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Demonstrating increased social impact is the biggest challenge libraries will face

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Image: Library Lab at Willesden Green Library, London, by Lynton Pepper at We Own Cameras

Today Arts Council England published the final reports from our work on Envisioning the library of the future which we carried out with Ipsos MORI last year. Our work sought to understand the challenges libraries will face over the coming decade. There are many, but the one which stands out is that many of our public libraries are struggling to articulate their social objectives (although a few do it brilliantly). We see this as a serious risk for them today, and believe it will become an even bigger one in the coming years.

The role, purpose, and funding justification for publicly funded libraries is under the spotlight more than it has been for a long time. Despite this, Arts Council allowed us to design with them a highly visible process actively encouraging many different viewpoints to be voiced about how libraries should respond to the social, economic, and technological trends of the coming decade. We invited library professionals, campaigners, user groups and others with in depth knowledge of libraries to set topics for discussion at open space workshops (attended by 250 people) and in online articles (which received over 12,500 page-views and 122 comments).

Since we completed our work we have spoken with many library managers about it, and what action should be taken in response. Many themes came out showing how libraries are changing or need to change around literacy, funding (of course), access to digital, and the public’s knowledge of what libraries do. Every one leads to choices or challenges for libraries, but one issue stands out more than the others; public library services are struggling to articulate their social objectives. Some library services explain their objectives brilliantly, but while most are good at explaining what they do, they are less good at saying who are they for, and what they hope to achieve. By contrast almost everyone understands that recycling facilities reduce landfill for the benefit of everyone and future generations too, that free school meals are for children from poor families and help them get the nutrition they need, and that bus passes are a financial boost to over 60s and encourage independent living as people reach their 70s and 80s.

We found that for many library services this clarity of social objectives is not there, and we think there are major risks to the legitimacy of any publicly funded service in the coming decade which cannot explain its social objectives more clearly than ever, and show how they are delivering on them. Those social objectives are bound to differ in each library service to fit with what their community expects. One service may decide the most important thing is to provide literature and written information universally and in equal measure, to everyone. For another it may be to reach out to the poorest families and actively help develop literacy and knowledge. For some the guiding objective may be to inspire people of all ages to explore digital information, and new technology. Exactly what the primary objective is matters less than whether their community and taxpayers know what it is and support it.

This sounds like common sense, but in our experience it takes a deliberate and carefully planned process to achieve. So what can be done? Since we completed our work for Arts Council England we have begun working with a small number of library services to clarify their social objectives, and help them increase the impact their services have towards those objectives, in ways they can demonstrate. Through staff workshops, informed by analysis of their services, we have worked with library staff to harden up the links between their objectives, their actions, and management information showing whether they are increasing impact. With staff in one service whose primary objective is to use library services to connect people with opportunities we helped them devise specific measures to test whether they are doing this, which they can now track over time as a dashboard of their impact. One area of impact they focused on is their services for jobseekers. One specific impact measure is the number of job applications made by jobseekers who attend their work clubs and CV workshops. They can now show that the typical jobseeker joining their work club has probably been applying on average for 0.5 jobs per week, but after three weeks of structured support the same jobseeker is typically making more than 10 applications per week (a twenty fold increase). They can now monitor that number, and see how it responds to changes they make to their service.

Another impact measure is the flow of new referrals arriving at their main library who are sent there by JobCentrePlus for assistance opening an online Jobmatch account (now mandatory for jobseekers). This provides a headline figure of the number of new jobseekers arriving each week and month whom the library is enrolling into its work clubs: this currently stands at around ten new enrolments per week. They also collect figures for the number of jobseekers whom library staff help to set up an email account for the first time (around 70% of those arriving have never had an email account). Again they can track these numbers monthly, and see how the numbers change in response to external factors or to new ideas implemented by the library staff.

This process of defining social objectives more precisely, designing impact measures which provide real-time management information, and finally testing out different approaches to increase impact is one of the best ways we can think of to put the findings of today’s report into practice. We have also seen how it can inspire and empower library managers and frontline staff to experiment with new approaches and quickly see the impact they are making as well as seeing how they are creating compelling evidence to illustrate the role of their service to the public, politicians and others.

If you want to hear more about our findings from the Envisioning project, or our work with individual library services do please call us on 020 7756 7600 or email ben.lee@sharedintelligence.net we’re happy to just come and explain.

Ben Lee

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