META is a multi-year research project begun in the fall of 2008 to provide insight into and a robust model of the economic value of public libraries. The results will be useful on many levels:
- Building national research capacity: the results of the project will help clarify a number of issues for researchers, including the effectiveness of different means of assessing the economic performance of public libraries, measurements that can withstand analysis and testing for homogeneity, and profitable directions for new empirical studies that build cumulative knowledge.
- Facilitating community engagement: The transferable value estimates and communication models produced by the project will allow practitioners to provide new and relatively reliable information concerning the likely impact of library services and library volunteer efforts in their communities. As well as providing a new sense of value, this type of information makes a clear argument for both institutional ownership and citizen engagement.
- Strengthening local advocacy capacity: The project’s findings will strengthen library advocates’ ability to present a multi faceted argument for the value of public libraries. While economic analysis rarely stands on its own as a convincing agent, its absence is noted when it is unspoken or unavailable to those who must assess competing departmental and funding priorities.
- Diversity: This project will be of particular value to small public libraries with operating budgets and service priorities that are likely to preclude local economic assessment and modeling. In the many cases where these libraries are centered in remote, rural, and diverse communities, the librarians and community members will have a stronger argument for becoming involved in public libraries and improving library services without incurring time and fiscal expenses that might typically exceed their grasp.
Over the past years, many studies of the economic impact of public libraries have been performed both in the United States and abroad. Almost all of these studies concentrated on two basic questions:
- Whether there is evidence that public libraries contribute to the economic prosperity of the communities they serve.
- How these benefits might be reliably characterized.
These studies show considerable diversity in the populations studied, which range from national, to major metropolitan library systems, to small urban areas, and state-wide studies. The methodologies are equally varied. Some studies make extensive use of contingent valuation techniques and indirect economic impact measures. Other studies use attributed valuation of service measures and indirect economic impact measures. Some of the studies rely extensively on interviews and focus groups while others use locally or nationally collected statistical data.
This project differs significantly from these efforts while making extensive use of their findings. Its wide scope will not be population or locality specific and, rather than collecting new data, it will use meta-analysis techniques to draw conclusions developed by integrating the results of these and other studies and probing them for patterns that should:
- Improve our understanding of the economic effects of public library services.
- Point out weaknesses and strengths of the methodologies used in earlier studies.
- Contribute to theory development about the economic benefits of public libraries.
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Phase 1: Data Collection and Organization
The first step in this process will be the identification and assembly of a comprehensive international collection of empirical studies that report economic benefit measures developed using the four approaches previously indicated:
- Contingent valuation
- Cost-benefit analysis
- Economic modeling techniques
- Externality assessments.
As these are assembled, the research team will create bibliographic records for each study as well as meta-data that indicate the elements used to create these measurements, the type of benefit reported, the size of the benefit effect, and additional contextual variables that are likely to influence the size of the benefit effects reported. These descriptive and contextual elements will be drawn primarily from the meta-analysis eligibility criteria developed by Lipsey and Wilson (2001), but exemplary meta-analysis research studies conducted in the medical, environmental, and public policy domains will also be reviewed in order to develop a wide and theoretically supported coding scheme.
These data will be entered into a master database of studies and their content will be later used to create and annotated literature review that clarifies and summarizes the contributions that these studies have made, as well as their progress toward a comprehensive research agenda. Both of these products, the database and the literature review, are intended to create a firm foundation for the META project, but when they are made available, they will also minimize the scholarly resources required for a wide range of subsequent economic assessment studies.
Once the research team has created the master database, the benefit estimates will be parsed into four additional data files, each of which will contain benefit effect findings produced using the four previously described assessment strategies. In contrast to the master database, these data files will have one record for each benefit effect reported and each benefit effect will be coded using the same metric. In cases where a study has used more than one assessment strategy, the study and its descriptive elements will appear in more than one data file.
Phase 2: Data Analysis
Phase 2 efforts will focus on the development of a rigorous meta-analysis model that explores the size and underlying relationships that characterize the selected economic value assessments. The calculations will treat the measurements in each file separately since the effect measures in the files are methodologically distinct (Lipsey and Wilson, 2001). Although the model calculations cannot be developed without reference to the data, it is expected that it will treat the benefit estimates in each file as “single variable relationships” similar to measurements that record test scores and other observations with values that are represented with a single variable (Lipsey and Wilson, 2001, p. 38).
Once the model is developed, it will be used to systematically explore the consistency of the economic value estimates, their predictable magnitude, and the contextual factors that figure in their variation. The results of these analysis should provide a clearer picture of value estimates that might be used to characterize the economic value of public libraries at a national level, identify some of the relative merits of typically used assessment strategies, and expose some of the factors that might be manipulated in order to increase the return on public library investments.
Phase 3: Results and Dissemination
Phase 3 efforts will focus on two related objectives. First, once completed, the proposed analysis should provide new insight concerning public libraries’ contributions to the economic prosperity of the communities they serve and the levels of economic benefit that are likely to accrue from public library services. Ongoing dissemination of these results within the academic and research communities can be expected to produce a sharper focus on these issues while encouraging cooperative dialog and peer assessments. In order to accomplish these objectives, progress reports will be made while the project is ongoing, and the results of the study will be presented in research and practice oriented publications, workshops, and presentations at professional meetings.
The second objective focuses on the development of continuing education, workshop, and curricular resources that provide models for the integration of results of the literature review and meta-analysis into effective advocacy presentations. The need for these materials was raised at an October 2007 Council of State Library Agencies in the Northeast (COSLINE) workshop, and development of these web-based materials falls within the ongoing relationship between the University of South Carolina Center for Teaching Excellence and the University of South Carolina School of Library and Information Science (SLIS). SLIS has long been a leader in developing distance education products, and these teaching modules will be made nationally available on the SLIS website.
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