good picture of user information needs in Latvia, the sources they use to fulfil them and the role of public libraries within this picture, especially in relation to cultural and recreational interests and public support for public libraries in terms of potential funding. The public library influence on people's leisure hours and their support for education are highlighted. The advocacy implications of this work are reviewed.

Research limitations/implications

Although this report is confined to the early stages of the study, the work was conducted on a substantial scale.

Originality/value

The work reported here provides new evidence of library use and appreciation in Latvia. The later results of this study, combined with evidence gathered by other participants in the Global Libraries initiative, will provide a commanding view of the significance of public libraries across a range of countries.

Keywords

Citation

Pabērza, K. (2010), "Towards an assessment of public library value", Performance Measurement and Metrics, Vol. 11 No. 1, pp. 83-92. https://doi.org/10.1108/14678041011026892

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Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2010, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


Introduction

Research on trust and on the value of public libraries has never been done before in Latvia. The research study “Public libraries: value, trust and satisfaction” is being conducted in Latvia as the part of the impact assessment plan within the public library development project ‘Father's Third Son’. The project is co‐financed by the government of Latvia and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation within the Global Libraries initiative. All local government authorities with their 874 public libraries are participating in the project, the main goal of which is to improve people's quality of life by strengthening and using the capacities of public libraries to facilitate better and proactive use of resources offered by free access to IT and the Internet.

It is expected that the ‘Father's Third Son’ project will raise the prestige and image of public libraries in society in general and the value of public libraries in local communities. The project is beneficial to many people in Latvia, especially the rural population, in self‐education, boosting the effectiveness of their working lives, developing social communication and getting better access to a variety of services. The project also aims to motivate existing library users and to attract new ones who could benefit socially and economically from the new technologies and free Internet access in public libraries.

Since all public libraries receive government funding, librarians must advocate for support to provide and sustain services to their changing communities. Data and evidence on library value is a powerful tool for changing attitudes and actions towards libraries. Results from the study will help librarians in their advocacy efforts to demonstrate the value of libraries within their communities to their government bodies, funders and decision makers.

The context of the study

The impact assessment concept and the idea of measuring the social and economic impact of library services on local communities and individual library users was a novelty in Latvia at the beginning of the project implementation in 2006. Development and application of an impact assessment model in Latvia was the first step in measuring the value of IT‐related public library services and has led to substantial improvement of national statistics in the library field. Implementation of the impact assessment plan started with the baseline study in 2007 and will continue in a longitudinal study until 2010; culminating in the final report on the main social and economic benefits and impacts of library services and activities. After the impact assessment has been done by the project implementation organization, all the meaningful and important indicators will be incorporated into the national statistics and data will be collected on an annual basis. Besides the main impact assessment studies, several in‐depth studies are planned that will supplement the main studies with more specific in‐depth data and evidence (see Figure 1).

After a public procurement process conducted by the project implementation organization (the State Agency ‘Culture Information Systems’), the research study “Public libraries: value, trust and satisfaction” has been carried out by the Advanced Social and Political Research Institute as a separate in‐depth study that supplements other studies planned within impact assessment plan (see Figure 1).

Approach to the study

The theory and practice shows that various terms – such as impact assessment, outcomes measurement, value assessment, social and economic benefits, and social impacts – have been used by writers and researchers to explore the question of how important libraries are in the lives of library users, or what is the role of the library in community empowerment or personal development of community members (Wavell et al., 2002). Recent research on the value of the public library within a community can be broadly grouped into studies of economic impact and studies of social impact. Economic effects of public library services can be assessed by using different methods that can include economic impact analysis, cost benefit analysis, measurement of return on investment or the time allocation method (Berryman, 2005). The “Public libraries: value, trust and satisfaction” study is not looking for direct economic impacts but is focusing more on direct and indirect social outcomes created by public libraries within communities. The study is looking at the magnitude of the social value that the library can have by using a context‐oriented research approach (Durrance and Fisher‐Pettigrew, 2002) that includes research on the information ecology of the local community as the system to find out what the role of library is and of the librarian within it. From the economic point of view, value has always been seen within a context of wealth, prosperity, and well being, and uses money as the unit of measurement. With regard to the information and information services provided by the library, we speak about the value of use (Fenner, 2002). The theoretical basis of the study is drawn from the theory of use‐oriented value of information and information services (Saracevic and Kantor, 1997).

