Originally planned to do a value and impact study on academic libraries but felt that such a study on public libraries could potentially have more political impact Commenced with literature reviewing in order to identify particular themes, concepts and theories with which to work
Library and Information Science draws on several disciplines and domains and therefore there is a tradition of ‘borrowed theory’ Notion of exchanging or giving capital resulting in beneficial outcomes – Exchange theory, social exchange theory and gift giving are all prevalent in library transactions Information Society Studies allows us to look at information as an exchangeable commodity and therefore as capital. Grounded in several different theses Information Society Studies accounts for the (post industrial) knowledge and information economy as opposed to a labour based economy thus putting information, its creation and exchange, at the heart of society and of economics Social capital is a well established form of non-monetary capital and is easily connected to public library usage in the literature (as indeed are intellectual, human and transactional capital).
Within the Information Society and with an understanding of the generation and exchange of social capital, what role does the public library play?... In particular with reference to my research questions
The nature of the study lends itself to qualitative research methods and will be reliant on anecdotal and reflective data regarding how public libraries have an impact on the citizenry. This can be achieved through talking to library users and asking them about how their library usage benefits them and has an impact on their development as active citizens.
One such method of capturing qualitative data is the focus group, and one of the key elements of the methodology being tested is that of the focus group interview.
“Focus group interviews typically have five characteristics or features. These characteristics relate to the ingredients of a focus group: (1) people, who (2) possess certain characteristics, (3) provide qualitative data (4) in a focused discussion (5) to help understand the topic of interest.” (Krueger & Casey, 2009 ; 6)
This research project will use a longitudinal method in which subjects (library users) are invited to discuss and share their experience of using public library services and to reflect upon how their library usage has effected them (understanding, knowledge, participation, lifestyle, citizenship, etc.) The subjects involved in the research will be revisited on two further occasions and this process will take place in five different locations (i.e. five cohorts of subjects)
A pilot focus group was arranged and took place during the morning of Wednesday 10th September in a meeting room at Liverpool Central Library and lasted for one hour. 8 people eventually signed up for the focus group, which turned out to be an appropriate and workable number. They represented different users and demographics of the user population of Liverpool Central Library, including a gender balance and representation of different age groups, ethnicity and nationality.
When analysing the transcript of the focus group and individual comments and observations made therein it becomes clear that whilst the participants themselves present a diverse mix of public library users, they are in fact just that, active public library users. Subsequently there is a general acceptance that the library always provides a positive experience and represents a general force for good. The participants are all also in agreement that the recently refurbished Liverpool Central Library is indeed a great library and have a lot of praise for the physical space, the resources and the staff support in general as well as the concept of ‘library’ and the services and resources that they generally have access to. However, even when taking this bias into account the discussions and observations from the focus group are every enlightening and in themselves allow for a deeper understanding of potentially why people choose to use public library services, how they do so and how they benefit as individuals and community, and it is this benefit/advantage perspective which this study aims to explore as it seeks to understand how libraries play a role and have an impact on the citizenry in the United Kingdom.
From a general analysis of the focus group transcript the participants agree that the library benefits them and some of the broad comments made are quite sensational and very emotive. For example, one of the participants, a retired professor, originally from India who has spent much of his working there regard the library and libraries in general as ‘Temples of knowledge’ and ‘necessary to keep me alive’. The same participant revealed that the library “is a democratic machine for society.”
Another of the participants, a younger library user (aged 16 – 24) remarked;
“When I come in, I have a dead positive vibe, when I walk through the doors straight away, ‘cos I know that I only need to spend fifteen minutes in here, and I’ll have lost myself in a book…. You don’t care what’s going on!”
Likewise, participant 8, a social worker (aged 55 – 64) exclaimed:
“I could be quite dramatic and say that reading saved my life!”
These types of comments illustrate how fundamentally important the library service is for individuals and the significance that it has on their lifestyles and indeed abilities to live within society and their communities. Throughout the focus group the participants often discussed and referred to the rich nature of the books and resources in the library as being significant as well as how welcoming, friendly and inclusive the library is. Another overriding feature was that access and availability of what the library offers is extensive (e.g. 24 hour book return) and freely available. It is these themes of ‘knowledge’, ‘access’ and ‘inclusion’
The theme of knowledge and the epistemic function of the library came though very clearly as part of the discussions, although what was interesting was the major significance that books play in the lives of those who participated, in a far greater way that access to computers and information technology does. Most of the focus group members perceived that the physical printed books contained on the shelves of the library where the objects that allowed library users to obtain and gain knowledge. There was also acknowledgement of the library providing access to computers and information technology, but as one participant suggested ‘you can’t access books on the Internet.’ The same participant, a retired mental health worker, suggests that she still likes to use the books and the physical library to acquire information, and acknowledges that while she can access some information on the internet at home, she still feels that she needs to come into to the library to look things up in print
This perception that the information and knowledge which is referred to throughout the focus group comes from books rather than through electronic media is indeed interesting and validates the observation about the importance that the physical library plays in the lives of the participants. It is also in keeping with the other major attributes that the physicality of the library allows, those of access and inclusion.
