A haven in our community: The impact and value of public libraries

How do we understand and talk about the value and impact of a library? The way it effect people and communities? In the Danish public the debate about libraries often refers to a handful of established key figures: How many people visit our public libraries and how many materials do they borrow. Important data that says something about the use of public libraries but not really gives us insight on the value and impact public libraries have on individuals and communities.

Roskilde Central Library has teamed up with Seismonaut to put people and communities at the center of the debate of the public library. Our ambition is to change the language for how we talk about the value of libraries and get behind the numbers and expand the language from “how many books did the library lend out” to “what did it mean to the citizens to lend the book”.

Why? Because we cannot see the role libraries play in fighting inequality, polarization and loneliness from a spreadsheet. We 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 usage to have a sound and constructive debate about why libraries matters and how we should shape them to lift future challenges.

The ambition is both to create significant insights into what the Danish public library actually mean to people and the impact and value the bring to communities but also to inspire other libraries and institutions of culture to adopt this logic, take on the method and design and construct new and local insights and knowledge. To support this we are releasing a User’s Guide to the methodology (in English translation at the moment) for others to use.       

It’s a Danish study and we published the results in Danish (see Danish report here) but due to the huge interest from abroad we translated it into English and here is a link to the full report:

The impact of public libraries in Denmark: A haven in our community

Below I outlined the main findings from the study and some thoughts on how to actually change the language about the public library in Denmark – the rapport will not do that alone.

Also see previous blog posts on this subject;

About the ambition: Wanted: A new language for the value and impact of libraries

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

A 13 year old boy talking about his reason to come to the library. Library data and statistics are important but they don’t give us that.

The impact of public libraries in Denmark – main findings

The study reveals that public libraries effect people and communities in many ways and sheds light on four significant dimensions of impact, all of which manifest themselves in the users’ experien­ces with public libraries. Besides that, the study finds that the library staff and the library as a place of trust and confidence shows to be of high value to the citizens

Haven
Public libraries are a haven in which users can immerse themselves  
Public libraries are highly impactful to users in terms of being a haven that allows them to take a much-needed break in everyday life. The libraries are a place where they can take time for themselves and each other and experience well-being, immersion, and emotion. Different groups use this haven in different ways. Some seek out the library for peace and quiet and concentration, while for others, it’s about spending time together with one’s chil­dren, friends, fellow students, other “newspaper readers”, etc. The impact of Denmark’s public libraries in terms of serving as a haven is the dimension that is most strongly highlighted across the entire study.

Quote from “The impact of public libraries in Denmark: A haven in our community”

Perspective
Public libraries give users perspective on life
Public libraries stimulate reflection, learning, the acquisition of knowledge and critical thinking. In a digital era where the Internet offers a fleeting flow of information and misinformation, the public library is highly impactful in terms of being a place in which knowledge and information is curated and disseminated, and where you can step outside the echo chambers you encounter on social media. Additionally, the study found that users particularly value the public library’s ability to introduce them to materials and content that they would not have come across on their own.

Creativity
Public libraries allow people to develop creatively
Public libraries are a source of inspiration, and help stimulate the imagination of their users. The public library can also help motivate people to try new things and acquire new skills. The library might not learn citizens every aspect of a new skill or interest but it sparks inspiration, curiosity and stimulates a desire to explore and learn new things in life.

Community
Public libraries help form and maintain communities
Public libraries help form and maintain com­munities, both directly – by being a place where you can meet and experience togetherness with each other – as well indirectly by citizens looking at libraries as communal property in society. Public libraries are places where you learn to take care of society in a concrete, materialistic sense by taking care of the materials you borrow, the newspapers you read and the facilities you use. It is highly impactful on citizens in a broad sense that the library is a free and equal service that places no financial barriers to access and use. In addition, the study finds that public library events and programs are considered very impactful in relation to creating a framework for communities.

Quote from “The impact of public libraries in Denmark: A haven in our community”

Staff
An anchor in the local community
The study shows that the public library’s staff are of great importance to the citizens. The staff is the human face of the library and serves for many as a relational point of reference in the local community. Not in a strictly personal way were citizens and library worker drink coffee together after work, but there is a relation of recognizability in every day community life and the library worker knows e.g. the reading habits of frequent users and provides new reading tips when they meet, talks about new books they read or interests they have in common. Citizens are happy to meet a person who can help with information retrieval, recommendations for new readings and a lot of other things and where you are not a number in a queue to get help

Trust
A place of confidence in a world of misinformation and fake news
Citizens value the public library as a place where you can trust what you see and hear. In an age where it is difficult to distinguish information from misinformation, it is of great importance to citizens that the public library curates and disseminates knowledge and information – physically and digitally.