An information ecology approach (Davenport and Prusak, 1997) has been used to look at the value of the library service and at trust issues at the level of the local community. This includes looking at information technology, information strategy, policy, the information environment, and user behaviour as a unified system. Information ecology is “a system of people, practices, values and technologies in a particular local environment” (Nardi and O'Day, 1999). The qualitative data collection tool entailed in information ecology mapping, produces results that illustrate the networks of trust that exist in a geographic community. The ecological theory of human information behaviour (Williamson, 2005) has been used to research the information ecology of local communities. This encompasses a model of information search and use ecology that helps to identify information sources available to the community as well as helping to understand user information needs, information search habits and factors that influence the local information ecology. The everyday life information‐seeking model (Savolainen, 2005) has been used to look at the social and cultural factors that influence information processes.

Study design

The main goal of the research study is to get answers to:

  1. 1.

    What is the value of the public library in society in general and at the level of the local community?

  2. 2.

    What is the trust level in public libraries, librarians, and information received through library?

  3. 3.

    What is the level of satisfaction with public library services?

Several research questions were defined to meet the goal:

  1. 1.

    How do inhabitants rank the public library service against other services provided by local government/the municipality? How important is the public library service for inhabitants compared with other services provided by local government/the municipality?

  2. 2.

    What is the peoples' level of trust in public libraries in comparison with other social and cultural institutions and other institutions in local government/the municipality?

  3. 3.

    What is people's level of trust in public librarians in comparison with other professions?

  4. 4.

    What is the trust level in information received in or through the public library (or by using e‐services and content provided by public library) in comparison with information received through other information channels and resources?

  5. 5.

    What is the level of user satisfaction with public library services?

Both quantitative and qualitative methods have been used for data collection purposes, including:

  1. 1.

    A representative survey of inhabitants of Latvia based on stratified random sampling that uses administrative, territorial, and national stratification features. The representative sample of the general population (n = 1016) includes library users as well as library non‐users (defined as inhabitants who have not been in the library and have not used any library service within the last year or more). The survey was conducted through personal (face‐to‐face) interviews at the places of residence of respondents.

  2. 2.

    Ten focused discussion groups (FDGs) spread across all regions of country. In order to find out regional differences, in every region of Latvia two FDGs were organized covering urban and rural areas respectively. At the time of the study, Latvia was facing reform of its administrative territories. In order to reflect the experience, of different settlements, with different environments, and availability of services, cities, or towns, were chosen from several levels, that included a city of state importance, a city of an amalgamated municipality that was the centre of a district before the reform, a city of an amalgamated municipality that was a centre of local importance before the reform, a city that will join an amalgamated municipality after the reform, but will not be its centre, and a city/town as a separate unit, that will not join any new amalgamated municipality after the reform, but will stay as a separate unit within its rural territory. Mixed FDGs with ten to 12 participants were organized reflecting the socio‐demographic structure of each particular community, and including both library users and non‐users. An information ecology‐mapping tool was applied during FDGs.

A quantitative study based on the ecological theory of human information behaviour and on the theory of use‐oriented value of information and information services (both referred to earlier) is gathering data on the most‐used information sources by Latvian people, which sources they trust more, which local government services they use and how much they are satisfied with the services received (this includes library services alongside other services), how often they use particular services including library services, what is the value of the public library to meet their information needs and other questions. An extensive questionnaire was built for data collection that includes three main parts:

  1. 1.

    Questions about information needs, sources and credibility of information received and information sources used.

  2. 2.

    Questions about the frequency of usage of services provided by local government, assessment of the quality of services received including the library service.

  3. 3.

    Questions to find out user satisfaction with actual public library services.

A qualitative study based on the ecological theory of human information behaviour and the model of everyday life information seeking (again, both referred to previously) is seeking answers to:

  • Which are the most trusted information sources in the community?

  • What information flows exist in the community?

  • What is the role of the library within the information ecology of the community?

  • What is the level of trust in the library as an information source?

  • What is the role of librarians in the process of meeting user information needs in the community?

The researchers have been able to identify the most reliable information sources and detect patterns in terms of trusted sources of information in communities, as well as describing the information ecology around the public library by summarizing the results from all the FDGs and generalizing developed information ecology maps.

Findings

The results of the quantitative study will primarily be used here to report the findings. In most cases the qualitative study confirmed the data received through the questionnaire as well as giving more contextual and deeper data and evidence on some issues.

Information needs and sources

Respondents were asked to indicate topics on which they have searched for information during the last month prior to the survey (to show areas in which people feel the greatest need for information) (see Figure 2). The data show that the greatest need was for information that relates to employment issues (more than a half of population having performed an information search in this area); with almost the same level of interest being shown in the area of health. The relative lack of interest in sport and education can be explained by the fact that the survey did not include school children in the sample.

