BULLET Placing a Value on Public Library Services
Glen E. Holt, Donald Elliott, and Amonia Moore

Like other public-sector institutions facing today's current conservative fiscal climate, tax-supported urban public libraries are increasingly subject to fiscal scrutiny. As urban schools, hospitals, police and other essential public services are subjected to skepticism and to formal assessment procedures, many libraries get caught in similar patterns of doubt and demands for measures of their success. While claiming to be essential to the social fabric of urban communities and undeniably worthy of precious public resources, libraries also must now respond to the cries of fiscal gadflies who say “Prove it!”1

In the face of these new demands to "prove it!" public library leaders face the challenge to come up with credible "bottom line" estimates of the net value of their services to their users and to the community as a whole. That challenge to "prove it!" brought the St. Louis Public Library (SLPL) Services Valuation Study into existence. With never less than four lawyers on its board of directors, in a city where voters since the mid-1960s have approved only a handful of tax increases, and in a region where nearly all large donations come from major corporations, SLPL staff often encountered demands to furnish quantitative measures of their institutional worth. SLPL management staff shared that challenge with the leaders of many other library systems. That shared challenge became explicit in January 1994 at the ALA Mid-Winter Convention in Los Angeles. The discussion that kicked off the St. Louis project took place at a meeting of library directors who then made up the Strategic Directions Committee of the Urban Libraries Council. At this meeting, the dozen directors in attendance stated their need for a statistical methodology they could use to quantify the benefits of library services and communicate that value to elected officials, board members and donors.

During the meeting, one of this article's authors, Dr. Glen Holt, expressed the belief that economists could develop a methodology to estimate the value of public investment in library services. Recalling his prior academic background, the committee members asked Holt to undertake development of a services-valuation methodology. Because of this conversation, further urging from ULC President Joey Rodger and other library directors, Holt started the SLPL Services Valuation Study. A grant from the Public Library Association made the project viable. At the suggestion of George Needham, then executive director of the organization, PLA made the monetary grant that allowed the St. Louis study to get started. The SLPL research team gratefully acknowledges the contribution of PLA. Without the organization's underwriting, this project could not have been undertaken.

Table of Contents Forward to next section