Quote from “The impact of public libraries in Denmark: A haven in our community”

The above is the main findings across all the data that the study holds. The study contains a huge amount of other insights, which can be relevant in different contexts.

Some thoughs on anchoring and changing the language

The language we use about the impact and value of libraries will be change with this report. What we are looking into now is both to raise awareness of the findings, make sure they are communicated, debated and creates reflection on the role libraries play in society but also to spark new surveys and investigations on the value and impact of libraries in Denmark and abroad. Looking into how this kind of work can complement usage statistics and other kinds of data relevant for libraries to create a broader picture of the library in the life of the user and to put fuel to a language that put the citizens and community at the center of the debate of the public library.

Here are what we are up to in the coming time.    

Context

A library is not a mean in itself – it is way to empower people, make communities stronger and a solution to some of the problems and challenges that societies face. Same with the findings in this work; they are only interesting in the context of society and the answers and opportunities that they point at for citizens and communities. When we look at the growing problem with loneliness in society, we now have citizens word and opinion that public libraries foster community and togetherness so how can that knowledge be a part of different solutions? If we discuss the challenge with misinformation, fake news and social media echo chambers it is highly relevant, that we now know, that citizens finds the public library to be a place where you can trust what you see and hear.

Both locally and national we will be raising awareness, debate and discuss the findings in the context of agendas were they are relevant.      

Releasing the design

Reports like this only have a certain lifespan and then we move on to something else. Also, this work is a national survey in Denmark and things might look different in Aarhus Municipality or in Sweden or in Canada. Or maybe one is interested in digging into the impact of the library’s reading programs for kids or other specific parts of library services. I believe it will be the shared amount of work done in this field that over time will change the language and understanding of what public libraries truly brings to communities and how they bring impact to the lives of individuals.  

To support this we are releasing a User’s Guide to the method and design that can be scaled in many levels. Our study builds on over 1.500 interviews but you might only wonna talk to 10 and it can be used for that too. The User’s Guide is in English translation and will be ready in May. The Danish version can be found here.

Telling the story

I’m on a tour and a crusade with this and I feel humble and blessed with the huge amount of interest in this work and the invites to write and talk about in different arenas. Thank you and please reach out if you like to hear more.

Besides my own touring we are segmenting the communication and anchoring to different arenas. There are the traditional medias; I went on national radio to talk about it, we are getting articles and interviews out and so on. We are also focusing on what we call ‘soft’ media which is magazines that everyday people read and that we believe holds a huge potiential for getting the story out to the citizens. Then there is a library arena which is important both because we hope different libraries will reproduce the method but also because the results and findings can be used in the local and national political conversations about the role of libraries. There is also a more internal library arena considering the findings; In Roskilde we are also happy when our reading programs a fully booked and a bit sad when they are not and it lies underneath that it’s a success when every seat is filled and the reverse when not. But could we for a minute just focus on the impact and value for those who came? We are gonna use this work also to change the internal language on the work we do (this does not mean that we will stop using traditional library statistics and data). Then there is an arena of partnerships. When we go out and talk to relevant partners about potiential collaboration – could be organizations that works with loneliness among youngsters – we bring the findings to be a part of the conversation. To many people the library are houses and books but this expands what those houses, books and a lot of other things mean to people.

No matter the arena we are trying to focus on the context in which the findings can be relevant to talk about as outlined above.   

Ambassadors

My voice or any other library voice are far from the most significant or interesting voice in this. I’m a library director and it’s not suprising that I find libraries to be relevant – it is a part of my job and life. So we got a track were we are fostering other voices to tell this story – ambassadors. An obvious pick is various decision makers e.g. politicians. It could also be citizens or people from relevant institutions or organisations. Our way into this is the sum of the activites outlined below and we already experienced politicians taking up the findings and shaping a langugage in the public debate that focus on the value of the library for people and community and not the use. To me that is a big step in the right way.

I believe that libraries are forces of social good that makes a difference in peoples life everyday around the globe and we owe ourself to expand the language to also be abel to capture that. Hopefully this is a step in that direction

Cheers

Christian

Roskilde City Library

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