When Libraries Don’t Provide Value

Librarians tend to agree that their libraries deliver value to community members. But what exactly does that mean? What type of value? Time saving value? Life changing value? Those are quite different. What value do libraries offer? New research identifies 30 types of value of four levels in a Maslow’s like hierarchy. We need to be intentional about designing for value delivery.






Librarians of all types, but especially academic librarians, know how important it is to communicate how the library adds value to the community. Librarians increasingly aim to gather data and stories to demonstrate, both quantitatively and qualitatively, that the library contributes to the success of community members – and does so in different ways to deliver what community members need.

While there is general agreement within the profession that establishing the library’s value is something we all need to do, there is likely less agreement on exactly what value is and the best ways to gather and share the appropriate evidence to support claims of value.

One way to better communicate the value libraries provide is to understand how our community members would define value and then build the capacity to explain our value on their terms.

Research by two customer strategy consultants has identified 30 things that could be described as components of value. While the authors of “The 30 Things Customers Really Value” acknowledge that what constitutes value can vary from person to person, they believe their 30 building blocks of value cover most fundamental human needs.

Looked at this way, how many of those components of value do our libraries deliver? Assuming there is capacity to deliver on only a limited number of different types of value, what do we then prioritize? With only limited resources how might we transform our efforts to deliver value of great meaning to most of our community members – the ones that give them the greatest reward.

The authors identified four categories of values. At the base of the value pyramid is functional value. These are fairly basic services such as save people time, simplify things for them or facilitate their organization (think the Container Store).

The next highest order value is emotion. When a company like CVS offers wellness services or Disney offer fun experiences it appeals to our sense of emotional well being. When community members express affection for their library (e.g. “I love my library”) that signals an emotional connection. Engaging community members in ways that connect them to our libraries emotionally provides a unique value element.

Beyond emotion lies life changing value. Educational organizations offer the value of acquiring new skills or abilities that can lead to life changing opportunity. Offering a community to which members can belong is valued by those who with to be a part of something bigger then themselves – and it can be life changing. A library literacy program volunteer achieves life changing value by contributing to an organization that does change lives and improves the quality of the community.

At the top of the value pyramid is social impact. There is only one value associated with this category, self-transcendance. This is comparable to Maslow’s self-actualization on the hierarchy of needs. Few of us achieve it, and far fewer organizations can deliver this type of value.

TOMS is a shoe company that donates shoes to charity for each pair purchased. It provides value to its customer by making a social impact. Consumers see value in contributing to world betterment, as much as that is possible with a shoe purchase. It is within the realm of possibility to believe that libraries can move community members along the path of social impact by contributing to the betterment of lives through education, offering a safe place and community improvement.

My big takeaway from this HBR blog post and the longer article on which it is based is that when it comes to value delivery, libraries that seek to design for a better experience must go beyond just talking about value, as in “our library brings value to community members”. Noble ideas and statements don’t deliver value.

Programs and services with linkages to the value pyramid do. We need to be more explicit about what that library value means, how exactly we deliver value and to intentionally design for value delivery.

If librarians are unable to articulate what elements of value they provide to the community – and exactly how it is accomplished – then perhaps we don’t provide value. And when we do say we provide value we need research to confirm what we do and how it brings value to the community.

Since no organization can promise all 30 types of value, the authors recommend targeting those values that would be most important to community members based on their expectations. Then intentionally design operations to meet or exceed delivering on those values. We can also be clear on values that we are unable to offer, such as supporting profit making or offering sensory appeal.

What might that look like for a library?

Functional Value: 1) saves time; 2) informs; 3) connects; 4) reduces effort; 5)organizes

Emotional Value: 1) Provides access; 2) Wellness; 3)Fun/Entertainment

Life Changing: 1) Provide hope; 2) Affiliating/Belonging

Social Impact: 1) Self-transcendence

You might argue with some of these choices, but it appears that we mostly deliver functional value. That’s worthwhile, but like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need, how do we deliver higher levels of value that get community members emotionally engaged with the library?

Let’s continue to deliver cultural programming that invites community members to engage with authors, local artists or faculty research. Let’s be the unique community resource that offers stress-busting programs, such as therapy dogs or on-site massages. Let’s offer educational opportunities, such as literacy and reading appreciation programs, that can be life changing for community members.

Then there are those ways in which libraries deliver value just by being what they are – collections of information and community centers of knowledge building. Libraries provide access to collections that alone can create both life changing experiences and opportunities to explore and discover a self-transcendent path.

I am reminded of the story of Marla Spivak, who during her TED Talk on bee colony collapse, shares how she originally became interested in bees – which led her to become one of the world’s most prominent bee experts. She tells the audience that she was in the library one day as a teen, found a randomly placed book about bees, and just picked it up for no particular reason. The rest is history. Her story encapsulates all that we need to know about the types of value that libraries can deliver. Libraries can change lives. Libraries do have social impact.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

4 thoughts on “When Libraries Don’t Provide Value”

  1. Great article on the critical topic. Loved your commentaries. Personally, I think major challenge lies in limited ability of library to articulate and demonstrate all the resources and capabilities they possess (and pay for) that can bring or enhancd value to patrons.

  2. Excellent, until the last three paragraphs which seem a little too “feel good,” not urgent enough. The better ending would have been to close with your question, “how do we deliver higher levels of value that get community members emotionally engaged with the library?” Labeling a program or activity “life changing” doesn’t make it so. And when a patron finds a book on bees (or any other subject) serendipitously, it sounds quaint, but it won’t sustain the library anymore.

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