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Assessing the value of library services

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Why performance measurement?

You are at a meeting of senior university managers. Car parking comes up under "any other business". You twitch (you are a bike user, anyway), wanting to get away. Then the vice chancellor informs the meeting that he wants to enlarge the car park, as many students work and want to be able to park quickly and easily on campus when they attend classes. He proposes to fund this by a major cut in library services; after all, most students go direct to the Internet for information so why do they need the library anyway?

Now fully alert, you mutter something about Google’s inadequacies, wondering how on earth you can stop this mad idea in its tracks. You know that you have statistics about the number of article downloads, reference enquiries, etc., but how can you demonstrate to your vice chancellor, in terms that he will understand (which means numbers), that the library’s value to your institution is indisputable?

Fortunately this case is totally hypothetical, but performance and its measurement is one of the main concerns of librarians in both the academic and the public sector. In December 2007, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) published the results of a survey of their members, in which it found that out of a 60 per cent response rate, all but one engaged in assessment activities beyond collecting the obligatory data for ARL (Wright and White, 2007).

The change in the information landscape from physical to virtual, an increased concern for cost accountability in public sector institutions, desire to provide what the customers want in a changing market – all these are reasons why libraries need to assess the value they provide and the impact on the organizations which they serve.

Why measure performance?

There are a number of drivers behind performance measurement: these are some of them.

Service enhancement

Good librarians realize the importance of understanding their users and their needs – do they want more electronic journals? What sort of space do they require – somewhere quiet to study, or somewhere for group discussions? Are existing services appropriate, what new services should be offered?

Desire to know about library processes

How efficiently do particular services work? Is a disproportionate amount of time being spent on a particular task? How much are resources being used?

Decision making

Senior library managers use data on library functions and services as a basis for their strategic planning and resource allocation. In a study of the impact of performance measurement on decision making in mid-sized academic libraries in the American mid-West, Dole et al. (2006) found that all senior managers used assessment data for decision making, with that on collection use and user satisfaction being deemed most useful.

Value for money

The ability to demonstrate the value of your service for the organization which you serve, not just in some general philosophical sense ("the library promotes liberal values") but in actual financial terms (the library saves us £x/$x in terms of teacher time), is probably one of the most important reasons for measuring performance. Dole et al. (2006) quote another study’s finding that one of the most important core competences today’s librarian needs is the ability to measure their library’s impact on higher education. This means demonstrating outcomes which only the library could achieve and which serve organizational goals (Poll and Payne, 2006).

Value for money may also relate to a particular project funded by an external body: here it is important to demonstrate that the money has been well spent.


Local collections of statistics are amalgamated to provide a national collection of information on different institutions, which means that a particular library can compare itself with another of similar size and type. There may be a national requirement to provide statistics.

In the UK, the Society of College and University Libraries (SCONUL) has been collecting and publishing statistics from university libraries since 1987. It uses these statistics for policy decisions, while individual libraries can compare themselves with similar institutions. They may use this information to press for more funds, or to plan new services.

There have been a number of national benchmarking projects (Poll, 2008), covering Germany (public and academic libraries), Australian public libraries, Sweden (a quality handbook covering all types of libraries), the UK (HELMS), the Netherlands (university libraries).