Keeping Up With... Library Value

Library Value

This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Kara J. Malenfant.

Kara J. Malenfant is Senior Strategist for Special Initiatives at the Association of College and Research Libraries, email

Drivers of Change

Whether through federal and state governments, the private sector via foundations, or from students, parents and local business communities, we’ve seen a shift in the national discourse around higher education. Now frequent debates arise, with some urgency, around the affordability of higher education and public accountability.

ACRL's most recent membership report showed that demonstrating the value of the library and librarians was the top issue facing all member segments, regardless of job title or type of library – two year community colleges, 4 year baccalaureate colleges, master’s comprehensives and research intensive universities.

Traditional Measures

Traditionally, library statistics have been focused on inputs and outputs, things that are easy to collect: the number of visits to the library, books circulated, or instruction sessions offered, with the idea that more is better. While they indicate use of a library, they don’t speak to value. In the1980s and 90s, service quality and satisfaction research emerged. For libraries, it became important not only to know what they were doing, but if it was good and if people were happy.

While useful for managing library operations, these kinds of basic use statistics or statements of satisfaction aren’t generally compelling to decision makers and campus administrators. While studies examining library operations and processes (e.g., what collections are used/not used, if students had a good experience) have great utility to fuel improvement, they tend to be internally focused and do not make a case to the external community about how libraries bring value.

In more recent years, academic libraries have tended to measure value in two ways: financial value and impact value. For a comprehensive review of the quantitative and qualitative literature, methodologies and best practices in place, see the 2010 ACRL publication Value of Academic Libraries: A Comprehensive Research Review and Report developed for ACRL by Megan Oakleaf of the iSchool at Syracuse University. For more recent literature see the ACRL Valueography, compiled by ACRL's Value of Academic Libraries committee.

Financial Value

These studies take basic input/output numbers a bit further by looking at value for money through:

  • return on investment (perceived benefits and perceived costs as time, price, effort);
  • cost-benefit analysis;
  • contingent valuation method (either a willingness to pay scenario, e.g., "How much would you be willing to donate to receive x services?", or a willingness to accept scenario, e.g., "If you lost x services and had to purchase them on your own – with saved funds redirected to education, health, etc. –  how much loss would you be willing to accept?"); and
  • secondary economic impact analysis (what employees contribute back through spending of salaries in local markets).

Financial value studies convince some stakeholders that the library is a good steward and returning value to users. Interesting results have come from the public library and special library worlds. In the academic library world, we have also seen notable findings. For example, as part of the LibValue initiative, a group of researchers studied eight institutions in eight different countries using a model for measuring return on investment (ROI) of the academic library specifically in terms of the grants funding process, that is the amount of competitive grant funding universities receive when faculty submit grant proposals that include citations acquired from library electronic collections. [1]

The study’s key finding was that for every monetary unit invested in the library, the respective institutions receive an ROI of between 15.54:1 and 0.64:1 in research grant income alone. ROI for grants varies by institution because of differing institutional goals and circumstances (i.e, emphasis on science/technology/medicine vs. social sciences and humanities or availability of external funding sources). In six of the eight countries, ROI for grants is higher than 1:1. In two North American universities, regression analysis using 10 years of data showed that an increase in the library budget was correlated with an increase in grant funding.

Impact Value

Another way academic libraries express value is through their impact on outcomes, most often for student learning and success. These types of studies and projects examine specific changes in attitudes, behaviors, knowledge, skills, status or level of functioning for an individual as a result of engaging with library programs, services and resources. For example, the University of Minnesota [2] examined usage data over one semester for: loans (checkouts and renewals); ILL; digital resources (databases, ejournals, ebooks, etc.); library workstations; course-integrated instruction; Introduction to Library Research workshops; peer research consulting; online reference; and other workshops. In many, but not all cases, students authenticated using university credentials.  

This usage data was analyzed in conjunction with demographic characteristics: gender; race/ethnicity; international status; whether students had received Pell grants; were first-generation students; and whether students had served in the military. Researchers also used ACT or SAT scores, AP credits transferred, and student campus and advising experiences. Using a regression model, the study found that students who used the library had an average cumulative GPA 0.20 points higher than students who did not use the library (a medium effect) and that only 2.9% of students who used the library in their first semester did not return for a second semester as compared with 4.3% of students who had not used the library.

Learn more about how academic libraries are examining and demonstrating financial value and impact value at the ACRL 2015 conference in Portland, OR, by using this handy guide to value-related sessions.

ACRL and Library Value

ACRL supports academic libraries in investigating and demonstrating questions of value through the Value of Academic Libraries initiative. A cornerstone is the three year grant- funded program “Assessment in Action: Academic Libraries and Student Success” (AiA). Strong results from AiA teams are already evident in the recently released report synthesizing more than 70 projects from the first year with an accompanying executive summary to share broadly with campus stakeholders and a searchable online collection of individual team project descriptions. A second year of AiA is well underway with an additional 70 institutional teams. Apply to participate in the third year by 5 p.m. Central, Wednesday, March 25, 2015.

ACRL will use this third year of the AiA grant to inform how it can best support the community in developing and carrying out assessment projects going forward. A grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services covered the majority of the costs for developing the AiA program and for delivering it the first two years. The third year of the grant marks a transition year to determine if this program is sustainable or if other models better address the needs of the community.

In addition to professional development, an ACRL task force is working to develop a list of proficiencies required of assessment librarians and other librarians who contribute to assessment programs at their institutions. Also, ACRL is in the initial stages of developing plans to increase research that demonstrates the value of academic and research libraries, an important strategic direction for the association and profession.


[1] Tenopir, C. et. al. (2010). University Investment in the Library, Phase II: An International Study of the Library’s Value to the Grants Process.

[2] Soria, K., Fransen, J. & Nackerud, S. (2013). Library Use and Undergraduate Student Outcomes: New Evidence for Students’ Retention and Academic Success. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 13(2), 147–64.