Ideas in Action

October 16, 2015 | Posted by: Nick Field

Reinventing the public value of libraries

Ask a middle aged person with grown up children what the purpose of a library is, and they are likely to tell you it is the loaning of books. Yet ask the same question now of new parents, community groups, children, and retirees and the answers would be quite different. They may espouse a place for:

  • Community meetings
  • Kids play groups
  • Guest speakers
  • Story-time
  • Computer use
  • Family history research
  • Internet lessons
  • Or a venue to exchange discussions and ideas.

So what’s changed? Libraries worldwide have had to re-think their purpose and act on what their customers (local communities) are now asking of them. The 19th century growth of libraries was based on the need to provide all members of a community (many often poorly educated and low income earners) with access to books, newspapers and printed materials. Such a model continued well into the 20th century, sending up stereotypical images of the dour librarian at the counter, dockets, fines and an environment where silence must prevail.


The times they are a-changing

But the advent of the internet, changing socio-economic demographics and the demands of the 21st century “information society” presented and still presents both opportunities and threats to the library sector. Many have embraced the required “populate or perish” style change (not without a little cultural change resistance along the way for a few), delivering diverse programs to meet community needs, establishing ‘makerspaces‘ for the community’s use of emerging technologies, redesigning the library spaces, keeping pace with access to IT changes, self check outs, accessing electronic data sources, and reinvesting book collections budgets into new media; whilst still making available a broad range of books and materials.

There has also been a radical rethink about the physical environment in which libraries operate, such as location, aesthetic, and architectural considerations. A google search for ‘modern libraries’ yields astounding and inspiring architectural wonders, all designed to cater for the needs of a new generation. Here in Melbourne, the City Library established ten years ago is nestled between a high profile café and an education institution in the bustling laneways, with a constant hum of activity and lunchtime musicians on the mezzanine. The newly opened Docklands library seeks to serve a growing number of apartment residents with contemporary architecture, activities and acts as a community focal point.

This is not to say there have not been challenges. Smaller regional and mobile libraries are being cut, as Australian local governments face the challenge of providing a range of services in difficult economic environments. Austerity measures in the UK has resulted in library closures or reduced hours and services. Yet the resulting community backlash has seen a rise in volunteerism to staff libraries, co-location with other community facilities and an increase in partnerships with academia. Necessity really can be the mother of invention!

It has become increasingly evident that for many libraries, their public value lies more in community interactions and information exchange.

It is time for a reboot

This is but one example of how some organisations have considered their public value purpose in conjunction with a fast changing external environment (e.g. political, economic, social, technological, environment, regulation) to successfully redefine their public value proposition. Applying our PACE model to these changed libraries to see what they done different, we can start to understand where some of the changes have been made (and importantly, how others can emulate them):

  • Purpose (outcomes) – Libraries are no longer repositories for books, they now exist as a vital community hub, facilitating community interaction, and information exchange.
  • Aspect (environment) – Libraries understand that the environment has drastically changed: Customers are digitally connected, public funding is limited, and yet libraries cater to a diverse range of ‘customers’, all of whom want something a little different.
  • Channel (outputs) – The best libraries have kept their purpose and awareness in the forefront as they re-designed their outputs and services. These libraries offer makerspaces to service groups who need a space to create and innovate (with these spaces often including 3D printers); interactive workshop and meeting rooms; e-book readers to load books not available at a particular library; through to education classes and tutorials for people who don’t have ready access to technology. All of these services have been designed with the customers in mind.
  • Engine (inputs) – To achieve all of the above, forward looking libraries have embraced a highly aspirational yet agile culture and organisation structure. They need to, given some of the resources limitations they face; yet in the face of that, libraries continue to innovate their way forward. A fun case in point:
Cube Group - PACE tool

Libraries aren’t the only organisation embracing this change. There is a pressure now for many other public value organisations to also embrace this change or be left behind. Looking around, we can see other community organisations such as churches, public houses, prisons, hospitals, and many others who are similarly faced with such challenges and are going through the same process of reinvention.

…and finally for those who thought libraries were just about books, it is high time you paid them another visit.


What other institutions can you see shifting their public value in the 21st century? Get in touch if you’d like to talk about reinventions.

Editor’s note: Nick wished to disclose that he is in fact married to a librarian!


1 Comment

  1. Hi Nick, fun piece and important work! The Shoalhaven crew are incredible! I adore my local library. It’s a treat to go there. So too, a new favourite, East Melbourne Library, which is a wonderful place. Light, airy, inviting, with an outside deck to read and type in the sun. My local library, South Yarra, is also an important place for people who feel lonely and want to read and be among others.

Cube is an ethical business

Cube is proud to be Australia's 165th Certified B Corporation and to be using our business as a force for good.

Read More