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Uncovering the Value of Libraries

by William N. Schultz, Jr., Cataloging Librarian, Eastern Illinois University

Whenever I tell an acquaintance or maybe a relative with whom I have infrequent contact that I am a librarian, and continue on to explain more details about what I do, some variation of the following questions come up: “Does anybody still read books?”, or “Isn’t everything just online?” It’s important not to mistake the sincerity and innocence of such questions for ridicule. These are the messages received by people who have limited exposure to and interactions with information and libraries but have great exposure to everyday activities in which something like a bank account balance is a few clicks away. After a minute or two of a semi-prepared speech extolling the unique attributes and value of libraries (usually without using any statistics), and furthermore explaining the work that librarians do, an expression of impressed re-consideration usually emerges on the questioner’s face.

One of the themes that emerges from an experience as described above is that much of the value of libraries and the value that librarians bring to information accessibility and literacy is intangible. This intangible value may include thoughtful actions like the representation of a unique chapter of a book in a catalog contents note, brought to the fore by an astute Cataloger or Metadata Librarian. This type of added value is one which provides a researcher with content and additional references on their research topic potentially not found elsewhere. It may be the student who goes from feeling helpless trying to find sources in a sea of information to feeling empowered with targeted search tools and strategies after a library instruction session. These are examples of the types of things that cannot always be easily assessed with numbers, and could be even more compelling if we find ways to expose them more, particularly in juxtaposition to the growing need to demonstrate value with “proof” and numbers in our data driven environments.

Intangible value can also be described as “intellectual capital”, and a value that is “...not physical in nature and is capable of producing future benefits.” (Matthews 14). It is getting more and more difficult to balance maintaining the integrity of supporting intellectual pursuit and intangible value with the need for “proof” of value in our increasingly data driven environments that seem to cause us to look over our shoulder more than at the opportunities ahead. Below are examples of areas in which we heavily rely on traditional tools to demonstrate value and where we could work to get even more creative.

Collection usage
Usage statistics are valuable, and can be important guides, but they are not the only factor in determining the value of resources. Little or no use of an item in an academic library, for example, is not always criteria for de-selecting it. If you are part of a consortium, what if there are no other copies, or very few? Is it more important for an item to be there for when it’s needed “just in case” in some disciplines than others? Sometimes particular rationales (and supporting statistics) do not always translate the same way across disciplines. For example, even based on low statistical use, an argument to maintain sheet music of a performance edition of a piece of music that represents a vital part of the violin sonata repertoire makes a lot more sense than keeping an outdated computer software book from 1999. There are many similar nuances across public and academic libraries, special collections and law libraries. In their article, “Asserting Catalogers’ Place in the ‘Value of Libraries’ Conversation”, Borie, et al. explain “...the traditional approach used by academic libraries to track and collect input-related data, such as circulation statistics, fails to illuminate the impact on the end user, and that libraries must develop methodologies that can capture the complexities of library value” (355). Clearly this is not a simple task, but it is not impossible.

Library Use in General
Library administrators face increasing pressure to get people into the physical building, and in more recent history to also boost online visits. Add to this the oft-pronounced need to find “effective and cost-efficient solutions” for any number of things in a library. An underlying theme in the above implies the need to “fix” something, like low traffic, or low numbers of article downloads, and is extended to broader educational outcomes such as employment rates of graduates, or other marketable statistics. We hear more and more about the commodification of education, and this type of environment seems to embrace the language of business more, and less so that of education, enlightenment, and personal growth and betterment. Although we can recognize the framework of world we live in, and the need to speak the language of the institutions we are a part of, it is also important to impactfully express that libraries are about learning, information access, community, and many other things that can get lost if we are not careful. These values represent some of those intangibles that can be so hard to measure, but maybe some of the narrative can be shifted.

Librarians themselves also play a variety of critical, expertise-laden roles that actively work towards and support the resources and experiences described above that libraries aim to provide for patrons within our various institutions and communities. There are also implications for the perceived value of the different types of librarians as a result of some of the above assumptions. Librarians do not just need to prove our value, we need to communicate the nature of our value, and that our expertise and our unique roles within our libraries are not fungible, or as the New Oxford American Dictionary defines, “mutually interchangeable.”

Ultimately (and maybe unfortunately) we cannot simply brush off the need in the world we live in to defend our existence and prove our value. However, we can attempt to change the narrative and then make determinations on what to emphasize, and how to emphasize things in ways that also speak to those that we are presenting to. As Borie et al. describe, first in the context of the need to prove the value of the somewhat marginalized area of Cataloging, there is a need to not only advocate more effectively for the ongoing relevance of libraries – on a broad scale, but to also “re-evaluate traditional measures of value that are not sophisticated enough to capture the impact of library services” (354). Our relevance spans deeper corners of our ever-expanding information laden world. Maybe we need to move beyond debates such as those concerning the rise, permanence, or need for digital versus print, and focus more on the way library value, especially intangible value, extends far beyond format and medium, and start to present that information in more creative ways.


Abate, Frank R.Jewell, Elizabeth., eds. The New Oxford American Dictionary. New York:
Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

Borie, Juliya, et al. "Asserting Catalogers’ Place in the “Value of Libraries” Conversation."
Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 3/4, April-June 2015, pp. 352-367

Matthews, Joseph R. Adding Value To Libraries, Archives, And Museums: Harnessing The
Force That Drives Your Organization's Future. Libraries Unlimited, 2016.

Copyright 2018 by William N. Schultz, Jr.

About the author:
William (Bill) Schultz, M.L.S., is a Cataloging Librarian at Eastern Illinois University. He is also responsible for collection management of Sociology, Psychology and Music, and has responsibilities in the University Archives & Special Collections. He received his M.L.S. from Indiana University, Bloomington.