A new language for the value and impact of libraries: Design and first findings

Having a first look at data and findings with an IPA

How does we understand and talk about the value of a library? And culture in general? In the Danish public, it is often in the context of lending numbers, foot traffic and other measurable parameters. High numbers equals high value and low numbers means some sought of crisis seems to be the agenda that drives the debate about the state and future of libraries. That is reducing culture to spreadsheets and to me that is a poor debate in the wrong part of town; New Public Management is a game that libraries and most institutions of culture cannot win. And they lose big whenever there is a new budget to be made. Why? Because the value of culture and libraries are reduced to numbers of use and not the impact they make in peoples life’s.

Library statistics are important but lending numbers, downloads and foot traffic says something about the use of libraries but not really much about the value and impact that libraries brings to communities. You cannot see the role libraries play in fighting inequality, polarization and loneliness from a spreadsheet. You cannot see the impact a shared reading sessions at a library has on a kid from the number of kids who attended.  

We need insights and understandings beyond statistics to have a sound and constructive debate about why libraries matters and how we should shape them to lift future challenges. That is why Roskilde Central Library together with Seismonaut has taken on the task to create a new language for value and impact of libraries – read more about the thoughts and ambition in this earlier Library Lab blog post: https://christianlauersen.net/2020/07/21/wanted-a-new-language-for-the-value-and-impact-of-libraries/

We will be done with the project around the beginning of 2021 and in this blog post I will unwrap the method we are using for the investigation and reveal insights on our first findings.

The design: Introducing the Compass of Meaning

The method we are using builds on a huge British study, Understanding the Value and Impact of Cultural Experiences by The Arts Council England, which we have operationalized into a Danish library context. The Culture Value Impact study contains a meta study of 50 larger projects about the value of culture to condensate what cross the different studies. That has given birth to 4 dimensions of culture which can provide an alternative insight into the value and impact that culture and art provides communities and individuals. The 4 dimensions are:

  • The emotional: Awakens feelings and thoughts
  • The intellectual: Creates conversations and reflections
  • The creative: Inspire and motivates us to create
  • The social: Self-cultivation/bildung, coherence and community

Those 4 dimensions are our scaffold for the design of a new language and from that we have designed the Compass of Meaning with 12 parameters distributed with 3 on each of the 4 dimensions. The purpose of the Compass of Meaning is to capture and visualize the findings and understanding of the value and impact the public library. The 12 parameters that are distributed on the 4 dimensions and constitute the Compass of Meaning are:   

  • Emotional dimension: 1) Immersion and concentration, 2) Affection, 3) Well-being
  • Intellectual dimensions: 4) Food for thought, 5) Knowledge and information, 6) Critical thinking
  • Creative dimension: 7) Imagination, 8) New abilities, 9) Motivation
  • Social dimension: 10) Empathy, 11) Togetherness and belonging, 12) Conversations
The Compass of Meaning on the general impact the public library has on citizens
The Compass of Meaning focusing on the impact of the library collection

Collecting data

The empirical part of the study is based on a national questionnaire survey among the Danish population, in which a representative sample of 1.509 respondents between 16 – 90 years have answered questions about their experienced with use of the library which then will be measured on the 12 parameters. The questions has been designed around 4 main categories of the public library: The collections, programs, the physical space and guidance from staff.

The participants in the study have assessed their experiences using response categories from “To a very high degree” to “Not at all”. The answers are then converted to numerical values ​​from 5 – 1:

  • To a very high degree = 5
  • To a large degree = 4
  • To some extent = 3
  • To a low degree = 2
  • Not at all = 1

The numerical values ​​in the Compass of Meaning are an expression of the average result among all participants in the investigation. When it comes to averages among many answers, it will be rare to see results in those outer ends of the scale. It will therefore be unexpected to see an average of 5, as it will require that all participants in the survey has answered “To a very high degree”, just as it would be unexpected to see an average of 1, then will require that all participants in the survey answered “Not at all”.

The expected outcome is therefore between 2 and 4, and it is in this light that the results must be read: An average at 4 will be at the top of what we can expect, while an average of 2 will be at the bottom.

First findings: The library as a haven and a place for critical thinking

“To me the library seems to be an institution with a heart. An institution that want me the best and don’t treat me like a product or a customer’
– Man, 39 years old

This is a sum-up of some of the findings after a very first analysis the quantitative and qualitaive data. Future analysis will dig further into data and will unveil how the different main categories of the public library; The collection, programs, the library room and guidance from staff provides meaning and value to the citizens.

The public library as a haven

The first findings reveals that the public library is of great importance to the Danes as a haven that allows for a much-needed break in everyday life; where one takes time for oneself and experiences well-being, contemplation and being moved.

Different groups of citizens use this haven differently; for some it is about calm and concentration while for others it is about being together (with the children, friends, classmates, other newspaper readers, etc.).

The ability to create a haven is, overall, the library’s most important significance for Danes.

“The library means everything. It unites people. It’s a haven. It’s a house for citizenship. An open and free souce to knowledge and cultural activity”
– Woman, 26 years old

The public library stimulates reflection and critical thinking

The public library stimulates reflection, learning, acquisition of knowledge and critical thinking. This significance sharply follows the library’s significance as a haven in the Danes’ perception. In a digital age, where the internet offers a fleeting flow of information and misinformation, the public library is of great importance to Danes as a place where knowledge, information is curated and actively made available.

“On the Internet – I mean where do you even start? What is edited? What is valid? At the library you know that you will meet relevant and valid stuff”
– Man, 39 years old

The public library is a source for inspiration

The public library is a source of inspiration that helps to stimulate the Danes’ imagination and creativity. The public library can also help motivates Danes to try something new and acquire new skills. This significance ranks high among those who frequently use the library’s collection.

“You get in a mood of reading when you are surronded by that many books”
– Girl, 13 years old

The public library supports stronger communities

The public library promotes communities – both in the direct sense, by being a place where Danes meet and experience togetherness and belonging with others, and indirectly by the Danes experiencing the public library as a common property. The public library is a place where we learn to take care of the community in a concrete and materialistic sense by sharing – and taking good care of – the materials we borrow, the newspaper we read and the facilities we use.

“The library is a place where you can come alone and feel that you are a part of something. You are alone but in the company of others. That means alot to me”
– Man, 39 years old

Next step

It is important to underline the the above are a scratch from the surface of the data and findings and more in-depth analyzes will follow and more results will be released.

The final rapport with the full findings will be released in the begining of the new year. It will be published both in a Danish and English version. Alongside with this we will release a best practice guide with the method and design of the project. We are doing this so others can do the same kind of work and contribute to changing the language of the value and impact of libraries.





  1. Love this. In our country, we’re struggling on how to establish importance of public libraries in local government units as our partners in public library establishment. We still adhere to figures, statistics, usage of public libraries, among others as a measure of performance of public libraries. This is giving more depth and meaning why public libraries exist. Well done!


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