“My Community Loves Its Library and Staff.” DOES IT? HOW MUCH?

Library leaders often claim that their communities love the library, especially its staff. In flush economic times, such claims go uncontested. But when cynical taxpayers, tight-fisted politicians or conservative donors say “Prove it!” or “How much?” today’s library leaders can respond. They have an analytical tool to demonstrate in dollars just how much users value their library, its staff and the services they provide. That analytical tool is cost-benefit analysis (CBA).

CBA can provide convincing statistical evidence of the library’s value to the community and its impressive return on dollars invested in its staff, collections, and buildings.

What is CBA?

Cost-benefit analysis is a tool long used by economists to evaluate public projects and to measure the return provided by the investment of public dollars. Federal and state agencies often require officials to undertake CBA before they spend any money on a project. Local government agencies can also use CBA.

As its name suggests, CBA documents and measures in dollars the benefits that the activity provides to the public compared to its costs. The greater the dollars of benefits relative to costs, the greater the return on the public’s investment.

What are the roles of library staff in a CBA study?

If your library undertakes a CBA study, your library staff will be essential to the study’s success, and you will learn important information about your value to the community.

  • Staff members help to design the study and tailor it to the unique needs and characteristics of your library.
  • IT staff are essential to the launch of sample surveys of library cardholders. These surveys provide essential data about the value that library users associate with library services.
  • Public services staff answer questions about the study and ensure that the study promotes good will with library users responding to the study’s surveys.
  • Accounting staff provide important information about the library’s budget and costs.
  • Staff from many departments help evaluate the study’s conclusions and brainstorm applications of the results.
  • Marketing department and public relations staff inform the library’s friends and public about the study’s portrait of the library’s importance and value to the community.

What are the major steps?

Identify User and Service Categories.

One of the first steps in planning a CBA study is to identify categories of library users and the library services that they utilize. For example, large urban libraries may serve households, schools, businesses, non-profits and government agencies.

The services used by each of these groups may differ somewhat. Households and schools may value highly the library’s collections of fiction, popular periodicals and reference materials (hardbound and electronic). Businesses may value access to information about markets, finances, government regulations and patents. Some services may have audiences that cut across several types of library users. Others may be uniquely associated with one target audience. The user groups and services identified guide the design of surveys to measure the library’s value to those it serves.

A large urban library offering many specialized services for businesses, non-profits and government agencies may plan an extensive, detailed (and more expensive) CBA study. Smaller libraries may choose a simpler (and less expensive) design focusing only on households and schools. The unique characteristics of the library and how it wishes to use the results of its CBA study should govern the design of the study and its surveys.

Survey Library Users.

To obtain data about benefits, a survey agency will survey a random sample of library users. The accuracy and credibility of the study depend on the careful selection of this sample. The library’s cardholder database must be current and accurate. The library’s IT staff must deliver accurate counts of active library patrons and program random sampling to select the library cardholders that the director will invite to respond to the surveys.

Once the surveys are underway, those invited to respond to the survey may contact the library with questions or concerns. To respond effectively, the staff must understand the purpose of the study and how to answer or to direct queries. Most libraries designate a liaison to respond to questions or concerns about the surveys or the study.

Measure Benefits against Costs.

To measure costs, the library’s accounting staff provides information on budgets, outlays, and the value of the library’s assets. Most of the information is available from the library’s past financial records. The value of library assets is important, but often not readily available from most libraries’ records. Measuring Your Library’s Value to the Community provides guidelines about how to measure library assets for your CBA study.

Ultimately CBA can summarize the library’s value to the community in easily understood sound bites. For example, “Our library provides $2 in benefits to library users for each dollar of tax support.” Or, “Each dollar devoted to improving our library’s collections, buildings and equipment provides a significant return on investment –more than 25% each year in benefits to library users in our community.”

How important is the library’s staff to the community?

Most institutions will want to include questions in the CBA survey that explore the value that library users associate with staff. For example, survey questions can measure the dollar value that library users associate with staff’s efforts to answer questions, find information, guide reading choices, teach computer skills, offer programs and assist with school assignments. These service functions are “front office” activities where the library staff interacts person-to-person with users.

Staff support functions are harder to value. These “back office” functions usually entail no person-to-person direct interaction with users. Users surveyed, for example, are not able to value “back office” staff’s efforts to choose and catalog books, periodicals, reference works, music, computer programs and electronic information services. Instead, your CBA surveys should measure how much users value books, periodicals, reference works, music, computer programs and electronic information services and then parse out the library staff’s indirect contribution to the value of these services.

You must be careful with the “back office” estimate so that you remove the contributions of the library’s physical plant, its transportation fleet, and the breadth and depth of the library’s collections. Still, the collections, facilities, and transport cannot provide value to the public without staff work, and the “back office” estimates can be adjusted on the basis of available information.

By summing the value of the staff’s direct services (the “front office” interactions with library users) with the implicit value of the staff’s indirect services (the “back office” support services for library users), the library can estimate the staff’s value to library users.

Our own CBA studies of public libraries measured the value of only direct services offered by library staff. Even so, the results were often impressive. Measuring the indirect contribution would have increased the values even more.

Moreover, answers to open-ended CBA survey questions reinforced how deeply many respondents valued their friendly local librarians. Some library directors used these comments and the study results to emphasize to staff how great they are or to justify increased investment in staff training and development.

Once your library’s CBA study is finished, your library must decide how best to disseminate and use the results to promote your library. Your CBA study can help to raise funds, instill community pride in the library, increase staff morale and reallocate internal budgets. The insights of staff can help your library to find the best way to use its study results.

How much does YOUR community value its library and staff? A CBA study can help your library, its staff, and community to find out.


Donald S. Elliott, Glen E. Holt, Sterling W. Hayden and Leslie Edmonds Holt are authors of Measuring Your Library’s Value to the Community: How to Do A Cost-Benefit Analysis for Your Public Library, a how-to manual that helps you plan, execute and publicize a CBA study for your library.