The other day I saw this tweet:
I work in a school library, not a public library, and I know that things are measured differently in each. In both there is still (sadly) a lot of confusion about what we do and what value that adds to the community, so determining the exact ROI for a library can be impossible. I also know that few, if any, administrators are actually taught about the library in their administrative training programs–the budget, evaluation, etc. are all left undiscussed and it’s up to the librarians to do the education, if we can get the administration to listen.
Every year I try to do an annual report to help them understand some of what my program does and how the community benefits, essentially feeding them the ROI information they want even though I know it’s only a part of the picture. There are the “easy” metrics:
- how many new books were purchased, and how many of those circulated
- how many books circulated overall
- what the cost-per-search on our databases was, and what the overall cost of those databases is (a number that usually shocks people)
- how many classes came in, and how many we actually taught (vs. how many were on-going projects we interacted with)
- how many “reference” questions we were asked (incl uding “can you get me paper for the copier” questions)
As I said, those are the easy ones. Less easy are how many students come into the space, how many laptops we check out, how many times the textbooks circulate, how many students have talked with us about non-research/non-book related topics (like the great conversation I had with one of the seniors about the upcoming election and elections in general, or the students who come in to tell me about their college plans; the other librarians have similar stories to tell). How can you easily measure that? How can you measure the value of the space to a student who needs to be alone, away from roommates or friends, while they study? Or those who need a place that feels “safe” when there’s a conflict in their lives? It’s impossible to measure the value having an adult, not a teacher or dorm parent or coach, who knows you and can talk with you or care about your life.
When I first started as a librarian one of the things schools liked to brag about was how large the print collection was. I’d never quite understood why having a collection of 100,000+ (as one peer school does) was such a wonderful thing, if most of those books were simply gathering dust. Or, as I discovered when I did the big weed at Milton my first full summer, if caterpillars are making a nest in them. A smaller collection with high circulation is better, right? Of course that assumes the books are in good shape and have current, relevant information (one friend at another school tried to weed a book about Louis Armstrong that referred to him as “that little n-word”; she was told it was very popular during Black History Month biography work, but she noticed it was the only book on Armstrong in the collection and knew better books could be found and use). That’s what we’re striving for, and at some point I’ll look at books we’ve bought that haven’t circulated in five years (a negative ROI).
The point is, libraries are necessary. And their value to the community, from providing a space to learn, meet, find resources, get help with projects, and on and on, can’t easily be boiled down to a number. But library directors can (and should!) help the administration/trustees/community understand a little more about what their investment (of taxes or tuition money) is being used and explain how this is only the tip of the iceberg.