Tuesday, August 9, 2011

(Measuring) The value of libraries

This TPL thing has really been getting me down recently. Then, just for extra fun this past weekend, the Husband (and me, but only marginally) had a raging debate with a federal government worker who thinks that Ottawa has too many libraries. So, below, I am going to outline some salient points about the importance and value of libraries, and how to measure this (the qualitative/quantitative debate), with specifics about Toronto and Ottawa.

This is a very, very long post. I decided not to split it up because I want it to be read as one entity. For those (like me) who have to print out posts this long, here's a PDF. Sorry, trees.

When it comes right down to it, if you stuck a microphone in my face, here is what I would tell you is the value of libraries, to me, as a patron and not as a librarian: Libraries are important to me the way parks are important: you can’t quantify the joy that they bring to people, the smiles, the shared moments and the private ones, the sense of wonder, the respite from loneliness. Statistics about numbers of items borrowed and numbers of computer terminals used are important, even crucial, for us as professionals, but for me as a person, the importance of the library lies in its importance as a place of refuge.

In this case, the quantitative can actually help flesh out the qualitative. I read 56 adult books last year, and an additional 106 children’s books. If you average out the adult titles at about $30 a piece, and the children’s ones at, say $20, then that adds up to a value of about $3800. I probably would not have bought all those titles myself: none of us who read that much would, if only for the lack of shelf space at home. And in reading fewer books, my life would have been much the poorer, but not in any quantifiable way. I would have been missing the joy and the comfort of being challenged, entertained, and engaged with all of those characters and ideas.

I would argue that we need libraries the way we need to be able to see the sky beyond the skyscrapers. When I was working at Westmount Library, back in the days when we all religiously powered off computers and had logins for OPACs, one of my favourite times of day was first thing in the morning, when I used to boot up the OPACs on the second floor. I would stand there, alone with the collection, waiting for the password prompt. Those computers were near 819 – Canadian poetry, and so I used to often pull out some Leonard Cohen or whoever else was at hand on the shelves that day, and read a few lines aloud, glancing out the window and up Mount Royal. That kind of serendipitous experience is necessary, not in a life or death kind of way, but for the well-being of the soul. Those books were there for when I needed them - as an insurance policy against becoming too hardened, too bogged down in the minutiae, as a pre-emptive strike against losing my sense of whimsy. Everyone should have the chance to experience that moment of wonder that comes from an encounter with an old friend in the stacks, or the discovery of a new kindred spirit.

The Annoyed Librarian recently wrote a post entitled “Busy isn’t enough,” about what public libraries do and why they are important. She picked up on Rex Murphy’s recent editorial about ebooks, and poked some great holes in his arguments. I always have a soft spot for AL, because although she is sometimes harsh, or plain wrong, she always challenges me to think a little harder about why I believe the things I believe. Case in point: “You might protest, but if public libraries were essential public services, there wouldn’t be this sort of arguing about them for 150 years. Nobody argues that cities should eliminate police departments or sanitation services, but public libraries are always ripe targets for budget cuts when times get hard. They’re treated by politicians as luxury services for the good times.” Libraries are definitely not essential public services in the same sense as police, sanitation or fire departments. That’s a no-brainer, and AL’s right that we do ourselves no favours when we pretend to be essential this way. As AL points out, “Librarians need to start reminding people of why libraries are necessary, even if nobody is using them. That’s a harder argument to make because it can’t be tied up into a neat little quantified package, but ultimately it will be a better argument.”

That is the argument I am trying to make here: any argument about the value of libraries needs to include both quantitative and qualitative data. I recently sparked quite the debate about this on Facebook (details below....) and some friends made some excellent points about how to measure the value of libraries. One wrote that "there are strong arguments that say cultural institutions cannot be justified on an evidentiary basis, but that that does not make them any less valuable, and which makes it all the more necessary to protect them against the 'efficiencies' of capitalism." I would argue that some aspects of cultural institutions can and should be analysed and evaluated (note I do not say 'justified') on an evidentiary basis. As another friend observed, "specifics - where it's possible to get them - make an argument stronger," and "there are a number of things [libraries] could do a better job at measuring." That's part of the hard truth in this post. As much as it's important for librarians to focus on the work we do, I strongly feel that it is also important for us to focus on gathering evidence (both quantitative - facts/stats - and qualitative - anecdotes, responses, opinions) so that when (and it is when) the day comes when the value of libraries comes into question, we are ready.

