by Regina Mays and Gayle Baker
Today, many libraries find it necessary to demonstrate the impact of what they do and to illustrate how the products and services of the library contribute to the goals of the overarching institution. The future ready librarian must have an array of tools to accomplish this.
Return on Investment (ROI) is an approach that is commonly used in evaluating business investments. In the strictest sense, ROI is a quantitative measure expressed as a ratio of the value returned to the institution for each monetary unit invested in the library. Since a library is not a business, however, and the value it provides is not always a direct monetary return, some researchers are broadening the conception of ROI to include returns that affect the bottom line downstream and measure inherent values.
Special libraries are no strangers to ROI. In fact, special libraries have been the frontrunners of this type of research. Griffiths and King performed numerous studies in both corporate and government agency libraries in the 80s and 90s using cost/benefit analysis and ROI. More recent ROI studies in special libraries have found returns of anywhere from 2:1 to 18.6:1 or even higher.
The first thing to ask when beginning to design an ROI study is: what constitutes value? A good place to start is by looking at the goals of your organization and identifying ways that the library might contribute to those goals. For example, two recent studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Tennessee on ROI of academic libraries to the grants process focused on the monetary return of grant funding secured partly through the help of library-provided citations. Another value in that equation is the support of faculty research and productivity in general, which may not have a direct immediate monetary return to the university, but contributes value nonetheless. In the second study, 94.5% of submitted research proposals included citations obtained through the University of Tennessee Libraries. Faculty members commented about how access to electronic journals helped them, not only with their research, but also with their teaching.
ROI is one of many approaches to assessment and is most effective as part of a suite of methods. Just as you wouldn’t use a screwdriver to hammer a nail, ROI won’t be the best tool to use in every area. ROI is especially useful when there is an immediate return, for example helping your institution secure grants or contracts. But for those areas in which it is appropriate, it can be a very effective way of measuring the return on invested resources and demonstrating the value of the library’s contribution to the goals of users and to the goals of the organization as a whole.
Finally, these results should be communicated in ways that are meaningful and relatable. Often, putting a human face on the numbers is an effective approach. For example, adding interviews to accompany the numbers or developing personas of typical uses and users.
Some useful links:
- Cornell University Library: Library value calculations: http://research.library.cornell.edu/value
- Lib-Value Project (IMLS grant # LG-06-0909152-09): Much information, including a free searchable database of over 800 items on value and ROI literature on all types of libraries: http://libvalue.cci.utk.edu/
- NN/LM MidContinental Region: Online tools for evaluating programs and services: http://nnlm.gov/mcr/evaluation/tools.html
- ACRL Value of Academic Libraries Report: A good overview of value research in all types of libraries, including special libraries: http://www.acrl.ala.org/value/
Regina Mays is Program Manager for the IMLS funded study Value, Outcomes, and Return on Investment of Academic Libraries (“Lib-Value”) based at the Center for Information and Communication Studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, TN.
Gayle Baker is Professor and Electronic Resources Coordinator at The University of Tennessee Libraries in Knoxville, TN, and has worked there since 1990. She is one of the librarians who is participating in the Lib-Value project.