Diminishing budgets, lack of money, cut-backs, scarcity, doing without, redundancies…. sound familiar? A frustrating reality for many libraries on a daily basis. But if we dissect this… what is really going on here?
Reality check: whether we like it or not, we live in a dollar economy. Decisions are made on budgets by financial directors, or an executive management that is accountable for delivering cost reductions, savings, efficiencies, and often most importantly, profit. It is a harsh reality, and unfortunately, according to financial stakeholders, a library is a cost-centre. Simple.
Back on home base, we know that this isn’t just the case, and that libraries do extraordinary things. We see daily the smiles of people we help through access to knowledge, information, services, support and even simply through the provision of a safe, peaceful place of being. We see the children engaging with characters in books and other resources….learning. We see the people we help connect with outreach services, the entrepreneurs we help with a space where they can access Wi-Fi and rooms to help conduct their business, and the delight of people engaging with various technology mediums. We also see how budget cuts affect us as library workers, the community, and our ability to deliver the services and resources our community needs.
There is obviously a very clear disconnect. Two completely different agendas. Two completely different languages. Two very different realities. So how do we bridge this divide? How do we ensure that the value of what the library is and what it is doing is heard?
The worst thing to do… is nothing. And expect a different result. Albert Einstein once said the following:
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”
If it isn’t working, and your budgets are still diminishing, then the approach has to change.
To create meaningful change, one that hopefully will increase budgets available to our libraries, is articulate our value – the value of the library, our services, our resources etc. – in a way that is congruent with the financial stakeholder’s language and agenda. We need to start a conversation, on their page, in their language. How do we do this? Read on!
Firstly, we need data. We need to be able to qualify and quantify what we are doing, in meaningful terms that demonstrates meaningful outcomes. Of course, there are limitations. Referring to our friend Albert Einstein again:
“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
But we need to start somewhere and work with what we have. Start by considering what can be measured and quantified, and consider what data you will collect. Data and the analysis of it to create meaningful information is key to identifying what is really going on. Data (ideally) isn’t skewed by agendas, superlatives, emotion or politics. It is the state of affairs, as they are now.
For an example on being data-driven, check out our Remarkable Libraries Case Study on Edmonton Public Library (EPL), which is also featured in our May Cover to Cover newsletter. EPL utilised interns to conduct research and collect data on Library worker activities, how their time was being spent, how customers were using the library, and measuring the impact of certain activities and programs.
Data or information can also be gathered from previous research that has already been conducted by other organisations. The State Library of Queensland is a fabulous resource in this area, with advocacy and socio-economic value studies that help you articulate the value of your library – check it out here. There are also numerous other studies and reports online.
The second thing to do is to know your local community demographic inside out. Who are your customers? What do they love doing? What do they dislike? What are their issues or pain points? What are their interests? What do they read? What do they eat? What do they do for work? What do they do during the day? What are their hobbies? Look into your community and customers and get to know them. Consider them also in context of a larger group. What is the local unemployment rate? Why is this – what is contributing to these statistics? What are their education levels? What are their ethnic backgrounds? Average age? Any trends? What opportunities are there? Examples of challenges faced are:
- Above average unemployment (young people, long term, concentrated)
- Skills and qualifications deficits
- High levels of functional illiteracy
- Poor health outcomes
- Poor graduate retention
- Challenging image domestically etc.
The reason why we need these figures and information is that we need to determine how the library is impacting our customers on an individual basis (one-on-one), and how we are impacting our community as a whole. What problems are we solving or can we be solving on an individual basis? What problems can we help solve as a community in a broader context? What problems are we helping solve directly? What problems are we helping solve indirectly? Are we solving problems and issues and don’t even realise it (this is often the case!).
Note that we aren’t expected to be financial experts, calculate complex calculations or teach people how to run a business. But we can do some research into our customers, community and local demographic, and align our services to the issues, experiences and qualities of the demographic, and importantly, articulate the changes we are seeing and measuring. We need to let the people who need to know the impact and changes occurring… know! They simply don’t know what they don’t know, and if we aren’t articulating our value and championing our value, then we can’t expect them to ‘get it’ or appreciate it, and our budgets will reflect that.