One of my friends wrote that "by providing the kind of 'evidence' that would be accepted, all we are going to do is get sucked into the same corporate ideological framework that is causing the problem. By using their language we have to play by their rules. Di Brand [Toronto's poet laureate] is right: this is an ideological question, and no amount of evidence will satisfy an ideological objection [Alex interrupts a second time to point you to Di Brand's great article about public libraries here]. Culture cannot be justified by appealing to economic, fiscal, utilitarian, or 'instrumental-rational' evidence - it can only be appreciated, supported, and defended on its own terms."

I actually agree with that. When it comes to the reasons libraries are important to me, no amount of evidence can quantify that. Exposure to - and participation in - culture, via the library, cannot be defended using the language of the corporate and political world. On the other hand, unless we throw out the current predominant model for public library funding (a combination of various levels of government), we will kind of have to play by their rules, at least in part. Don't think I don't think about a model of public library service that doesn't involve more private funding, and less reliance on government, but never mind that for now. We are where we are, and if we have to play by their rules for the moment, why not try to bend them a little along the way? Rules can be bent in both directions: corporate and political decision-makers can try to adopt a greater understanding and appreciation of the nuances of qualitative, idealogical, "Gross domestic happiness"-types of measurement, and librarians and those who support culture can can also adopt more effective measures to quantitatively evaluate their work.

Oh, what a mess.... I won’t even touch the Doug Ford Atwood comment or the Rob Ford “I can think of a word for her” comment. I think most of you reading this will have heard that funding for public libraries in Toronto was recently up for debate.... One of the responses to the Fords's challenge was a website sponsored by the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, called Our Public Library: Great people, great library, great city. Shortly after this website popped up, a reflection on this website, and the TPLWU movement, was posted by Dr. Ken Haycock, “Why Toronto Public Library Staff Gave Me Indigestion, Part I.” Haycock, a frequent speaker at library conferences about political advocacy for libraries, didn't mince words, calling out the website for trying to advocate via "embarrassing the mayor," and engaging in fear-mongering, intimidation and misinformation; he also pointed out that “if [TPL staff] had relationships with their city councillors they could better make the case than embarrassing the mayor in the hopes of gaining support. They even had six months warning.”

When I posted Haycock's blog post on my Facebook wall, I sparked a fierce debate. One of my friends commented that Ford's efforts at advocacy via embarrassing, fear-mongering, intimidation and misinformation were pretty effective, which is, sadly, true. As the Husband tried to point out to our Sunnyside patron, critical thinking (or even getting all the facts: basic information literacy skills - how ironic!) seems to be at an all-time low (and not just in Canada). I don't have a solution for this problem, but it's beyond the scope of this post, and frankly, it doesn't mean that we should stoop to this level, just because other people have. Another friend expressed wariness at the idea of “putting any kind of significant resources" into political advocacy, "particularly given the current climate of many of our local governments." While I would certainly agree, on a personal level, that the Harper government is a bit of a lost cause in my book, I don't think that any large public library with issues on the table can afford to not put resources into political advocacy to all parties. We're not in this for short-term gains (although hey, those would be great), and we need to be in this despite any personal misgivings or lack of trust: we need to be in this to continuously challenge (and attempt to raise) the level of discourse in this country. Maybe I sound all wide-eyed, naive, "be the change you wish to see in the world," but seriously, I am worried that if we tune out, we're all lost, and in libraryland, if we don't keep cultivating a place at the table, we will lose it.

Thus, without a place at the table right now, we're in a bit of a bind. Instead of focusing on the presumed possibility that “local branches of the Toronto Public Library would almost certainly be closed,” or on a so-short-it’s-embarrasing list of TPL factoids, we should be focusing public and political attention on the fact that TPL is seen by residents as a core service, and that both numbers and emotional tales back that statement up.

