Assessing the Social Impact of Public Libraries: What the Literature Is Saying

By Debono, Barbara | Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Assessing the Social Impact of Public Libraries: What the Literature Is Saying


Debono, Barbara, Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services


Research reports on assessments of the social impact of public libraries over the past decade have revealed commonalities in both methods and findings despite differences in definition, motivation and population. Overwhelmingly positive results provide evidence to support longheld judgments that public libraries have wide ranging positive social impacts upon the communities they serve. This article derives from an assignment for Charles Sturt University's Master of Applied Science (Library and Information Management)

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The library community has engaged in many forms of evaluation or assessment. One pursued more recently is that of assessing the social impact of the library. In contrast to measuring outputs (services provided and attributes of the services) this represents a movement in the literature towards the investigation of the outcomes (consequences of service use) of library services. It is the relationship between the use of a service and the outcome of that use that defines the impact of the service. (1) Outcomes based research brings to the fore the impacts, the human experience of library use, and gives value to these experiences.

This review aims to identify what research has been conducted to assess the social impact of public libraries, in particular. The concepts and tools used in recent attempts to gauge the social impact of public libraries will be reviewed and themes and consistencies that might run through the various studies will be highlighted. This will result in a body of knowledge and tested methodologies on which library managers may draw when measuring the social impact of a public library upon the community it serves.

The literature selected for review consists largely of recent reports of primary research findings. Other work utilised in the introductory phase of this report is theoretical library literature and publications collating some of the research literature.

Background

General literature on the social impact of public libraries

An overview of the social impact of the British public library shows that libraries were originally required to have an impact. Public libraries were to divert behaviour from socially destructive activities and expose the populace to literature and acceptable recreation. (2) Today, the UK Library and Information Commission illustrates the need to document the continuing impact of libraries by establishing and funding a research program investigating Value and impact. (3) Likewise the Library Action Council of the Book and Periodical Council, Canada, sought to produce a reference tool for those advocating for public library services. The resultant publication, Dividends: the value of public libraries in Canada (4) (published in Aplis 12(1) March 1999 p4-24 ed), documents the wide body of expert opinion and published statistics which substantiate the social and economic dividends derived from investing in public libraries.

Kerslake and Kinnell (5) have also undertaken a literature review of the social impact of public libraries. They concentrated on the opinion leaders, research into specific impacts and on theoretical work, and detected a solid body of literature supporting the existence of wide ranging social impacts from public library services. In the US, the Benton Foundation (6) conducted national research to determine the amount of public support for libraries, revealing `the public stands behind libraries'. In Australia there has been a dearth of study into the social value/impact of public libraries according to Briggs, Guldberg and Sivaciyan. (7) Although Navigating the economy of knowledge (8) was a recent valuable and indepth Australian investigation into the socioeconomic and attitudinal profile of users and nonusers of state and public libraries, it did not directly address the impact of their use. Black and Crann maintain that individual public library services have tended to assess user satisfaction rather than `highly textured issues like the social and economic impact of public libraries'. …

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