The PowerPoint slides for this paper are available from SlideShare at http://www.slideshare.net/leoappleton/value-and-impact-of-public-libraries-leo-appleton-northumbria-july-2015
There is a general acceptance that public libraries contribute to ‘community’, and at least have the potential to have a very positive impact on civil society. (Varheim, 2007).
As both a central meeting space, and a place from which public services are delivered, public libraries are in a position to contribute to society and in particular to the development of individuals and communities. During challenging and austere times, where the sense of community and citizenship may be diminished, the responsibility for citizenship development and community regeneration becomes a fundamental role for public libraries.
The purpose of this short paper is to report back on the findings of a focus group methodology currently being used in a research project which aims to investigate the value and impact that the UK public library service in the UK has on citizenship development. The broad research questions which the study seeks to address are:
• How are individual library users in an advantageous position due to the use of the public library?
• What is the impact of using a public library service on the development of an individual’s citizenship?
Design, methodology or approach
In addition to a continual review of the literature, the study is also making use of an unusual longitudinal focus group methodology, which involves using cohorts of public library users from different geographic locations. Whilst the research project is still in progress, this particular research method has now been tested and revised as part of a pilot study.
Cohorts of public library users will be established in three different UK locations. Each cohort will consist of between 8 and 10 subjects who become the participants of focus groups to be convened annually in each location over the longitudinal three year period of the study between 2014 and 2017. The geographic locations are Liverpool, Edinburgh and Essex (county libraries), providing a representative sample of public library users and public library services across the UK. The longitudinal approach to this method will allow the research to test how citizenship is developed through public library usage over a set period of time.
The initial pilot 2014 – 15 Focus Group has taken place at Liverpool Central Library and the discussions around library usage and citizenship development have been analysed. Already there are clear trends and themes showing through in the research and these include:
• Knowledge and information as key to democracy and citizenship
• The societal function of libraries in enabling integration and inclusion
• Access to resources, support and physical space
The theme of knowledge and the epistemic function of the library came though very clearly as part of all the initial focus group discussions, although what was interesting was the major significance that books play in the lives of those who participated, in a far greater way than 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.
Another recurring theme from the focus groups is that active library users regard the knowledge available to them through the library as extremely important and powerful within their citizenship and their roles within society.
Inclusion and integration also stands out as a theme, as participants in all areas talked about the library helping to establish a sense of community and society and about the library being very much a part of this and enabling this inclusion, particularly where individuals might be regarded as ‘marginalised’.
Similarly the participants in all the focus group were 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 research is limited in its scope in that only three UK locations are being used in order to inform the study. Similarly the scope of the research focuses on only active public library users and therefore cannot be regarded as completely representative of UK public library use. Having said this, the focus group methodology being used does allow for a richness and depth of data with regard to the themes coming from the research, which early indicators suggest are common across the three locations.
The benefit of the longitudinal nature of the research project will not have been realised by the time the conference is held as the three cohorts are not scheduled to be visited or revisited until late 2015. However the results and analysis of the initial focus group completes the pilot phase of the study and begins to demonstrate the impact that the UK public library service has on democracy and citizenship development. The results provide an important message to local authorities as to the value and impact that public libraries have on their communities and societies with regard to enabling citizenship and the library’s role as a democratic agent.
The paper will present on two main strands: an overview of the research project and a synopsis of the initial focus group results; and a review and analysis of the longitudinal focus group methodology.
Both strands will be of immense interest and use to anybody interested in qualitative methods for measuring and demonstrating library performance, and in particular the impact of public libraries.
Varheim, A. (2007) Social capital and public libraries: the need for research. Library and Information Science Research, 29, pp. 416-428