34 Million Reasons to Hire a Librarian

Last week in my assessment course, my instructor introduced a touchy subject for many libraries: return on investment (ROI).  I’ve written about my assessment course before, but that focused more on the act of assessing than the value therein.  Simply put, a lot of pressure is put on libraries to “prove their worth.”  Literally.  Enter ROI.


My classmates and I took it in turns to discuss Cornell University’s “Library Value Calculations” in which the annual cost of maintaining libraries/staff/materials/everything ($56,678,222) was compared to the value of materials, services, et cetera ($90,648,785).  Do the math.  Cornell University saves nearly thirty-four million dollars a year through its library system, and that is being conservative.

Admittedly, Cornell is making a large number of assumptions, which they have listed following each assertion.  For example, the first assertion, “[Estimated cost] for articles accessed online and through interlibrary services: $61,265,783” explicitly “assumes” that “commercial pay-per-view fairly describes the value of accessing a scholarly article.”  Furthermore, Cornell assumes that users would consume articles in the same manner they did in 2008/2009 if forced to pay per use.  Finally, the assumption is that articles could not be accessed through another institution, such as a public library.  Which, really, they probably couldn’t, but still.

Broadly speaking, I agree with Cornell’s valuations of functions and services, although they certainly skate over the basics.  I would be interested in separating “ready reference” questions from simple patron interactions (checking out a book), and furthermore, pulling out extended reference interactions.  I believe that the more substantive extended reference interactions are those that are truly valued at $15.00 apiece.  In all fairness, however, the bulk of the Libraries’ value comes from access to articles.   It’s worth noting here that I’m confused abut arXiv ‘s separation from other articles, but oh well.

I mentioned previously that the 90 million dollar price tag is conservative, and that is primarily because the concept of library as space is not addressed.  Libraries function as meeting spaces with room to work individually or collaborative, and to access and use the Internet, among other things.  The cost of maintaining library as space is already rolled into the annual cost of maintenance for the Cornell University Library.  If we added the cost of using an alternative space — say a local Starbucks where you will, incidentally, pay an astronomical price for your venti-decaf-fat-free-with-whip-pumpkin-spice-latte-with-a-shot for the privilege of using their “free” internet — we might end up with a more significant disparity between our final numbers.

The Cornell University Library is clearly making the argument that its library, librarians, and the services it provides are worth significantly more than required by an annual investment.  So, do that mean that having a library/battalion of brilliant librarians saves you money?  Cornell’s Library thinks so.  What are your thoughts?


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