What do We Mean by “Value”?

Because the Value of Academic Libraries Report is a bit lengthy, the Value of Academic Libraries Committee decided to use this blog to highlight “bite sized” selections.  The first highlighted section found below describes multiple facets of library “value” as it’s defined in the Report, on pages 19-23.  For complete citation information, please see the full text of the Value of Academic Libraries Report.

As you consider the differences between different conceptions of library value, please also consider sharing your research with us at this link: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/SMWQKNL.  We’re collecting information about “value of academic library” projects and hope to highlight many of them in this blog.
Value can be defined in a variety of ways and viewed from numerous perspectives (Zeithalm 1988), including use, return-on-investment, commodity production, impact, and alternative comparison.

Internal Focus

Use or utility is one popular way of defining value (Naslund, Olsson and Karlsson 2006, 302), especially from an efficiency-based perspective (Sanchez and Perez Perez 2001).  Many library statistics, especially inputs and outputs, equate use with value, suggesting that the more books circulated or the more instruction sessions offered, the better the library.  Certainly such statistics are helpful to library service and resource managers.  However, use-based definitions of value are not compelling to many institutional decision makers and external stakeholders.  Furthermore, use is not meaningful, unless that use can be connected to institutional outcomes (e.g., student learning and faculty productivity).

Another common definition of value, sometimes termed financial value, cost/benefit analysis, return-on-investment, or value for money, is based upon the following formula: library value = perceived benefits / perceived costs.  To library users and stakeholders, perceived costs include price, time, and effort (Day 1994).  Many librarians struggle to both deliver benefits to users and reduce costs associated with library services and resources (Dumond 2000).  One method for examining this definition of value is to determine “purchase” or “exchange” value, that is, what a user is willing to pay for library services and resources in money, time, or effort (Machlup 1993).  Return-on-investment works well in many environments, but can be difficult to use in academia.  For example, return-on-investment usually captures the most that users are prepared to pay.  This is further complicated by three factors: what individuals are willing to pay depends on their ability to pay (Whitehall 1995, 8), users will pay more of other people’s money than their own (in one academic library study faculty were willing to pay six times as much with departmental funds than with their own) (Hawgood and Morley 1969), and students tend to undervalue immaterial goods (like information) as compared to material goods (Sakalaki and Kazi 2007, 324).  Another method asks users to estimate an “alternative cost” or the price they would have to pay if the library ceased to exist (Whitehall 1995, 8).  However, this method does not capture users who would not pursue their own information needs (Whitehall 1995, 8).  Still more methods elicit how much time users spend or save using library services and resources.  Typically, time spent or saved is translated into financial terms using user salaries, but this type of calculation does not fit student users (Whitehall 1995, 8; Poll and Payne, Impact Measures 2006, 554).  Even contingent valuation methods are difficult to deploy in academic environments because “most library services have no equivalent on the common market and therefore no ‘market prices’ can be determined” (Poll and Payne, Impact Measures 2006, 554).  Thus contingent valuation asks users “to financially rate services or institutions that they never thought of in terms of money” (Poll and Payne, Impact Measures 2006, 555).

Aside from methodological issues, some authors warn that financial values do not mesh easily with the values of higher education (Town, Value and Impact 2010).  According to Lutz and Field, “the major purpose of the university is not profit, except in the ultimate sense of society profit.  Success of universities should not be measured in dollars and cents” (1998, 416).  Lewin states that the public believes that colleges act like businesses, “concerned more with their bottom line than with the educational experiences of students” (Lewin 2010).  According to Streatfield, viewing library value through a financial lens can stifle creativity (attributed by Everest and Payne 2001) and is often perceived as “retrospective” in that it “looks back to what has already been done…is managerial rather than academic…is despite the rhetoric not functionally concerned with the quality of teaching and learning…but with…coming to some kind of a costs/benefits decision” (Biggs 2001, 222).  Still, despite these concerns, few authors would disagree that libraries must demonstrate that they use financial resources effectively and responsibly (Matthews, Determining and Communicating 2003).

Value can also be defined as the production of a commodity.  In higher education, the production of commodities can be calculated using the formula below (Kelly, McNicholl and McLellan, Toward the Estimation 2005, 27): value = quantity of commodity produced x price per unit of commodity.  The “use,” “return-on-investment,” and “commodity production” definitions are traditional approaches to value creation.  In these approaches, the emphasis is on value suppliers first, and how users perceive the value second (Gronroos 2000; Ulaga and Chacour 2001).  In this way, these definitions can be perceived as “introspective” (Naslund, Olsson and Karlsson 2006, 302-303).

External Focus

Other definitions of value are based on the idea that value suppliers have to collaborate with their users to create value (Woodruff 1997; Chernatony, Harris and Dall’Olmo Riley 2000; Dumond 2000; Huber, Herrmann and Morgan 2001).  For example, a fourth definition of value focuses on library impact on users.  It asks, “What is the library trying to achieve?  How can librarians tell if they have made a difference?”  In universities, colleges, and community colleges, libraries impact learning, teaching, research, and service.  A main method for measuring impact is to “observe what the [users] are actually doing and what they are producing as a result” (Everest and Payne 2001).  However, direct measurement of impact is challenging, and librarians may avoid examining impact, despite a long professional tradition of measurement (Streatfield attributed by Everest and Payne 2001).  In fact, one new survey indicates that impact assessment is a field in its infancy for research libraries (Li and Koltay 2010).  Instead, librarians can measure surrogates of impact (Brophy attributed by Everest and Payne 2001).  According to Everest and Payne (2001):

Assessing impact is not easy and it is not an exact science.  We are dealing with a changing environment where people, services, and needs are constantly evolving.  Any research will inevitably provide a snapshot of what is happening at a particular point in time.  It is very difficult to prove that the actions taken by library management have led to improvements in learning, teaching, and research.  This is particularly the case as we deal with the extent of integration between our resources/services and learning, teaching, and research.  As we achieve more integration, it is going to be intrinsically more difficult to identify our specific contribution to students’ learning or to the research of a member or staff.