Some examples (and note: be specific. Include stats, data and timeframes where possible):
- Improving Language, Literacy and Numeracy (LLN) levels of children or local indigenous communities from X to Y – an increase of Z% over the last two years;
- Engaging individuals with mental health issues as a group in the library and connecting them to support and learning resources, and to each other (peer support), decreasing rates of acute mental health episodes by X% over the last year;
- Decrease local long-term unemployment rates by X% over the last year through the provision of employment assistance services, such as resume support services, job hunting skills or interview skills programs.
- Increased small business activity and local entrepreneur activity by X%, decreasing small business failures by Y% through provision of networking activities, small business skills program, and local mentorship programs.
The above are examples only, but if you can qualify and quantify the changes that are occurring, and then align them to your organisation or government agendas, then you are clearly articulating the value to the local community and to your customer base, and identifying reasons why the library requires X amount of funding. You can finally justify the funding you receive, and justify your requests for more funding.
To take it a step further, you could then identify potential direct and indirect savings to financial stakeholders. It is important to relate specific outcomes/savings that will be of specific interest to that financial stakeholder, e.g. the outcomes/savings you identify will be different for a financial stakeholder at a private school, to one at a public school or one at a local council.
Using the above as examples (note that these are rough examples, and you will need to tailor them to your particular circumstances, and your particular financial stakeholder):
Investing $X into the library, will save you (financial stakeholder) $Y by:
- Improving Language, Literacy and Numeracy (LLN) levels of children or local indigenous communities from X to Y – an increase of Z% over the last two years. This has been shown to increase school attendance and decrease school drop outs (insert links to studies or stats here), increasing NAPLAN scores, increase local employment and workforce participation, potentially saving the <enter financial stakeholder> $A in local unemployment/welfare payments, Local Business Productivity etc.
- Engaging individuals with mental health issues as a group in the library and connecting them to support and learning resources, and to each other (peer support), decreasing rates of acute mental health episodes by X% over the last year, potentially saving <enter financial stakeholder> $Y in acute mental health care and emergency hospital budgets etc.
- Decrease long-term unemployment rates by X% over the last year and increase local workforce participation through the provision of employment assistance services, such as resume support services, job hunting skills or interview skills programs, decreasing the number of people reliant on welfare by Y number of people, a potential saving over a year of $Z etc.
- Increased small business activity and local entrepreneurial activities by X%, decreasing small business failures by Y% through provision of networking activities, small business skills program, and local mentorship programs. This in turn increases local business revenue by $Z or A%, and increases local business productivity by B% etc.
We start to get a very clear and concise image of what your library is actually doing for its customers and the local community, and how increasing the library budget is a wise choice.
All this leads to two figures (and we will only touch on these at a superficial level). Your financial stakeholder will want to know what the return on their investment is. This is known as ROI (Return on Investment). If they put $X into a project, they will want to know that it will deliver $Y. Not that it goes into a bottomless black-hole never to be seen again, with nothing to show for it. They will want to know that very clear outcomes will be achieved. As an organisational performance measure, ROI is used to evaluate the efficiency of an investment or to compare the efficiency of a number of different investments.
An extension of this is SROI, or Social Return On Investment. SROI is the measurement that attempts to measure the ‘intangibles’, or the additional benefits that can’t be quantified, such as environmental and social value not currently reflected in conventional financial accounts. It bases the assessment of value in part on the perception and experience of stakeholders, finds indicators of what has changed and tells the story of this change and, where possible, uses monetary values for these indicators*.
The principles of SROI include:
- Involve stakeholders (i.e. everyone who has a ‘stake’ or an interest in the subject of the SROI)
- Understand what changes (for those stakeholders)
- Value what matters (also known as the ‘monetisation principle’)
- Only include what is material
- Do not over-claim
- Be transparent
- Verify the result
The critical point in all of this is that we need to gather data and measure what is actually happening on the ground. The second critical point, is that we need to articulate it, or communicate it to the people who need to know – the decision makers and financial stakeholders. If we can’t do this, we can’t expect them to continue to support the library financially and increase investment in the library.
This isn’t an overnight process. It is about taking baby steps, one at a time, and start implementing what you can do with the time and resources you have. But one thing is for certain – libraries need to sell themselves and their services better. We need to capture information on how we are doing, the successes, what is working, what is not. We need to run our libraries more like businesses, to ensure the financial viability and their success over the long term. And we need to influence and engage in healthy dialogue with the key financial stakeholders that sign off on the cheque. Because our future, the quality of our services and community outcomes depends on it.
Comments / Thoughts? Email us to let us know what you think.
Written by Natalia Huber
*Information sourced from Wikipedia.