Respondents were asked to indicate, which information sources they use to fulfill their information needs (to determine the most‐used information sources). Following the ecological model of information search and use, information sources were divided into three categories: personal networks, media, and institutional sources. Levels of use of information sources to meet information needs are shown in Figure 3. As expected, the most‐used information sources are personal networks of respondents including friends, relatives, colleagues, and fellow‐students. It was notable that the percentage of those who did not receive information they needed via personal networks was very low.

The media were also quite heavily used to find necessary information, but this level of use was relatively low compared to those who received information they needed through personal networks.

Looking at institutional sources the study shows quite a high level of information requests to health care institutions, with fewer but still a notable proportion of requests addressed to the municipality and various reference services. The public library as an information source has almost the same importance for the public as educational institutions or private organizations that provide different kind of consultations. The data predictably suggest that people with more specific information inquiries, such as about medical issues tend to refer to particular institutions that can provide knowledgeable and reliable information, whereas on other issues such as employment (an area of the greatest information need) people first refer to their personal networks or media sources.

Turning to unsatisfied information needs, the highest level of failure came from the state administration (11 per cent) and private organizations (14 per cent), while the lowest levels of unsatisfied information searches featured educational institutions (2 per cent) or public libraries (3 per cent).

To identify the level of trust in information received from various sources, respondents were asked to indicate whether they have to verify the information received (see Figure 4).

Within the verification context, the public library shows a very high level of trust in terms of the information it provides (with 43 per cent of respondents who never needed to verify this information). This level of trust is even higher than for relatives, friends, and colleagues. It can also be concluded that awareness about public libraries influences respondents' evaluations. As Figure 5 shows, more than a half of the respondents who had not been to a public library during the year prior‐to the survey and those who had not been to public library at all were hard pressed to say if information from the public library would have to be verified. By contrast, more than a third of people who had visited the public library during the previous year said that it was not necessary to verify the information received.

Usage and satisfaction with municipality services and staff

Respondents were asked to report how much they used all available services provided by their local government/the municipality (to show the relative value and role of the public library service at the community level). People made most use of the public transportation services (78 per cent, with 63 per cent of these as satisfied users), environmental services (71 per cent with 71 per cent of satisfied users) and health care services (71 per cent, with 51 per cent satisfied users). Cultural and recreational services, including visits to museums and libraries available in the area, were used by more than a half of population (59 per cent, with 64 per cent of satisfied users, which was the second highest level of satisfaction if compare with other services). The less‐used services include sports services (32 per cent with 44 per cent of satisfied users) and housing services (9 per cent with 20 per cent of these satisfied users).

Among the cultural and recreational services, the public library has the highest percentage of non‐users (60 per cent had not been to public library during last year, while museums and galleries had 57 per cent, cultural centers 50 per cent and objects of cultural heritage 48 per cent of non‐users). However, public library users visited them more frequently than did users of other cultural and recreational institutions.

Despite the level of use, respondents (including both users and non‐users) demonstrated quite high support for the public library in terms of funding. All respondents were asked to indicate whether they would like to increase or reduce funding for cultural and recreational institutions in their local government: the public library was second in the priorities for increase in funding and at the bottom of the list for reduction.

Respondents were also asked to evaluate the quality of work of staff of different institutions in their local government (see Figure 6) by indicating whether they were satisfied or dissatisfied with the quality of their performance. In that context, the librarians were the most highly valued professionals in the local communities, ahead of museum employees and kindergarten employees.

Usage and satisfaction with public library services

One of the goals of the study was to explore user satisfaction with public library services among people who had used the service in the previous year.

The most frequent library services used are borrowing books and other stock items (79 per cent), followed by using the library reading room (54 per cent). Borrowers indicated whether items that they borrowed from the library were also used by their relatives (in 47 per cent of cases) and by their friends (in 6 per cent of cases). Almost half of library users valued the assistance of the librarian to find information (47 per cent). Lower levels of activity by library users included attending training courses (5 per cent), but this can be explained by the fact that organized training courses are provided only by the bigger libraries which have their own training classes. More than 70 per cent of libraries in Latvia are one‐person libraries that perform more individual consultation do not organize trainings in groups. The study also shows a very high percentage of satisfaction with the available services; in almost all cases satisfaction is above 95 per cent.

