Valuing Libraries

By McCallum, Ian; Quinn, Sherrey | The Australian Library Journal, February 2004 | Go to article overview
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Valuing Libraries


McCallum, Ian, Quinn, Sherrey, The Australian Library Journal


This paper is a selective review of recent publications, focused on the economic value of public and special libraries which are treated separately, since context and organisational objectives differ widely for different types of libraries. Those who wish to further explore this topic will find many studies into the social value of libraries which establish their general 'worth.' A good place to start is Roswitha Poll's examination of ways of assessing economic value, social value, and outcomes for literacy, information retrieval, and academic and professional success (Poll 2003). An extensive bibliography of earlier work is given in Fitch and Warner (1997). Promising methods of evaluating the economic benefits of libraries and expressing them in financial terms are at last emerging.

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Margaret Trask was the best lecturer I had at library school. She confirmed my choice of profession, and inspired me to try to make a difference. By the time our paths crossed at UNSW in 1969, Margaret was well grounded in the practice of librarianship. She had worked in the State Library of NSW, government and private sector special libraries, and in the Penrith public library. She brought experience to teaching in a way that captivated her students and illuminated all she taught. She convinced us that libraries were worthwhile, that they had demonstrable value (Ian McCallum, November 2003)

WHILST THE VALUE OF LIBRARIES IS A PERENNIAL TOPIC, THEIR ECOMIC VALUE has been challenged with increasing force in recent times. Disciples of management theories espousing greater efficiency through 'reduction of the cost base,' or worse: 'we don't need libraries now we have the internet,' overlook the value of authoritative information carefully collected and organised by librarians and (usually) no one else.

At the overview level, OCLC (2003) has produced an entertaining document looking at libraries as (amongst other things) economic engines, logistics experts, valued destinations, global information suppliers, and as home to a 'vibrant and sizable profession' (p 6). Whilst interesting from a (US) public relations point of view, the material presented below is more specific.

Public library value

There are 1510 public libraries operated by 505 local government organisations in Australia--plus the state and national libraries (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001). The ABS data demonstrates that public libraries in Australia are a popular and well-used community resource.

* During 1999-2000 there were 99.4 million visits to public libraries in Australia, an eleven per cent increase on 1996-1997. By comparison, there were 11.8 million visits to botanic gardens and 79.4 million paid admissions to motion picture cinemas in the same period.

* Public libraries hold 54.3 million books and other items.

* They record 162 million loans per annum; an average of 1.7 loans per visit, and

* they cost about $800 million, ninety-one per cent sourced from government funding.

Further evidence is found in the AustraliaSCAN surveys carried out by Quantum Market Research (2003). At the instigation of librariesvictoria, AustraliaSCAN included questions on public libraries in their surveys in 2001, 2002 and 2003. Findings include:

* fifty-nine per cent of the Australian population carry a library card in 2003;

* public libraries had the highest satisfaction rating of any public service queried and the lowest dissatisfaction;

* regional and rural library users are among the highest users of their local library service;

* many services are used at a library, but borrowing books remains the core service used;

* people visit their local library more often than the video store

The 2003 Report noted (p3) that:

   In the context of other public services, public libraries rank with
   Australia Post and pharmacies as the 'gold standard'. 

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