Is Your Library a Product?

A colleague e-mailed me yesterday and asked me what data we use to measure value in our library.  I’m pretty sick of this question, in part because library usage data doesn’t show value.  The people who use your library are the only ones who can tell you what value they got from the activity your data shows occurred.  I realize that is hard for bean counters and non-library decision-makers to wrap their heads around.  If you want to know what the value of your library is, you need to treat it or its functions as a product.

[Note:  if you’re sick about reading posts I write about law library value, stop here.  Frankly, I’m a bit sick of it too, but as you may know, this blog is my scratch pad and it’s sometimes useful to get things off my mind.  I think this one has some unique aspects but, on the whole, it’s not that new.]

Pay for Libraries Without Use

In many cases, this is impossible.  More people pay for libraries to operate than use them.  Toronto’s a great example – 70% of the population uses the library that 100% of taxpayers pay for (let’s assume everyone involved pays taxes, which probably isn’t accurate but errs on the conservative side).  When you have a library system where a third don’t use it but are paying for it, you have a potential problem.

It may be fair to say that those people set the value of a library at $0.  Or they may value it as an intangible ideal, but not really know the dollar value of it.  Contrast that with the people who use the library.  The province is about to cut funding that enables internet access in over 160 public libraries; what is the value to the people who don’t have Internet access but need it for government information, family relationships and the like?  They probably value the library beyond whatever they pay for it in actual tax dollars.

In many libraries, the whole idea is that access is free because the 100% pay for it.  When you start to look at value, you are essentially asking people what they would pay for it if they had to.  In law libraries, that dollar amount is likely to be higher than a public library but there’s still a cut-off.  At some point, more information access and services doesn’t make sense.

Payment Models

I’ve posted a couple of times about paywalls.  I’m not surprised to see them becoming more porous.  This post identifies an interesting flaw, discussing Blendle’s approach to generating revenue for journalism publishers, which is that paid access tends to assume limited number of content access points.  A publisher – or a library – that assumes that they are the primary or sole content provider may assume that people are willing to pay to access that information.

But what if the information is commoditized, like judicial opinions or general interest news?  This information can often be found in more than one location, any one of which may be less expensive than the paywall.  In many cases, I find that I can use one of a half dozen mobile news apps and the paywalled sites treat each one a bit differently.  One app gives unlimited access while another one has only metered access to the same content.

The post discusses micro-payments, something libraries are already familiar with: a charge for printing, a charge for wireless, a charge for room rentals, and so on.  I don’t like these sorts of nickel-and-diming because they tend to overstate the likelihood of revenue without acknowledging the use deterrent they create (like overdue fines).  Unfortunately, funders love the sorts of efforts to monetize what has already been paid for to create the perception of cost recovery.

So.  Value.

In a sense, one of the best value measures my library has is the amount people pay for printing.  While that amount has been dropping, it reflects a tangible payment.  Someone looks at “the product” – a photocopied case – and says, “yeah, I’ll buy that for a dollar.”

But that makes up a rounding error of revenue when my funders see it.  Same with premium access to a law library – charging a higher fee for unlimited access to what are otherwise a la carte services.  I’ve walked that road before and most people can live with free access.  Unless the library can offer something that the legal professional can’t do or access separately, this will only pick up the people who are paying for convenience.  Libraries haven’t found a way to become insurance companies yet.

Micropayments wouldn’t work in a public library, because it’s all about equitable access.  Even if you were to engage in the kind of faux cost recovery that internal corporate departments do, with service departments invoicing each other, I don’t know that you gain an understanding of the transactional value.  Funders talk to libraries about value and they mean a dollar value.  And it seems to me that there isn’t a fixed dollar value that any library can ascribe to any given action.  It is user-dependent, and so there are two ways to answer the question about value.  One is to ask each user to tell the library what the value was – kind of like on Bandcamp, where you pay what you want – and each person can ascribe the value.

I realize that, unless you did actually charge them, this could be gamed, but I like the idea that the user chooses, rather than the library saying “you borrowed this 300 page book that cost us $14, so you have $14 in value”.  What if the book was crap (I usually only commit to reading the first 20 pages of any book, so I would only have gotten about $1 in value, but I wouldn’t have valued it at that)?

The other is to say that the value is in making the services and information available, full stop.  But if you answer this way, then the assumption is that the funder will aim funding at the minimum needed to make services and information available.  Because the value to the funder is not necessarily the same as the value to the user.Which returns me to the question my colleague posed.

Even if I had a good value measurement for the services and content access our library provides, it wouldn’t be portable.  It would be based on the value our users get and each library is serving its own population.  We might be able to use the same tools to get there, although typically solo and small libraries have fewer resources to do this sort of thing.  But, unlike usage data, value is going to vary from library to library, just as it does from individual to individual.  It would be nice to be able to tie the funding more closely to the individual value.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.