The values of public libraries: a systematic review of empirical studies of stakeholder perceptions

Date08 March 2020
Publication Date08 March 2020
AuthorKristian Møhler Sørensen
SubjectLibrary & information science,Records management & preservation,Document management,Classification & cataloguing,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Scholarly communications/publishing,Information & knowledge management,Information management & governance,Information management,Information & communications technology,Internet
The values of public libraries: a
systematic review of empirical
studies of stakeholder perceptions
Kristian Møhler Sørensen
Department of Design and Communication,
University of Southern Denmark-Campus Kolding,
Kolding, Denmark
Purpose Public librariesrelevance and raison d^
etre towards society is an often discussed subject within
public, politics and research. The objective of this systematic literature review is to provide a synthesis of
empirical studies of stakeholdersperceived values of public libraries.
Design/methodology/approach The review is based on a structured literature search that was conducted
in seven databases. Two independent participants carried out a two-step screening of the identified studies.
Firstly, the studies were screened on basis of title and abstract. Secondly, studies that were included in the
titleabstract screening were full-text screened.Conflicting studies were discussed, and consensus between the
reviewers was reached. Citation searches of each included study were conducted along with scrutinising cited
literature. The included studies were subject to a risk of bias assessment on basis of a developed risk of the bias
tool, and qualitative analysis was provided.
Findings Of all, 4,086 studies were screened and 19 were retained for the review. The studies consisted of
both quantitative and qualitative investigations of different stakeholders in a variety of countries. The reported
values varied across the studies and stakeholders.
Originality/value This is the first study that systematically reviews empirical literature that explores
stakeholdersperceived values of public libraries. The paper suggests further recommendations for empirical
research of values connected to public libraries.
Keywords Public libraries, Stakeholders, Value analysis, Assessment, Systematic review, Value perception
Paper type Literature review
Universal access to information and communication is continuously being subjected to
development. The opportunity for instant access to publishing, viewing and sharing
information and communication changes peoples social lives and therefore also the way they
communicate (Rainie and Wellman, 2012). Additionally, the changing information and
communication landscape affects and challenges the value of public libraries as gatekeepers
of democracy and facilitators of democratic and public debate (Audunson et al., 2019). This
challenge is strongly connected to the issues of defining public libraries in times of changing
needs and behaviour. Hence, public libraries are struggling to measure and demonstrate their
impact and value in areas such as culture, society and information access.
A variety of studies have investigated public libraries with different approaches to outline
the perception of values, e.g. by describing the roles of public libraries (Audunson, 2005a,b;
Smith, 2008), the outcomes (Vakkari et al., 2016), the benefits (Sin and Vakkari, 2015) or the
values (Hawkins et al., 2001;Paberza, 2010). Even though the approaches to values have been
operationalised differently in research, a general definition of values can be defined as
something that [...]tie[s] together how individuals think about the world and how they feel
values of
public libraries
The author of this article acknowledges Tove Faber Frandsen, Professor at the Department of Design
and Communication, University of Southern Denmark, for the assistance as a reviewer in the screening
of studies. Furthermore, the referees who peer-reviewed this paper are acknowledged for thoroughly
providing useful comments.
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Received 10 October 2019
Revised 27 January 2020
Accepted 30 January 2020
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 76 No. 4, 2020
pp. 909-927
© Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/JD-10-2019-0201
about the world(Jaeger and Fleischmann, 2007). As a concept, value is dependent on
perceptions of individuals or groups of stakeholders in their interactions with public libraries,
whether this is embedded in the actual use of the library or in public discourse. The current
definition contributes a qualitative perspective on how values are created in the minds of
users when they reflect on or interact with public libraries.
Monetary values can also be associated with library impact. In a narrative literature
review, Missingham (2005) reports on three waves of studies that aim to assess the
economic value of public libraries. The first wave demonstrates library efficiency in
terms of financially responsible management (Wilson and Pitman, 1999). The second one
focuses on demonstrating library success in lights of financial return (Griffiths and King,
1993;Marshall, 1993). The third wave considers the relative value related to groups of
stakeholders. The latter perspective focuses on an economic valuation while assessing
the perceived value of library services withafocusonreturnoninvestmentand
contingent valuation (Matarazzo and Prusak, 1995;Aabø, 2004).
Qualitative values of public libraries suggest values such as the public library as a public
place (Alstad and Curry, 2003;Audunson, 2005a;Given and Leckie, 2003), the public library
as a provider of digital means and facilitator of digital literacy (Audunson, 2005b;Bertol et al.,
2006;Jaeger and Fleischmann, 2007;Kosciejew, 2019), the public library as creator of social
capital (Johnson, 2010,2012;V
arheim, 2007,2009;V
arheim et al., 2008) and finally as a
gatekeeper of values such as democracy and enlightenment, a space where cross-cultural
citizens meet with open and free access to information, knowledge and culture (Alstad and
Curry, 2003;Audunson et al., 2019;Johnson, 2010,2012;V
arheim, 2007,2009;V
arheim et al.,
2008;Aabø et al., 2010).
Present research has established that public libraries are an institution that provides the
society with instrumental and monetary impact (Aabø, 2004). Studies have shown that public
libraries also persist of intangible values. Within research of cultural value, intangible values
are described as an intrinsic value (Holden, 2004;Scott, 2006;Crossick and Kaszynska, 2014).
This term is transferable for public libraries, as these can be associated with cultural
institutions (Audunson, 2005b). The studies mentioned above thoroughly describe these by
demonstrating how public libraries function as not only an economical catalyst to the society
but also as a community asset in terms of its space. The study carried out by Miller (2017) is a
multi-classification study of rural libraries of the United States It explored the differences in
the asset holdings of public libraries in terms of the distance from urbanised areas and urban
clusters. The study specifically focuses on what the implications of potential differences in
rural community development are and it found that small rural libraries sustained their
economic contribution to the community. Blackburn (2017) discusses two examples of
community engagement in Australian public libraries by the use of practitioner research
methods and finds that the community is vigour and is willing to engage actively with public
libraries. These findings acknowledge the potential for public libraries to act as more than
just an economic impact factor but as an institution that can provide both instrumental
impact and intrinsic added value to society.
As shown, many researchers discuss the role and value of public libraries. The
studies have each demonstrated parts of public librariesoverall value to society. In
order to thoroughly understand the full aspect of public libraries value to society, there
is a substantial need to gather and review empirical studies of values systematically.
Only few studies have focused on synthesising what is already known about values of
public libraries. Recently, Stenstrom et al. (2019) addressed the values of public libraries
in a narrative literature review of 130 studies. With a basis in these studies, they have
found two aspects of value: financial value and social value of libraries. In a meta-
analysis, Aabø (2009) investigated known aspects of the economic valuation of public

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