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

What has been done at St. Louis Public Library is possible in other libraries. There are important qualifications.

First, the SLPL Services Valuation Study is no longed-for "magic bullet" providing some simplistic formulation that other libraries can pick up and apply simply without thought to derive the benefits of investment in another library system. The SLPL research team believes that if employed correctly, the methodology can be applied to other systems but not without effort or costs.

Second, particular user categories need more detailed attention than they could be given in the SLPL study. The research team believes it has a handle on how to measure educational use; there is less certainty about business use. The St. Louis Public Library is pleased to announce that Duncan Highsmith of the Highsmith Corporation has made a corporate contribution to support further study of business users. This support is an important step forward, and SLPL's Board of Directors acknowledges the contribution with enormous gratitude.

Third, this project did not address walk-in use by individuals that are not library cardholders. A recent survey of walk-in users shows that as many as twenty percent of the daily visitors at the Central Branch of SLPL do not have current library cards. Future research should attempt to incorporate benefits to these users as well as to cardholders.

Fourth, there are other special-user audiences that deserve more specific attention in estimating the benefits mix. SLPL, for example, spends a great deal on outreach services to seniors living in group residential settings and services for those that are blind and or otherwise physically challenged. St. Louis also has large specialized educational and cultural communities who use rich collections of fine arts (architecture and architectural history, art and art history, music and music history) and genealogists, many of whom travel hundreds of miles to use the SLPL collection. All of these collections are expensive to maintain and service. Can their benefits be estimated and expressed in useful form? The SLPL researchers think so, but much study is needed before the claim will be sure.

Fifth, in order to validate the SLPL benefits-valuation methodology, the project researchers need to replicate the study of the SLPL system.

Sixth, at the same time, to make it transportable, the SLPL methodology needs to be tested in library systems with different governmental, demographic, racial and economic characteristics than the St. Louis system. That study will require major grant funding, because few library administrators have the financial capability to pay for this kind of study out of operating revenues. To put the matter as simply as possible, this study awaits extensive grant funding. The development of a truly transportable benefits valuation study is unlikely to go forward without such funds.

Seventh, as these studies continue and are completed, an effort needs to be made to document and estimate the indirect and collective benefits that society receives from library services.

The SLPL Services Valuation Project has passed successfully down a long road. Team members are certain that they are on the right track in valuing the benefits of public investments in library services. The heartening results, however, cannot be extrapolated for public libraries as a whole. The research base needs to be widened. More systems need to be surveyed. Methods need to be refined. There is much more to do.

Still, there is a new fact. In St. Louis, a far-from-wealthy city, with nearly 47 percent African-American, with an adult population that has a 38% "reading problems" rate, it is possible for administrators and Board members alike respond to the latest "prove it" by saying "We have! And what we have proved is that on average for every dollar the public invests annually in library services, the direct benefits just to library users is $4." In St. Louis, the public is getting a good return on its investment in its public libraries.


Professor Donald Elliott is Chair, Economics Department, Southern Illinois University--Edwardsville (SIUE). Dr. Glen Holt and Professor Donald Elliott served as principal researchers for the study reported in this article. The article's third author, Amonia Moore, a SIUE graduate student, served as research associate throughout much of the project.

Back to previous section Table of Contents Forward to next section