The quantitative: Here are some cold, hard facts, sourced from here and here:
  • There was a 4% increase in physical visits and memberships and a 15% increase in virtual visits in 2010 at TPL
  • 72% percent of Torontonians use TPL
  • TPL experienced above-average visits per capita and circulation per capita in 2009
  • Also in 2009, TPL spent an above-average amount of $ on materials in Canada and with Canadian publishers.
  • As Atwood said in the Globe, “Toronto’s system is the second largest, by number of branches, and the busiest by circulation, on the continent. New York City public libraries lent out 24 million volumes in 2010; Toronto’s lent out over 32 million. The system has innovated, offering music and e-book downloads, making Internet access widely available, delivering materials to local branches, and lending out cards that give free access to local museums.”
The qualitative: Since I hope I’ve made it clear that any analysis of the value of libraries has to include both numbers and people, here are some additional articulations of the importance of TPL from Our Shared Stories: Writing the Future of Toronto's Library Toronto Public Library Strategic Plan 2008-2011, which opens with the statement that “the public library is a catalyst for imagination, a conduit to information, and the cornerstone of the local community.” Another great source is TPL’s 2010 Annual Report.
  • Chapter headings of the strategic plan itself are action verbs: “Engaging Toronto’s diverse communities,” “Addressing the growing income gap,” “Expanding access to technology and online services,” “Supporting creativity and culture.” There's the value in TPL: in engaging, addressing expanding, and supporting.
  • The plan clearly shows that TPL patrons value the library as “public space,” as a community hub and as a community partner. TPL branches have hosted everything from storytimes and book clubs to public meetings on the radicalisation of crime and the development of an anti-racist response to guns and gangs.
  • Read the stories of people whose lives have been greatly influenced by the library: speaking about Poetry is Public is Poetry, one of TPL’s contributions to city-wide cultural initiatives and local cultural expression, Toronto poet Rosemary Sullivan says “I never felt so profoundly how important libraries are to our cultural life.”
  • TPL is a place for new citizens to become engaged with the City and feel personally fulfilled: Gail Bowen writes about students who “went on to live lives that would have been beyond the imagining of their grandparents, and they were able to do this because the libraries of this country have always offered people the tools to build new lives.”
I can’t speak for all the librarians at OPL, but I’m willing to bet that most of us are eager for you to ask us about the library. We are sitting at those Information and Reference desks just waiting for citizens to ask us about why we have 33 branches, why we renovated a certain branch, why the fiction section was weeded, why we have those “toys” in the children’s area, etc. The problem, of course, is that many of you who have concerns don't articulate them, because you don't visit the library, or you don't particularly care, or because you think front-line staff can't answer your question (most librarians can, or can forward your query and then follow-up to ensure the question is answered). If the questions aren't asked, however, it means myself and my colleagues need to be doing two things: encouraging more of you to speak up about what you feel is successful and what you feel is not at OPL, and reaching out to library users and non-users to highlight library projects or initiatives, so that the work that is being done is being effectively communicated, before and after the fact. I feel we've been getting increasingly good at the second point above, via our Annual Reports and other documentation, but we need to be better at the first point, as well.

Ten points for the Husband, then, for doing some true outreach. We often run right down the canal from Lowertown to the Lansdowne Park. We cross the canal at the Bank St. Bridge, and run up the opposite canal bank. Since the Husband is faster than me, he circles around the parking lot of the Sunnyside Branch of OPL (sometimes a few times) waiting for me to catch up (by the way, Sunnyside has a magnificent garden!) On Saturday, as he was circling, a patron (male; 50s) was returning some material in the book drop. I heard the Husband say something to him (turned out to be an innocuous enough comment about how it’s great to see people using the library, especially with the stuff going on in Toronto) and I was close enough by then to hear the reply: “Well, you’re not going to like it then, when I say that I think Ottawa has too many libraries.” The Husband proceeded to get into a long debate about libraries (and other services), critical thinking, the hiring of consultants, and seeing both sides of an issue.... Since I didn’t get a chance to respond to several of the comments the patron made about libraries, I thought I would here:
  • "Ottawa has too many libraries" – Well, for this one, I guess my first question would be, what makes you think there are too many? Just the numbers (33 branches + 2 bookmobiles)? Or do you feel they are costing us too much? In any case, here are some points to consider: Ottawa has one of the largest geographic areas (2,778.13 sq. km) of any Canadian city, according to 2006 Census. This makes Ottawa the 11th largest city in Canada (Toronto, with its 99 library branches, is 43rd, and Edmonton, with 17 library branches, is 39th). As a consequence, OPL has many rural branches, and branches are spread out geographically to serve our citizens. The 2011 OPL Operating Budget is $36.8 million and the total 2011 City Operating Budget is $2.6 billion; in other words, the Library represents less than 2% of the total City budget. That’s a lot of service for less than 2%, in my opinion!

