Monday, 8 March 2010

Demonstrating the Return on Investment: God is watching, give him a good show

By any objective measure a large sum of money is invested in the public library service. We can make a good case for its not being enough, or the wrong kind of investment, but it's still a goodly sum.

The return on that investment can be relatively colossal, whether you measure the impacts in terms of literacy or well-being, supporting economic or community development. But we sort of take it for granted that people know that, don't we? While other services make damned sure that everyone who matters knows every single thing that they do (and every one of them dressed up to the nines as a major success) public libraries tend to pootle along, doing their thing until there's talk of cuts and closures, when suddenly all the positives are wheeled out. In many ways that's too late: to be sure, you may be able to stave off the major cuts in bad times but are you in a position to be able to capitalise on the good times?

  • Libraries do a lot of stuff. In practice this is great, but it's difficult to sell "we do a lot of stuff" as a single message without looking and sounding incoherent. So let's not do that. Let's work with small, digestible lumps of news and information that make a single, sensible, positive point.

  • Little and often is good. The individual message is: "this is something the library does/did and it is A Good Thing." The repeat message is "libraries do good things." Importantly, the message is sustained over time.

  • "We're not doing anything we can make a fuss about." Bollocks. Take a look around you. Other people's high-profile media events: the festivals; the open days; the big-name events. How many people turned up? And how many people do you get to your events? Have a look round at your local context and be more realistic about what you're able to achieve. Then celebrate what you do achieve!

  • "That's been and gone. What's the point in putting that on the web?" You've done something. It cost time and money to do it. Why? What did you get for it? More importantly, what did the public get for it? Tell them what you've spent their money on.

  • "Yes, but it's history, isn't it? What's the point of telling people what we've done?" You and your staff aren't standing round waiting to "stamp out a few books" are you? That's precisely what a lot of people do think you do. Your overall message needs to be: "we do lots of stuff and here's just some of it!" You can't prove that you do lots of good stuff without having a good range readily available to demonstrate the point.

  • "Yes, but that's just politicking or swank, isn't it?" NO!!!! This is an important part of your catalogue of services. Just as your library catalogue (remember that?) tells your customers what resources may be available for them to use, this collection of news and information items tells your customers and potential customers about the kinds of services and activities that you're delivering, or have delivered, in your libraries. And, importantly, it gives people with money and influence an idea of what you can do given the time and resources.

  • Spread the word: don't rely on a single channel of communication. If you've got something good to say, say it in a few places. Take the message to your intended (or hoped-for) audience, don't sit back and expect them to hunt you down.

None of this is difficult and none of it is new. We just need to do it.

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