A recent report from Denmark has shone a new light on the different ways in which public libraries make a difference to people’s lives, and how we can measure this. We interviewed Christian Lauersen, Director, Roskilde Library, to find out more.

Being able to understand and demonstrate impact is not only important for advocacy, it’s also crucial if we want to know whether what we are doing is working. Yet while data about usage can offer some insights, it is often harder to build an idea of the difference being made to people’s lives.  

In the below interview, Christian explains the results of his work with Seismonaut to carry out research into how users are benefitting from libraries in their daily lives. Find out more on Christian’s own website and on Twitter.

Christian LauersenIFLA: What are the merits and limits of current indicators, such as footfall in libraries or numbers of loans?

Christian Lauersen: I’ve been accused of disliking statistics and data because of this impact study, but that is not the case.

Key figures like lending numbers and foot traffic in libraries are great at saying something about the use of libraries which obvious is important knowledge but they come short when you want to look at the value and impact the public library gives individuals and communities.

So I use statistics and data on usage a lot in my daily work but they don’t give me the full picture of the difference we make in our communities –  we cannot see the role libraries play in fighting inequality, polarization and loneliness from a spreadsheet. We cannot see the impact a shared reading sessions at a library has on a kid from the number of kids who attended. We need insights and understandings beyond usage to have a sound and constructive debate about why libraries matters and how we should shape them to lift future challenges.

What was the genesis of your study?

In Denmark the public library is quite often debated publicly. This is important and basically healthy – no debate would indicate that people didn’t care about the library and our role and purpose being in the spotlight of various opinions is what fosters progress and critical thoughts about the work we do.

The problem is that the debate often finds fuel in the context of key figures of usage like lending numbers, foot traffic etc. or by ‘experts’ and other ‘opinion makers’ that have some thoughts to share. Both statistics and the opinion of experts are very welcome in the debate about the public library, but I always thought something very important was missing in that picture; the only reason that we have public libraries – the citizens and communities we serve. 

We take the ‘public’ in the public library very seriously and wanted to expand the language about the value and impact of the public library by putting the citizens at the centre of the discussion. 

How well do you see the results supporting the argument that libraries have become spaces for creativity and community, as well as safe and quiet spaces, focused on information?

Very well. The study shows that the public library has a very diverse impact on citizens ranging exactly from a haven in everyday life where one find time for one selves to places that sparks creativity and community. 

To citizens, the public library supports creativity and are a source of inspiration, helps stimulate the imagination, and motivates people to try new things and acquire new skills. At the same time they help form and maintain com­munity, both directly – by being a place where you can meet and experience togetherness with each other – as well indirectly by citizens looking at libraries as communal property in society.

Public libraries are places where you learn to take care of society in a concrete, materialistic sense by taking care of the materials you borrow, the newspapers you read and the facilities you use.

We talk a lot about libraries providing skills, as well as information. Is this borne out by the results?

I think so yes. Libraries are not only storage houses for information – they link free and equal access to information and cultural activity with different kinds of literacy and skills that empower citizens and communities.

A great example on this in the study is the significance of the impact of the perspective that public libraries provide as a credible communicator of knowledge that give citizens an enlightened and critical perspective on life, and the impact of creativity where citizens find the public library a source of inspiration that stimulates users’ imagination and can also help motivate users to try something new and acquire new skills

Similarly, there’s a lot of focus on libraries as places for community and creativity, as well as having more traditional roles as a haven where you can find information. What do the results say about this?

The results say that citizens embrace and value the different roles that libraries take, and also say that the individual might change the purpose and the use of the library over years.

What has been learnt by looking individually at collections, events, buildings and staff?

Overall that these services of public libraries are complementary and affect people and communities in many ways.

Looking more individually at the impact of collections, events, buildings and staff, the study shows that the collection is the most-used library service and is especially impactful on users as a source of new knowledge and information. In addition, the collection gives users a sense of well-being to a great extent.