  • "Ottawa has a gold-plated library system” – I think this means you believe Ottawa should focus resources on something else. That's definitely an opinion you're entitled to hold.... In the meantime, I am going to take this one as a (partial) compliment, even if it might have been passive-aggressive. I do think it's a little tragic when we aren't proud of our city's successes. Councillor Jan Harder often cites the Library as a great success story of amalgamation... And yet sometimes, Ottawans are our own worst enemies! As part of a larger negative discourse about services and democratic rights, I would go back to Di Brand here and add that "we should be in a conversation about how we will provide broader, yes broader, democratic rights, deeper social care, to all citizens, not how to cut them."

  • "Why does the library provide social services?” - The short answer is that we don't. If by social services, you mean that we provide a space for marginalised members of society to "hang out," read the newspaper or a book, and have a quick nap, then yes, we do provide a place for that - there are hardly any safe public community places left for those things, if you've noticed. But that is not, and was never, our main role and we are not, by any extension of the word, providing the same services as a shelter or a community centre. Most of us, and hopefully especially most librarians, have a clear idea of our role in the community: we specialise in helping members of marginalised communities (and everyone) with answering information needs and strengthening multiple literacies. We excel at building community partnerships and effecting expert referrals to social services when needed. We are called upon a great deal for additional services beyond our scope all the time, from secretarial to psychiatric, and we do our best to exhibit professionalism and compassion in these situations.

  • "Why is the Children’s department so big? People should just go to the neighbour’s house for storytime!" and "Why are there all these toys in here?" - The Children's department got just a little bit bigger, but looks much bigger because they did a great job renovating it to be more inviting, tidy and whimsical! Library storytime is unique for several reasons: firstly, it likely (and definitely, in our case) incorporates the six early literacy skills into it. These are skills that librarians and children's programmers have become experts at: we've been trained to promote the skills in storytime, and we are the go-to resource for parents seeking assistance with promoting at home the skills that help prepare their child to be ready to read when school starts. The toys you see are part of OPL's newer foray into early literacy spaces in branches (read the report to the Board here); these spaces are designed "for families to explore through play and experience the six emergent literacy skills." All renovated branches will include these areas, which will "richly support physical, social and cognitive development, engage and activate the imagination, [and create] a sense of exploration and discovery." Rideau Branch, my heart's home, was the first branch to begin to incorporate some of the elements of the early literacy spaces during a renovation. The spectacular interactive elements in the spaces are from the Burgeon Group.

  • "The people in this neighbourhood should just go to Alta Vista" - For one thing, most of the people in your neighbourhood probably don't want to go to Alta Vista Branch I say that with some degree of certainty because there is some evidence to back it up (see: 2004). There is also a significant amount of traffic and circulation, including more than 3,500 people visiting the branch each week. And even if they "should," in your book, visit elsewhere instead, no one individual gets to choose where members of the community go. Not to mention that traveling further sort of destroys the idea of a community library at the heart of a neighbourhood (again, with the qualitative). And to make it quantitative, do you really want all those additional cars on the road all the way to Alta Vista and back? I don't!

  • "They renovated this branch for 9 months and it’s now less user friendly and they got rid of a lot of books" - So much to unpack in that sentence! First, some great information about the renovation can be found here. They took longer than expected, in part, because of the unfortunate discovery of asbestos (Rideau Branch suffered the same fate...). As for weeding, I could write you a whole other article about that (oh wait, I already did - p. 14). Long story short, many libraries have often been remiss over the years with regular collection maintenance: any collection, like a garden, must be regularly weeded and refreshed. For the library, and librarians, this is a way to increase circulation, free up shelf space, renew the collection and keep us in touch with our users' needs (what they actually check out, what we need more material about, what we need less material about). We use our professional expertise, literary knowledge and awareness of the community in tandem with computer-generated lists and statistics to evaluate the collection and make decisions about weeding, new acquisitions, replacement copies and merchandising. Weeding aside, you're certainly not alone in being critical of some aspects of the renovation. I can tell you, however, that people (including you!) are rocking that external book drop. What can I say? Sunnyside is not my favourite OPL reno: that distinction belongs to Vanier Branch, actually. But that doesn't mean it's not a good job done. Some renos are not as glamourous as others: at Sunnyside, some of the best things are not things we usually get excited about (wheelchair-accessible washrooms with drinking fountains? More meeting rooms? Energy-efficient lights? WHEEE!), but they do make a real difference in the work, and the life, of the library branch and the experience of its regular users.
To me, that's one of the biggest overall challenges for librarians and library advocates such as myself: to highlight the "unseen" in the library, the aspects of our work, or our renovations, that people may not observe or experience regularly, and therefore don't even know exist. Library users, never mind non-users, mostly only see branches (and usually only certain areas in branches, even): they don't see the meeting rooms, or the ESL conversation groups running in them, they don't see us doing outreach to community centres and schools, they don't see our Homebound services staff selecting and delivering books to a local long-term care facility, and they don't see the Bookmobile (but if you do, HONK!).