Of respondents, 21 per cent come to public library only to speak to the librarian, since in many places in Latvia the public library is the only place to get social and cultural services. For 15 per cent of the respondents, the public library plays the role of meeting place, where people come to meet friends, or, in 3 per cent of cases, to receive hairdresser' services.

The value of public library services that users experience is not limited only to the social benefits (see Figure 7). The greatest effect is seen in improvement of leisure hours in terms of reading or and almost as much in education (information for studies or helping children at school). For more than a half of users the public library has helped to deal with health issues or provides information for leisure and recreation. The economic effect of public libraries on users is observed less than the social effects, but more tan a quarter of respondets say that public library has helped them to save or to earn money or to find a job (19 per cent).

Conclusions

Measuring the value of the public library is an ambitious field for researchers. Different methodological orientations, various research designs and techniques, have been used by researchers, all over the world, to demonstrate the value of public libraries (Berryman, 2005). To tell the story as completely as possible, a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods have to be used and the study “Public libraries: value, trust and satisfaction” involves both to measure the use‐oriented value of public libraries. Most previous studies done in Latvia looked at the value of services only from inside the library. The information ecology approach encourages researchers to look at the value of the services from outside the library, by looking at the information ecology that exists in the community around the library and allowing identification of the role of the public library within the context of other information sources used by the public.

The study gives a good picture of user information needs and the sources they use to fulfill them. It is evident that personal networks play an important role for users in meeting their information needs, but institutional sources are also of importance and the public library features strongly here. Within the context of cultural and recreational services available for public at the community level, the public library is one of the most frequently visited institutions. Despite the fact that 60 per cent of respondents do not use the public library service, they demonstrate high support for public libraries in terms of funding. Librarians are among the most valued professionals in their communities in terms of staff performance in local government.

The most used library service is still book borrowing and the value of this service is substantially enhanced by the use of family members and friends of library users. The role of librarians in helping to find information is also valued. Public libraries are shown to make an impact on people's leisure hours through reading or information, and to support education activities. There is also some evidence of the economic effects of the public library.

The data and evidence from the study have been distributed within the community of librarians in Latvia and was used, not only for advocacy purposes to speak with the responsible funding and policy authorities, but also to serve as the background to the development and change of library performance strategies where these apply.

Figure 1  Impact assessment plan

Figure 1

Impact assessment plan

Figure 2  Most frequent information searches

Figure 2

Most frequent information searches

Figure 3  Information searches by information sources

Figure 3

Information searches by information sources

Figure 4  Trust in information received from information sources

Figure 4

Trust in information received from information sources

Figure 5  Trust in information received from the public library

Figure 5

Trust in information received from the public library

Figure 6  Evaluation of quality of staff performance

Figure 6

Evaluation of quality of staff performance

Figure 7  User activities involving the public library

Figure 7

User activities involving the public library

Corresponding author

Kristine Pabērza can be contacted at: kristine.paberza@lu.lv

References

Berryman, J. (2005), Sustaining Communities: Measuring the Value of Public Libraries, State Library of NSW for the Public Library Network Research Committee, available at: www.sl.nsw.gov.au/services/public_libraries/docs/sustainingcommunities.pdf.

Davenport, T.H. and Prusak, L. (1997), Information Ecology: Mastering the Information Knowledge Environment, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Durrance, J.C. and Fisher‐Pettigrew, K.E. (2002), “Toward developing measures of the impact of library and information services”, Reference and User Services Quarterly, Vol. 42 No. 1, pp. 4353.

Fenner, A. (2002), “Placing value on information”, Library Philosophy and Practice, Vol. 4 No. 2.

Nardi, B.A. and O'Day, V.L. (1999), Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Saracevic, T. and Kantor, P.B. (1997), “Studying the value of library and information services”, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, Vol. 48 No. 6, pp. 52763.

Savolainen, R. (2005), “Everyday life information seeking”, in Fisher, K.E., Erdelez, S. and McKechnie, L.E.F. (Eds), Theories of Information Behavior, Information Today, Medford, NJ.

Wavell, C., Baxter, G., Johnson, I. and Williams, D. (2002), Impact Evaluation of Museums, Archives and Libraries: Available Evidence Project, Aberdeen Business School, The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, available at: www.rgu.ac.uk/files/imreport.pdf.

Williamson, K. (2005), “Ecological theory of human information behavior”, in Fisher, K.E., Erdelez, S. and McKechnie, L.E.F. (Eds), Theories of Information Behavior, Information Today, Medford, NJ.