It shows that participating in public library events is very important and that citizens find that these events are highly impactful across many different parameters. However, the events especially matter in relation to building stronger community, and are rated much higher on this aspect than other library services are.

The libraries’ physical facilities have a varied level of impact on their users. In addition to creating a space for concentration and immersion, the facilities also contribute to the users’ well-being, creativity and the ability to reflect. Furthermore, these facilities also create a truly special atmosphere, according to the users.

Interactions with public library staff are highly impactful on library users, and in more ways than one might assume. Staff guidance is impactful in terms of the users’ search for information and relevant readings, but it also contributes to community, conversations, immersion and new motivation.  

The work also engages with non-users – what lessons do you get from surveying them?

On a general note I think it is extremely important that we reach out to current non-users when we make studies on public libraries – libraries serve communities and not only those who use them, so non-users are important voices.

The study reveals that being a non-user is not a static term. A non-user may have used a public library in the past and/or expect to use one in the future, and that has great value. We often have an understanding that you are either a user of libraries or you are not, but reality is more nuanced than that. The study shows that 96.5 % of Danish citizens have used a library, are using a library or are expecting to use a library in the future and it depends on needs and life situations wither they will use it.

In other words even though citizens might not use a library right now they still value having libraries in their community because they are expecting to use them sometime in the future e.g. when they have kids, start to study, get a new hobby, retire etc.      

The survey also asked about the value of libraries at a time of growing use of online entertainment such as Netflix. Is there good news?

I’m not sure why growing use of online entertainment should be labelled either ‘good news’ or ‘bad news’ in the context of libraries. General media usage is important for libraries in terms of knowledge for development, collaboration and so on but I don’t think it is libraries’ responsibility to point out growing use of Netflix as a bad thing for libraries or communities.

Anyhow the study shows that 4 out of 5 citizens believe that public libraries still have relevance today despite the rise of digital services such as Spotify and Netflix and this is also linked with the finding that the vast majority of citizens in Denmark believe that public libraries are important because they offer free and equal access to knowledge and culture – online entertainment is not free and equal – and the impact of libraries being places of trust.

In an age where it is difficult to distin­guish information from misinformation, it is of great impor­tance to citizens that the public library curates and disseminates knowledge and information – physically and digitally     

What sort of reactions have you had from colleagues and others?

I’m stoked by how much positive feedback we have got on this work, both from the sector but also from a lot of people outside the sector as well as media and politicians. What really thrills me is that I can see that other libraries and cultural institutions adopt the logic and method of the study to look at value and impact of libraries to citizens locally and in different aspects – e.g. the impact of collaboration with schools   

How can these results be used in convincing decision-makers of the importance of libraries?

By putting the findings in the context of society and communities. A library is not an end in itself – it is way to empower people, make communities stronger and a solution to some of the problems and challenges that societies face. It is the same with the findings in this work; they are only interesting in the context of society and the answers and opportunities that they point at for citizens and communities.

When we look at the growing problem with loneliness in society, we now have citizens’ words and opinion that public libraries foster community and togetherness, so how can that knowledge be a part of different solutions? If we discuss the challenge of misinformation, fake news and social media echo chambers it is highly relevant that we now know that citizens find the public library to be a place where you can trust what you see and hear

What can be done with these results in terms of your own programming?

First of all, the results have raised awareness of what is really important for citizens and how it affects them, and especially the impact from collections and events; these will be used to shape and develop what we do.

Second it will be used to improve the way we talk about the things we do. We also sometimes gets happy if we get a full house at an event and then forget to focus on the impact we wanted to create or that we have created. You are always more satisfied if 50 people come instead of 15 but what it the event changed the life of 7 out of the 15? Should we not be extremely happy and proud about that?

What lessons does this work offer for libraries elsewhere in the world?

Hopefully it has a huge potential to put citizens and communities at the centre of both studies and language about the impact and value of libraries. I truly hope many libraries across the world will adopt parts of the findings, design and method to create new studies, new insights and a new global language and understanding of the impact of public libraries