So, to conclude (oh, you're still here? Well done! Gold star!) the value of libraries is a complicated thing. It can never be measured down to the last decimal point; at best, we can aspire to a combination of qualitative and quantitative measures of the library's - and the librarian's - importance in community life, in cultural discourse, in artistic expressions, and in the advancement of our society and all its citizens. It's the astounding number of items checked out every year, and it's the feeling you get when you put your hand on the battered Leonard Cohen first edition in the 819s. We are large, we contain multitudes.*

*Sorry, Walt. But I bet you would have been OK with the paraphrase.


  1. Bravo - compelling and loaded with facts ;-) Also inspiring.

  2. A gold star for you! What a work of art this is, congratulations. You've hit many nails on their heads. I will be rereading it again, for edification and for inspiration, you can be sure.

  3. Brilliant post. Nice information. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Well done! You go girl! I have been fascinated by the issue of performance measures and "value" of libraries for many years. When I speak or teach about measures I warn ppl at the outset that there isn't a 'magic measure' and it is hard, complex work, so if you want to leave now I won't be offended. It is hard work to identify, gather, interpret, manage and communicate those few measures that are meaningful for decision-makers at the time. Libraries continue to struggle for a few reasons (IMHO):
    1. libraries need different measures for different purposes: the measures needed for management purposes (what's being used, how much is being used, by who, etc.) differ from the measures needed to convey value and impact. Yet many libraries (ok not ALL - don't jump on me!) continue to communicate too many measures & too much detail, which just confuses people & messes up the message ("me thinks though dost protesteth too much" -- is that the saying?)
    2. libraries aren't tying their impact or value measures to evidence. And, yes, this can be qualitative evidence. For instance, OPL's literacy programs that you reference are terrific, and I'm assuming that OPL is gathering evidence of the impact these programs are having on kids' school-readiness (ability to recognize letters, words, etc), which can only be measured at the beginning, end and then post program (usually 3-6 months). Yes, this is hard to do. And it is incredibly worthwhile; how else can we say these programs are valuable? Track their impact with parents & schools. Libraries need to let go of measures they've been tracking & allocate resources to tracking & managing what's meaningful today.
    3. We do need to use the language of decision-makers, and I don't see this as being "sucked" into any ideology. I see this as communicating clearly. Libraries' measures have to be totally aligned with decision-makers' measures. I may not - in fact, I DON'T - agree with Ford, but the measures his administration values right now is cutting Toronto's deficit. How can public libraries help cut the deficit? Evidence of public library programs that contribute to job skills, job hunting, social programs, etc. go a long way.
    And all of this requires conversations and working relationships with the decision-makers and with other community agencies. Librarians need to be out building these relationships and developing the measures WITH other agencies that convey their collective value to the community. Non-profits and community organizations have, for years, been using the Logic Model for performance measures, yet when I talk with libraries about this model many are unaware of it. Ken Haycock was so right: librarians shouldn't be delivering story-time, or (this will make people angry at me!) on reference desks. Something like less than 20% of the queries dealt with on reference desks require a librarian. Librarians need to focusing on the value measures that matter. If not now, when? If not us, who?

  5. Just think. If one thoughtful librarian can do this, what we should expect from our institutions and associations!

  6. Thanks Alex! This was an inspiring post!

  7. On Rebecca's point 3, so agree. We have to speak the business language of our funding sources - ROI, KPIs, etc. - and use metrics to support our business case. Warm and fuzzy won't cut it with Ford Nation! However, thinking and speaking like a business doesn't mean we ever need to lose sight of our mission around literacy, reading, education, culture, community-building, etc. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but can be used to enhance each other.