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What are libraries worth?

25 November 2019  
Posted by: Rob Mackinlay
What are libraries worth?

What are libraries worth?

WHETHER it’s the next big social media platform or a zero-hours contract for an agency carer, a financial value can be found – fair or not. Suffolk Libraries has recently commissioned and published research to do just that: convert the social value of three of its core services into pounds and pence. The purpose for doing so is not only to help the library service to explain its value to its funders but also to give Suffolk Libraries a fresh view of itself and the value of the different services it provides to the community. Bruce Leeke, chief executive of Suffolk Libraries said: “Talking about how we provide social value through statistics and real-life examples of socio-recreational activity will help us change the library story. But changing the narrative isn’t just about statistics and proving that libraries enrich the fabric of society. It’s about building a new relationship with the general public where they understand the transformative power of socio-recreational activities and relate to libraries in a whole new way.” It means that while the findings themselves are important, the conversation is one that needs to continue.

Price discovery
The report – Suffolk Libraries: A Predictive Impact Analysis – by independent consultants Moore Kingston Smith is believed to be the first of its kind undertaken by a UK public library service. Bruce said this is “ground-breaking research which I feel will have implications for library services across the country as this is the first time such an in-depth study has shown the value of library services in real financial terms.” The report’s headline findings are that every £1 spent on three of Suffolk Libraries’ services creates £8.04 in ‘social value’. The three key activities that were looked at in the report are:

  • Early years sessions for under-fives (Baby Bounce and Tot Rock),
  • Top Time sessions for older people
  • Open Space groups which are inclusive, informal group sessions inviting anyone to drop in. These are run in partnership with a number of local charities that focus on improving mental health and wellbeing for Suffolk residents.

  • The report calculates that these generate just under £2 million of social value every year and that they also create £284,000 worth of social value for the NHS every year. These services have been valued, usually with a proxy – a product or service that would achieve the same impact but which already has a financial value: like a therapist, a mobile phone or even a holiday. In its Social Return on Investment (SROI) paper, Social Value UK, an organisation that provides guidelines for defining social value, says that: “While it may seem initially daunting, it is relatively straightforward and gets easier with practice. As SROI becomes more widespread, monetisation will improve and there will be scope for pooling good financial proxies.”

    How was this calculated?
    Social Value UK, which is cited by the Suffolk report’s authors, says: “For some things, like a pint of milk, there is considerable agreement on and consistency in the price. For other things, such as a house, there is likely to be a wider spread of possible price. What the market does… is to bring together people whose valuations happen to coincide. This ‘coincidence’ is called ‘price discovery’.” The difference with discovering social return on investment is that there is no market because the ‘goods’ under discussion are not traded and there is no traditional process of ‘price discovery’ and financial proxies are used instead. “Just as two people may disagree on the value of a traded good (and so decide not to trade), different stakeholders will have different perceptions of the value they get from different things. By estimating this value through the use of financial proxies, and combining these valuations, we arrive at an estimate of the total social value created by an intervention.” For any community doing this for the first time, the process can help them explore and get a better grasp of the value they get from their non-financial institutions.

    Local view
    In some cases there are already accepted proxies for some social values – which some stakeholders might find reassuring. But because different areas have different populations with different needs, a deeper conversation needs to take place. In Suffolk loneliness and social isolation are seen as significant and growing problems – above the national average. These are key issues for the report and the unifying theme of the three library activities . The impact report cites the State of Suffolk (SoS) Report 2019 which says 130,141 people in the county sometimes, often or always feel lonely. It also says that there is a high risk of loneliness and social isolation increasing in the Suffolk population in the future. One of the big risk factors is being aged over 65. Now 1 in 5 people in Suffolk are aged 65 or over but over the next 20 years this is forecast to increase to one in three – greater than the prediction for England as a whole. Similarly mental health is an issue that widely affects populations in Suffolk with an estimated 105,000 affected by depression and anxiety and more than 6,000 with severe mental health problems. Bruce said: “We see a real link between people socialising through recreational activity in their community and improvements in their health and wellbeing. We see our services making life better every day and now we have conclusive proof that this is the case!”

    Report details
    According to the report the highest social impact per head comes from the Open Space group which provides a place of safety to a diverse range of attendees dealing with problems including mental and physical illness with some living with family or a partner and some on their own. All of these factors add complexity to calculating the value of the service. As does the fact that the report looks at the ­benefits to attendees, family members and also the NHS. Among other things ­attendees ­reported improved mental health and reduced stress, as did family members of attendees. Some of the valuation is based on broadly accepted values provided by Measuring the Social Impact of Community Investment: A guide to using the wellbeing valuation approach. Some of it is based on proxies found by the authors. For example, for family members getting “time and space to engage in activities for themselves” the proxy of a foreign holiday is suggested. Some may not agree with this equivalent or its price but the example is transparent and because SROI measurement is new and often requires exploration of values there are checks and balances built into the process such as ‘deadweight’ which accounts for how much of the outcome would have happened anyway if the activity wasn’t available and ‘attribution’ – an assessment of the contribution of other organisations or people which should prevent any single input having a large impact on the price.

    The report’s conclusions are that Suffolk Libraries is successfully responding to the social issues of loneliness and isolation and now has insight into the social value it is creating. The authors say: “With this information, the organisation is in a strong position to make strategic and operational decisions that could help them create even more positive change in these communities” and they recommended that Suffolk Libraries continue impact measurement to gain deeper understanding of their social value. IP

    Contributor: Information Professional

    Published: 25 November 2019

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