Article: Creating a Culture of Meaningful Evaluation in Public Libraries

by Bill Irwin and Paul G. St-Pierre
DOI: 10.1177/2158244014561214 Published 3 December 2014


The current state of practice sees public libraries, like all public institutions, enduring funding challenges within the dominant political-economic environment, which is shaped by the tenets of new public management and the neoliberal audit society. Libraries, feeling threatened and unsure about their future stability, seek new ways to demonstrate their value. However, they face institutional cultural constraints when attempting to introduce new assessment methods to meet this challenge. The new dynamics require them to go beyond output measures (counts). With research findings supported by survey and interview data from Ontario public libraries, and in agreement with the current literature on the subject, we propose a new model to address this phenomenon, serving two purposes: demonstrating a library’s present state of cultural readiness to introduce new systems of outcome assessment and charting a path toward creating a culture of meaningful evaluation.

The societal context in which public libraries operate is rapidly changing, presenting them daily with various challenges: in the field of digitization, changing usage patterns, and evolving expectations of patrons. At the same time, Ontario public libraries, as creatures of their respective municipalities, exist within a predominately neoliberal audit environment that constantly challenges them to demonstrate their value and relevance. As the prevailing ideological positioning of many decision makers tends to take on a new public management approach (NPM), in which private sector principles and practices are applied in public sector organizations (Howlett, Ramesh, & Perl, 2009; McDavid, Huse, & Hawthorn, 2013; Pal, 2010), the valuation of libraries takes the form of economical frames. As such, public libraries compete with other municipal services for resources and priority.

In this article, we take a traditional public service perspective to explore the challenges inherent in introducing an outcome-based evaluation system to a public library, rejecting the currently in vogue neoliberal mind-set. As we delved into this issue, we discovered that the current preference for NPM alone could not satisfactorily explain public libraries evaluation preferences. Organizational culture plays an equal, if not more significant, role in maintaining the current state of affairs. This article unpacks our findings through five sections. First, we define the issue of evaluation through a classic public service lens. We then present results from a survey of the current state of outcome measurement in Ontario public libraries. Third, we analyze the influence of organizational culture in maintaining the status quo. Fourth, we present a theoretical model integrating organizational culture and evaluation, focused on moving libraries from a culture of resistance to meaningful evaluation, through to accepting and embedding the practice in library work flows. Finally, we suggest steps for moving beyond theory and implementing the model in library practice. We believe that establishing more effective forms of evaluation will help public libraries to better demonstrate the impact they have on their communities.

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Published by the SAGEOpen (open access)