Despite the difficulty of measuring impact directly, this approach to library value is seen as “prospective” and “concerned with assuring that teaching and learning does now, and in the future will continue, to fit the purpose of the institution.   It also encourages continuing upgrading and improvement of teaching through quality enhancement” (Biggs 2001, 222).

A fifth definition of value is based on user perceptions of the library in relation to competing alternatives (Butz and Goodstein 1996; Woodruff 1997).  According to this definition, libraries need to develop bonds with their users and help users achieve their goals so that users perceive libraries to be more valuable than competitors (e.g., Google).  A related definition is “desired value” or “what a [user] wants to have happen when interacting with a [library] and/or using a [library’s] product or service” (Flint, Woodruff and Fisher Gardial 2002).  Both “impact” and “competing alternatives” approaches to value require libraries to gain new understanding of their users’ goals as well as the results of their interactions with academic libraries.

Academic Libraries Focus

Of the five ways of defining value, library stakeholders tend to focus on two: financial value and impact value.  To meet the needs of their stakeholders, academic librarians can pursue value studies in both areas.  For some academic library stakeholders, financial realities take precedence.  They recognize the business-like characteristics of higher education, and view money as the bottom line.  They know that institutions that do not attend to their financial situation cannot survive long enough to achieve other goals.  For those stakeholders, librarians must demonstrate that academic librarians manage their financial resources well and help bring money into their institutions.  These stakeholders are most interested in a financial approach to library value.  (Note: A good portion of library literature refers to this aspect as “return-on-investment” which, technically, is a particular form of financial value estimation.  Alternatively, some authors refer to the financial aspect generically as “value”; others use more specific terms, usually related to the particular methodology used in a study such as “cost/benefit” or “valuation.”)

The other large group of academic library stakeholders focuses on the contribution of higher education to learning, research, and service.  For these stakeholders, an impact-focused definition of value is more meaningful.  To demonstrate value to these stakeholders, librarians can elicit information from users about what the library enables them to do.  This second approach also may be more meaningful to librarians, since they are often less interested in establishing library value and more focused on what library users actually accomplish and how librarians can support their endeavors.

Increasingly, academic library value is linked to service, rather than products (P. Kaufman, Carpe Diem 2009, 2).  Library literature reveals this shift in library emphasis from collections to experience, from resources to educational impact (Dow 1998, 279), from access to sense-making, from mediation to enabling (Lougee 2009, 612).  The change is logical.  Because information products are generally produced outside of libraries, library value is increasingly invested in service aspects and librarian expertise.  In fact, academic provosts have a future library focus that is “less on the library qua institution and more on the people who work in libraries…less on the library and more on the librarian” (Webster and Flowers 2009, 306).

Thus, service delivery supported by librarian expertise is an important library value.  However, librarian expertise alone is not a sufficient demonstration of library value; librarian expertise must be manifested in excellent service that results in a value for users.  According to Saracevic and Kantor, this concept of value–one focused on the impact of library service–is known as “value as results” (or “value in use”).  The value as results concept equates value with the “subsequent results from the [information] interaction…and their worth or benefits” (1997, 540).  This conceptualization of value focuses on how library service helps people change in some way.  According to IMLS, “we know this [change] happens; outcome measurement can help us prove it” (Institute of Museum and Library Services n.d., 22).  Taking this approach to library value requires academic librarians to consider: 1) What did the user get out of the library service?  2) What did the user accomplish as a result? (Saracevic and Kantor 1997, 540).  Whitehall agrees, stating “it is the use to which a piece of information is put which expresses its value” (Whitehall 1995,  8).

In this way, value as results helps academic libraries articulate what one might call library “value on investment” or VOI.  Administrators want to know how libraries help, not just “what’s the return” (Dukart 2007, 49).  One author describes this notion particularly well:  “You can spend a lot of time coming up with all kinds of calculations…we can come up with some kind of number….[but] some [value] is much more intangible.  What you want is for people to start saying that we are doing this because we believe in the concept, rather than here is mathematically how it is all going to work” (Dukart 2007, 49).  This position posits that academic library value is not primarily a financial concept; rather the value of information is its contribution to making improvements in users (Wilson, Stenson and Oppenheim 2000, 3-4).

The major challenge to demonstrating library “value on investment” is that “people have to be able to see clearly that the information that ‘caused’ benefit came from the service, and not from the client’s own work or ideas” (D. J. Urquhart 1976).  One fairly simple way to isolate library value is to “collect from individual [library users] specific examples of beneficial information that they know came to them with the aid of your service.  They will tell you about the advantage to their work, and you will write it down” (Whitehall 1995, 8).  There are numerous other methods to capturing this information; many do not require direct questioning of individual users.  The “Next Steps” and “Research Agenda” sections of this report outline some of these methods, informed by the lessons learned by school, public, special, and academic librarians who have contributed their efforts to demonstrate library value to the literature of the profession.


Note: Jim Neal presented a paper at the ACRL conference that engages conceptions of academic library value and was very well received; I would be remiss not to point you to it at https://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/conferences/confsandpreconfs/national/2011/papers/stop_the_madness.pdf.

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