When the library at Alexandria was built over 2300 years ago, it was designed to show off the wealth of Egypt. Its purpose, as far as scholars can establish, was to collate all the knowledge of the world. Being funded by the royal purse, and with a mandate to continuously seek out new sources of information, the staff working there were well positioned to acquire whatever scrolls and tablets they needed.
Stepping forward to the current day and libraries are in a very different situation. The rise of the internet has led to a belief that “libraries have had their day”. Certainly, as I noted in last week’s blog, Terry Deary and the British Government seem to think so. The assumption now is that “all information is available on the internet anyway”.
In Ireland, cuts have been stealthy. No blatant large-scale closure of public libraries is happening. Instead, professional librarians are being siloed and isolated, via reductions in staffing numbers as non-professional staff are re-assigned to alternative roles and retiring staff go unreplaced. These issues were highlighted in the SHELLI (Status of Health Librarianship & Libraries in Ireland) report published in December 2011.
The SHELLI report noted that there are 110,000 health service staff in Ireland and 75 health libraries and information services. Of these, 49 were located at hospital sites including academic teaching hospitals. The report looked at how healthcare libraries were positioned in Ireland and the challenges facing healthcare librarians. It also looked at possible solutions to problems identified by librarians.
Stating that “… health librarians need to market their services more effectively in this new environment of health care in Ireland”, the report noted that there is currently very little evidence of the impact of health information services on patient outcomes or financial benefits. In addition, the report highlighted that there is a perception that library services are free or that they do not provide any tangible benefit to the health organisations in which they are situated.
So how do we change the perception of the library as just “the place where you borrow books”? The SHELLI report suggests a number of ways to do this including:
- offering one-to-one information management training for senior executives
- marketing the specialist information and search services offered by the library
- building an evidence base of successful projects
- validating websites
Personally, I would advocate an alternative approach. The problem for libraries is that if managers and finance controllers cannot see a financial value to the provision of library services, they cannot logically be expected to allocate funds to it. This applies just as much to public and academic libraries as it does to healthcare libraries.
Librarians need to start quantifying and assigning financial values to the work they do. If the library provides electronic journal access, then the value of that access should be clear to users. For example, a little price tag could pop up saying “Access provided by the library. Using our services has saved you X amount this year”.
When dealing with management, the value of specialist query support could be similarly demonstrated:
|User type||Average hourly salary||Average time spent by user Googling for correct information||Cost of user searching for information||Time spent by librarian to find correct information||Cost saving by using library service|
|Doctor||EUR100||2.5 hours||EUR 250||15 mins||EUR 225|
(These figures came out of my head, are for illustration purposes only and probably bear little resemblance to reality, but they get the message across).
Assigning value to services like this allows librarians to show the cost benefit of the library’s services to the organisation in which they operate. It allows librarians to engage with management, with financial controllers and with budget committees in terms which they understand. It demonstrates the pecuniary benefit which an organisation, and its users, derive from the library’s services.
We have to stop thinking of libraries as beneficial in their own right and start demonstrating the financial value which they bring to organisations, to their users and to the public. Tell someone that the library lends books for free and they’ll say “I knew that” and keep going. Tell them that using the library to borrow books, DVDs and CDs will save you up to EUR 800 a year and you’ll have their attention.
That is how I believe we will change the current perception of libraries.