The focus group agreed that the knowledge available to them through the library is extremely important and powerful:
“…handling all those really old manuscripts and books,….it’s knowledge, just a body of knowledge. And knowledge is power I believe. Knowledge is power!” (Participant 7)
This concept of ‘knowledge as power’ becomes even more important when the participants were asked to consider the use of libraries in a citizenship context. When asked to reflect on what they regarded as citizenship, the participants responded with concepts such as ‘participation’, ‘involvement’, ‘knowledge and understanding of community, heritage and culture, understanding one’s obligations to society and how to contribute to society’, ‘social conscience’. The focus group was then asked to consider how the library helped them to achieve these ‘citizenship’ attributes and having access to local knowledge and information about health and social care, political information and awareness of community were all suggested as ‘knowledge’ outputs of the library. Similarly, although only briefly mentioned, some participants alluded to the knowledge of the library staff in the support they provide and also the library being a place of ‘like-minds’. These are areas where a future focus group might be able to probe into the generation and exchange of social and transactional capital and needs to be considered as part of the review of this method.
Integration / Inclusivity
Inclusion and integration appeared in the focus group as another key theme. The participants talked about the library helping to establish a sense of community and society and about the library being very much a part of this, indeed enabling individuals to be part of the community and society.
Similarly the participants were all quite clear about the fact that the library provided services for ‘everyone’ and that it is an inclusive institution. The individual members of the focus group all had quite different stories to tell about how they themselves had felt included within the library and subsequently part of a wider community.
The feelings which the participants reflected upon included those of being in a peaceful, secure, safe and friendly place, whilst in the library and the library making the individual feel like they are part of something bigger:
“The library is a place of great safety and security.” (Participant 7)
“It’s inclusive. It makes you feel part of the group. I think that society consists of groups doesn’t it? But I see the library more as a coherent group and it’s very inclusive of people from different backgrounds, different ethnic backgrounds and cultures.” (Participant 8)
“It is the one place where everyone is equal” (Participant 7)
“When you’re on the streets no one cares about you. It’s like every man for himself. When you come in here you can just communicate with anyone, you can discuss things with people. There’s loads of things that you can do.” (Participant 4)
“It’s the total safety of being in an environment where you can study. It’s a place of peace. Every book is open to you.” (Participant 7)
This quote from a retired member of the group also highlights the ‘accessibility’ that the library affords when she makes the point about every book being available. The fact that the knowledge and information which allows for self-study and self-development is freely available and accessible within this inclusive ‘library environment’ is significant to this particular group member, and ‘access’ to all features a great deal within the focus group discussions.
There is a real appreciation amongst the group members of the access available to them as library users, and as illustrated above frustration with the fact that not all members of society (particularly the young and those of lower social classes) are unaware of the resource that they have access to. Participant 7, quoted above’ also reflects upon what having access meant to her:
“As a teenager, I was always aware that the library, when you walked through it, nobody stopped you reaching for a book on anything….. as a child and a young teenager, it does empower you. You don’t have to understand what’s inside it. You’re just able to hold it.”
Two of the attributes which enable the access that the focus group participants are so enthusiastic about are the staff members working within the library and the library building and design itself.
“I pay my compliments to this library. I have seen great change here. Great change. The people are very imaginative. Over the years I have seen so many libraries, but this is a positive, vibrant, lively library.” (Participant 2)
Along with a very well designed, purpose built and welcoming physical library building, the library staff themselves were also regarded as being responsible for this inclusive environment, through their welcoming and friendly attitudes and therefore enabling the access that the participants speak of. The transactional capital which will be apparent here will be useful to capture in future focus groups.
One final observation is how little mention and discussion there is of computers and information technology, even within this theme of ‘access’. That is not to say that IT is not acknowledged, but amongst the participants of this focus group, it is not regarded as particularly significant with regard to access to knowledge and information. If anything the discussions suggest a slightly ambivalent attitude towards IT with comments made around Internet searching being a limiting ‘too focused’ approach to information searching and also about the continued disparity of access to computers and digital information amongst citizens. These findings are very surprising and again, will require further investigation in future focus groups.
Value and impact of public libraries - Leo Appleton Northumbria July 2015
• Leo Appleton, PhD Student, Centre for Social Informatics, Edinburgh
Napier University (@leoappleton)
• Supervisors: Professor Hazel Hall (@hazelh), Professor Alistair Duff,
Professor Robert Raesides
• Paper presentation for the 11th
Northumbria International Conference
on Performance Measurement in Libraries and Information Services,
July, 2015, Edinburgh
“How do public libraries demonstrate their impact upon
citizenship development in the UK? Results of a focus
• Background to the research project
• Theoretical concepts
• Research questions
• Pilot study overview
• Analysis and results if pilot study
• Next steps
• Professional interest
• Why public libraries?
