Wednesday, 13 May 2009

More about the ways to assess the unassessable.

This is an analysis of the report "New Measures for the New Library: a Social Audit of Public Libraries" by Rebecca Linley and Bob Usherwood. (British Library Research and Innovation Centre Report 89.) It is linked to Kerslake and Kinnell's literature review. "The Social Impact of Libraries". It appears to be the ground work done to compliment their literature review. Both reports are part of a wider project to "Demonstrate in measurable terms that public libraries offer value for money" (Harris and Green, 1997).

I was drawn to this document because it claims to "evaluate library services in a new way." The study uses "a form of Social Audit" to examine library services in parts of two diverse authorities, Somerset and Newcastle upon Tyne. The authors chose qualitative research for the same reason as I , to actually explain the numbers and to tell the whole story that numbers cannot answer. The social audit comprised series of interviews, focus groups and workshops with all the people in any way involved in the library service; various groups of customers, staff and council members. The resulting data was written up as a case study for each authority. It was labour intensive, but the researchers believed that library staff could carry on and evaluate their service in that way.

It occurred to me that apart from Environmental Health inspections, restaurants are assessed by someone experiencing a meal at the establishment. Egon Ronay or Michelin do not count the number of customers and how quickly they are served to award stars. If they did, MacDonald's would win hands down every time. The service, uniqueness and the taste of the food is considered and the physical ambiance actually sampled before the coveted stars are awarded. My son works in TKMaxx, yes I know it is not a restaurant, it is a shop, but that is also assessed by the company's own management who send mystery shoppers into the store to see if service and standards are being met. Perhaps these ways of assessing the outcomes of libraries would be considered too subjective.

Although the social audit means bringing together numbers of customers for focus groups and interviewing people at length, which I consider too time consuming for front-line staff, a number of authorities are now working with community panels before opening small community libraries (Derby City Libraries are doing that). There is a basis for continuing the panel as a regularly consulted user group to inform and assess the function of that library. Linley and Usherwood suggest that their findings are true for the two places that they studied, but extrapolations can be made to extend them to similar places with similar situations. Perhaps their methodology was not rigorous enough to see repeated patterns from cross-sections of society. I feel that my choice of grounded theory will achieve that generalisation that they have missed.

The findings, however, are useful. The authors state that the educational effect of libraries on children is difficult to unravel from the other influences on a child. Why then does the government think that what happens in school is the only way to test children's ability? Usherwood and Linley assert that there is a "Complex relationship between intermediate and final outcomes". They believe that "the library supports the development of children's reading skills." In the conclusion the investigators state that there are many influences over individuals during their lifetime but "That it is clear from our data that the library plays a significant part." Focus groups of parents and carers of young children agreed that libraries help develop the reading ability of children and improve the English skills of children whose parents' first language is not English. The focus groups also think that a public library is a good neutral place for literacy initiatives. The easy availability of free reading matter in a library was considered to be vital for people with low incomes.

Some staff felt that the perception of libraries by political forces was not as an educational force. One library worker said "We always get tagged on the end of things, education always gets loads of support and we're seen as a sideline from education and not as a part of it......." . Locality seemed to play a significant part in the decision to visit a library or not. Children in particular visited libraries that were close to their home, so they could go on their own. this is an argument for a vehicle to go to the children who do not live near a library. They are more likely to visit a children's mobile library in their street than a library the other side of their neighbourhood.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009