Evidence-based public libraries

How many public librarians are, right this very moment, struggling with the fact that they need more money, but can’t seem to find the evidence they need to make a stronger case to funding agencies about how critical library services are? I bet nearly every director or financial officer is. I know I am. Most of the other directors I know are in the same boat.

We need evidence. We need to demonstrate empirically what we do and why and what the outcomes are. We need it for funders. We need it for patrons/uses/customers/members. We need it most of all for ourselves. Evidence that the bookmobile is a great idea and serves people we’d never get in our doors. Evidence that our adult workshops are meeting needs that cost-based programs aren’t. Evidence about people getting jobs, buying houses, learning guitar, making bike accessories*,  having healthier families, writing books, being happy because they read and play with library stuff…so much evidence could be gathered to help us do our jobs better.

We need evidence for why all this stuff is a good idea, or why it doesn’t work the way we wish it would. If public library makerspaces don’t actually build more knowledge, skill, excitement, social interaction, participatory learning, or other socioeconomic benefits (and I can’t see how they couldn’t) it would be a bad idea for every library in the land to invest in them, right?

So where is the evidence on makerspaces? (I’m working on it–someone could throw me a bone, however.)

Where is the evidence for coffee in libraries? Should it be free or is it no big deal if it costs money? (I need to know, people. We’re talking about offering free specialty coffee in my library.)

Where is the evidence about using volunteers on digitization projects or even on just how patrons interact at the service desk?

Well, for the last two questions, the answer is:  Here.

The wonderful Evidence Based Library and Information Practice journal’s 1st 2012 issue focused on public libraries and evidence that they might want or need. This issue contains articles that synthesize research on summer library programs. They look at teens’ library needs, or at social impacts of libraries. It includes empirical research articles on library redesign and on customer experiences at service desks. There is even an article addressing researchers who want to use focus groups.

Every single article in this issue was of use to me in some way, as a director of a tiny rural library, and as a researcher.

The best part of the whole issue, for me, was the Pam Ryan‘s call for more public library research:

Now, more than ever, with fiscal pressures and societal changes challenging the value of our public libraries, we need a strong base of evidence upon which to draw support and inform evidence based practice and advocacy efforts. The evidence base needs increased contributions about public library practice and value from both LIS faculty and practitioner-researchers to ensure balance and relevance.

Ryan then asked for support for public librarian-researchers, from positions on editorial boards and conference-organizing committees, to collaboration with academics, to actively seeking out and supporting public librarians who do research.

Yes! Please!

That’s what we hope to do here, in the limited time we have to offer as working librarians, researchers, and as a (in my case) student. We could really use some help, especially from those more “in the know” about research and those more “in power” on those editorial boards, etc.

If you are willing to chip in and blog about what it takes to be a public librarian-researcher, please contact me. And if you’re a public librarian who wants to try a research project, what barriers do you face? Let us know, and we’ll do our best to find ways to overcome them.

*I wish I could link the bike accessories thing, because I read that a couple are 3d printing these things at a library makerspace and selling them, but cannot find the reference again. So much for my vaunted librarian skillz

[edit] By the way, of the 29 authors for the public library issue of EBLIP, only 12 were public librarians, and ten of these were all from the Edmonton Public Library in Canada. While Edmonton Public Library obviously rocks, it’s depressing to note that 79%  of the research and review articles had no public librarian authors. Of the four with public librarian authors, 3 were written by Edmonton librarians.


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