View of Bournemouth seafront from BIALL 2019

How much would you sell your library card for?

July 18, 2019
Clare Brown

I was reading through my #BIALL2019 notes and decided to amalgamate two related sets. The first is the excellent “Designing Client-centred Knowledge Services” by Sophie Thompson. The second is the case study on “Contingent Valuation Surveys” presented by the Middle Temple Library team. Both offered practical insights into providing - and improving - excellent library services.

ROI and the value of the information centre was recently raised at AALL 2019 - it’s an ongoing, universal issue. As Lee Bernstein pointed out, it allows the library to argue for its own existence at a time when firms are cutting costs. It’s important to think differently and “explain to our own staff, that in an effort to not be outsourced, you have to ask how they’re going to demonstrate value.” 

So perhaps a Contingent Valuation Survey might be helpful? First up though, let's think about service design. 

View of Bournemouth seafront from BIALL 2019

What is service design?

Sophie described the IDEO process, which emerged from tech/software design techniques, and went though how it could be applied to commercial library and information services. It is defined as:

[t]he craft of tying together human, digital, and physical interactions, over time, to create an experience that meets the needs of your customers. Delivering great service can be challenging, but you can use design thinking to understand people's needs, look holistically at the interactions you have with customers, and constantly iterate your way forward. Ideo

It is a practical, step-by-step approach to thinking about creating innovative solutions. She said it is easy to scale and anyone can apply and use these tools. 

The process of design thinking

As the session progressed, our tables set to work with case studies, post-it notes and quiet discussion. She took us through the four practical stages of design thinking: 

  • Research / Inspiration - Practice empathy and ask what is it like to be the client or end-user. Everyone has a different path and so you need to talk to people to understand what they need. Come with an open mind and think about alternative ways of service delivery.
  • Ideate - despite the dubious terminology, once you have started the thought process you and your team will come up with lots of ideas. If you’re immersed within your community and their needs, accept that there will be plenty of potential starting points. Grouping common themes and collaborate for more input.
  • Prototype - Once you have a viable concept you can start thinking about how to refine it - as Sophie said, “think by making”. This is a challenge within a service environment but there are ways to make it visual - use storyboards, a proof of concept, or limiting to a highly engaged test group. Incorporate feedback, and keep refining before implementation.
  • Implement - Only when you are ready should you roll out your new initiative - she was keen to highlight the human element in this part. Where appropriate, you should be ready with a project plan/business case but don’t make these so inflexible that you lose people in the process. Keep listening to people and make it collaborative and relevant. 

Your team should be behind the project and ready to make the concept real. All your preparation will pay off - stick to your timeline, stay within budget, tell people about your successes, and you should start reaping real benefits. The challenge is not jumping to the implementation stage. Stop, look, listen. Which brings me on to Contingent Valuation...

How might Contingent Valuation help you?

Throughout the design process it’s a constant cycle of learning, evaluation, and refinement. There are lots of ways to measure success and the key is to understand which is right for your purposes. You can simply measure service footfall, but if you’re trying to measure value, you may need a more nuanced approach.

The session from the Middle Temple allowed us to explore their experience with contingent valuation. For those who had never heard of CV, it can be defined like this:

[It is a] pricing method that depends on customers' responses to survey questions, such as what they are willing to pay for a benefit or feature, or what they would accept as a compensation if a certain benefit or feature was missing.

There is a lot of literature about contingent valuation in other contexts, for example environmental impact reports. This method has been used as a way of demonstrating the value of libraries to their wider community. The British Library has used it, and now the Middle Temple is the first law library to have utilised it, so their experience is valuable.

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Surveys are always a challenge to design, and this one was particularly difficult because there was no law library precedent to follow. They adapted publicly available survey templates, and made full use of the Scottish public libraries example spreadsheets. 

How do you ask users to value a library service? What is their library card worth? They were keen to ask respondents to think about alternatives - where else would they get information if the service didn’t exist? What would it cost in terms of time and effort? They reassured respondents that it was only hypothetical!

  • Format: They asked 27 value based questions using Survey Monkey and ensured it would only take 9 minutes to complete. Paper copies were made available. There were also options to add comments because although they wanted to focus on value, it was a good opportunity to get wider feedback
  • Audience: They targeted Middle Temple members so this excluded clerks, general public or student users etc
  • Testing: They tested it for sense and flow internally across a range of barristers
  • Promotion: They wanted a broad response from London-based and national members, so advertised across social media and the Middle Temple newsletter. They offered a prize draw to encourage participation
  • Response: They received 177 responses and some of the comments were insightful. For example, one person mentioned the height of chairs in the library, so they are able to rethink ergonomic workstation designs. 

 It raised more questions than answers because of the variables involved.

What did they learn from the Contingent Valuation experience?

It was a lot of work to create this survey and analyse all the information. They received a large quantity of data but at the heart of it, learnt that the service they provide is highly valued by their end-users. Forcing people to think about value when something is perceived as ‘free’ can be a great promotional exercise. However there are limitations. 

  • Many end-users don’t know the answer to some of the value questions - people have no idea how much a subscription costs. This isn’t their fault but as a result you are relying on nebulous opinions.  
  • They excluded end-users who could have provided useful feedback, for instance clerks and practice managers. 
  • There were privacy issues around earnings, rent, and other commercially sensitive data which might have skewed results
  • They had no comparative data from other Inns of Court
  • And finally they admitted that they were perhaps ‘too librarian like’ in wanting a prompt response from users. Next time they did they said that they would run the survey for a long time, over a 3 - 6 month period. 

Both service design and CV are connected through a requirement for a continuous circle of service improvement. As we focus on our users’ needs and acknowledge the ‘people process’ at the centre of what we do, we need to address any gaps. But we must take care to look at the service and wider environment to demonstrate value - and ROI