COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS: THE TOOL TO MEASURE LIBRARY BENEFITS
SLPL Project Focused on Direct Benefits
From the outset, the principal researchers in the SLPL Services Valuation Project have sought to develop a reliable methodology that has the following characteristics:
- Simplicity. Most voters understand the concept of a rate of return. The SLPL researchers have sought a methodology that would communicate the library's value in a short sound bite: (E. g. “For each dollar of taxes, city residents and businesses respond that they receive more than a dollar and ten cents in benefits.") A measurement of direct benefits to users provides a solid, simple statement about direct returns flowing from public library tax revenues. Articulating direct benefits is a relatively simple exercise.
- Credibility. The SLPL Services Valuation Project methods are intentionally designed to provide a lower bound, not the highest estimated value. The inclusion of indirect benefits and collective benefits would substantially increase the value estimates, but without more knowledge about the flow of direct benefits, such estimates of high indirect benefits would strain credibility. It is possible to set lower bounds for indirect or collective benefits, but library practitioners looking for measurement tools will want to be cautious about the results they obtain from their estimation efforts. Credible public communication occurs when a public official does not overstate the case for the institution. To be credible, the SLPL project focused only on direct benefits.
- Rich detail. The methods used in this study can be employed to delineate the benefits of particular categories of services for different categories of users. (E.g. "SLPL general users receive far higher benefits from using the library's adult books than they do out of using either the library's computer training or by attending its special events.") Such pliability enables library spokespersons to study benefit flows and express those benefits to specific constituent audiences. Estimates of benefits by category of service also can assist administrators in budget allocation and strategic planning. Moreover, the survey methodology used in the study resulted in a rich store of user quotations that can help spokespersons define the meaning of the benefits in human terms.6
To sum up, the SLPL CBA project has focused on developing and implementing a methodology by which practitioners can estimate the lower bounds of direct benefits from public tax investment in library services. This tool will allow practitioners to measure and to communicate that value in a simple, credible way for the public library investment as a whole and for individual services as well. The time for estimating indirect or societal benefits will come, but it should come after more is known about the measurement of direct benefits.