• Literature review themes:
– Role of the public library
– Value and impact as performance measures
– Exchange theory
– Information Society
– Social capital, Human capital, Transactional capital
– Concept of citizenship
Background to the research project
• Borrowed theory
• Exchange theory and social exchange theory
• Information Society Studies
– Information sector
– Information flows
– Information technology
– Information overload
• Social capital
– Public libraries creating and generating social capital
• To what extent is an individual’s position advantaged or
disadvantaged as a result of using public libraries?
• What is the impact of using a public library service on individual and
• Focus group methodology
– Constructed questioning and discussion
– Deep, focused data
– Standard social science approach
• Interviews with senior library staff
– Reflections on the focus group discussion
• Longitudinal cohort approach to focus groups
– Each focus group is convened 3 times during the course of the study
– Senior library staff interviewed upon presentation of the results of each focus group
• Scope of project
– Representative of UK library users
• Focus group at Liverpool Central Library (Sept 2014)
Age Gender Occupation Nationality Libraries
Participant 1 45 - 54 F Lecturer Indian /
Participant 2 75 - 84 M Retired
Indian Central Interest /
Participant 3 65 - 74 F Retired mental
British Breck Rd. Borrowing,
Participant 4 16 - 24 M College
British Central Reading,
Participant 5 55 - 64 M Retired German Central Computers,
Participant 6 35 - 44 M Photographer Venezuelan Central Books,
Participant 7 55 - 64 F Retired British Central,
Participant 8 55 - 64 F Social worker British Central,
• Questions on:
– Feelings and attitudes?
– Who are libraries for?
– What do you like about your library?
• Results categories:
Pilot focus group analysis
• “When I come in, I have a dead positive vibe, when I walk
through the doors straight away, ‘cos I know that I only
need to spend fifteen minutes in here, and I’ll have lost
myself in a book…. You don’t care what’s going on!”
• “I could be quite dramatic and say that reading saved my
• “…handling all those really old manuscripts and
books,….it’s knowledge, just a body of
knowledge. And knowledge is power I believe.
Knowledge is power!”
Pilot focus group - Knowledge
• “The library is a place of great safety and security.”
• “It’s inclusive. It makes you feel part of the group. I think that society
consists of groups doesn’t it? But I see the library more as a coherent
group and it’s very inclusive of people from different backgrounds,
different ethnic backgrounds and cultures.”
• “It is the one place where everyone is equal”
• “When you’re on the streets no one cares about you. It’s like every
man for himself. When you come in here you can just communicate
with anyone, you can discuss things with people. There’s loads of
things that you can do.”
Pilot focus group - Integration
• “It’s the total safety of being in an environment where you
can study. It’s a place of peace. Every book is open to
• “As a teenager, I was always aware that the library, when
you walked through it, nobody stopped you reaching for a
book on anything….. as a child and a young teenager, it
does empower you. You don’t have to understand what’s
inside it. You’re just able to hold it.”
Pilot focus group - Access
Liverpool #2 #3
Lincoln #1 #2 #3
Edinburgh #1 #2 #3
Southwark #1 #2 #3
Essex #1 #2 #3
Next steps – Focus Groups
• Focus on access, integration and knowledge
– Linked to social capital and Information Society
• Acknowledgement of benefit and development of longitudinal period
– Discussion and reflection at each stage
• Understanding of citizenship development through public library use
• Compelling evidence of the value and impact of public libraries
• Public Libraries
• Huysmans, F. & Oomes, M. (2013) Measuring the public library’s societal value: a methodological research
programme. IFLA Journal, 39(2), 168 – 177.
• Kerslake, E. & Kinnel, M. (1997) The Social Impact of Public Libraries: A Literature Review, London : British Library.
• McMenemy , D. (2009) The Public Library, London, Facet
• Orr, R. H. (1973) Measuring the goodness of library services: a general framework for considering quantitative
measures. Journal of Documentation, 29(3), 41 – 50.
• Social Capital
• Coleman, J. (2000) Social capital in the creation of human capital. in E. L. Lesser (ed.) Knowledge and Social Capital
(pp. 17 – 41), Boston : Butterworth-Heinemann.
• Goulding, A. (2004) Libraries and social capital. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 36(1), 3 – 6.
• Johnson, C. (2012) How do public libraries create social capital?: an analysis of interactions between library staff and
patrons. Library and Information Science Research, 34, 52 – 62.
• Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York, Touchstone.
• Information Society
• Duff, A. (2000) Information Society Studies London : Routledge.
• Feather, J. (2013) The Information Society: A Study of Continuity and Change (6th ed.) London : Facet.
• Webster, F. (2007) Theories of the Information Society, 3rd ed., London : Routledge
• Focus Group Methods
• Bloor, M, Frankland, J., Thomas, M. and Robson, K (2002) Focus Groups in Social Research, London : Sage.
• Krueger, R. and Casey, M.-A. (2009) Focus Groups: a practical guide for applied research, 4th
ed. Los Angeles, Sage.
• Morgan, D. (1997) Focus Groups as Qualitative Research, Thousand Oaks, Sage.