The Value of Library Resources

The end of the year is budget season. For librarians, part of the budgetary process is looking at our collections, calculating how much it will cost to keep each service, print or electronic, and then deciding if the cost of the service reflects the value we get from that service.

When I look at what the value of an item is for my library, I consider a number of variables:

  • Current usage. Circulation statistics do not tell the whole story. Some lawyers use books in the library rather than checking them out. Other lawyers may take a book out for months at a time and when other users need it, they go to the lawyer’s office to consult it; as a result, in the circulation statistics it appears as only one use.
  • Potential usage. Are there people who should be using a resource but aren’t? If not, why not? It can be illuminating talking to library clients about why they choose not to use certain materials. One interesting phenomenon I have discovered is that once a loose-leaf is cancelled and has labels indicating that it is no longer being updated, it loses value for some researchers. People who will happily use a book published in 2010 will dismiss a loose-leaf last updated in 2011 as being “out of date”; they perceive the loose-leaf as no longer having any value.
  • Quality. This includes the quality of information in the resource, currency of information, and ease of use.
  • Alternatives. Sometimes you subscribe to a resource that is mediocre because there aren’t any alternatives.
  • Accessibility. What are the licencing restrictions on a product if it is an online service? Something that only one person can use is generally less valuable than something that can have multiple users.
  • Cost. How does the cost of the product compare to similar products? Is there something else that would do the same job but is cheaper? Can we lower the effective price by recovering costs?

Value is a very individual thing. What is valuable to one organization may not be valuable to another. Even within an organization, one person’s “can’t live without” resource is another person’s “why are we spending money on this?” item.

Furthermore, the value of materials does not remain static. The value of a resource to an organization can change if the organization loses (or gains) a working group, a publisher introduces a competing resource, or the cost of the resource increases.

Loose-leafs are an obvious example of where value has shifted. A number of loose-leaf services still include legislation although it is freely available online and is generally more current. In the past, when consolidated legislation was harder to come by, this legislation was a valuable part of the loose-leaf service. Nowadays, including legislation in a loose-leaf lessens rather than adds value; the loose-leaf takes up more space in the library (when library space is shrinking) and releases take more staff time to file.

Electronic resources are another area where value has changed. In the past expensive electronic services could be justified since all or most of the costs were recovered, but this is decreasingly the case. I have been told by a number of people that clients do not want to pay for database costs (or other law firm costs) since they feel that they should be considered overhead and included in the hourly rate. However, these resources still have to be paid for; if they are being treated as overhead, do lawyers feel that they represent value for money, and if clients are being charged for them, can we justify their use to the clients? The argument that vendors make when they sell us these services is that these databases will make lawyers more efficient (effectively saving the client money by reducing lawyer time spent on a file) and improve the quality of research (which in turn improves the quality of the work done for the client).

Sometimes you need to be creative in order to get the most value for your money. David Whelan talks about this in his article on How to Deal with Legal Publishers; he argues that you can increase the value of the services you are purchasing by not just automatically renewing what you already have:

“I try to … closely monitor what is being used and what isn’t and renegotiate the content as frequently as I can. When you start talking about different slices of information and swapping in some and swapping out others, you’re no longer just talking about price increases in lockstep. You may still experience an equivalent percentage increase, but you will be fine tuning your collection.”

Librarians (and their library users) should not be wedded to the “we’ve always had this” mentality, but this is easier said than done. As Sarah Sutherland said in her recent SLAW article, “most people value the cost of losing something higher than than the cost of gaining something.”

When making changes to the library collection, librarians need to be able to clearly convey why a resource has lost its value. Whether resources are treated as overhead, or charged back to clients, it is important that librarians understand the value of items to their users and are able to articulate the value of these resources to other stakeholders.


  1. Susannah,
    Thanks for the reference.
    Confidentiality clauses can make it difficult, but in the past I have had good luck with: “it costs $ x, do you think it’s worth $ x?” when reassessing collections.
    Often the particular hypothetical use someone is anticipating doesn’t warrant the price.

  2. Well said Susannah! Thank you.

  3. Agreed, it is so important for us to figure out how to articulate the value of purchasing library resources to stakeholders. I admire how Stanford University Libraries used acknowledgments of libraries and librarians in published materials as a measurement of library impact on scholarship – especially interesting as it hows how high impact resources are not necessarily high usage resources.

  4. Of value to the library world…to consider the use of SharePoint summary monthly or quarterly metrics dashboard. 1-2 pages
    Metrics: That can be both summary statistical data as well as key ROI cases.
    Imagine if the law library pulled in from the legal publishers, user metrics on licensed databases and internal knowledgebases.

    Metrics don’t tell the whole story but sure would be a great fantastic opportunity for library for flashier business reporting that gives trends.