Public Value Narratives: Libraries

Creating Public Value Narratives

Prepared by University of Minnesota Professor Emeritus of Applied Economics George W. Morse

The “public value narrative” for your library is a persuasive statement. It asserts your library is a “good investment” for the community and “a vital part of the community’s infrastructure” rather than “just nice to have.” The assertion has to be backed up with evidence in order to make it persuasive.

The evidence comes in the form of personal stories of how the library impacted an individual patron (private value), logic that shows this private value translates into indirect benefits for many non-patrons or partial patrons, evidence that this logic is correct, and data that shows that the private and public benefits are significant (usually done by sharing the number of patrons using the service referenced in the story.) For some persons, the story will be sufficient evidence while others will be more likely to want both the story, the logic of public value, and statistics on the scope of use. Try to have as many as possible in addition to the story.

The elements of a public value narrative are the same for all public services: libraries, outreach educational programs, roads, etc. All of them combine five elements:

  1. A clear statement of how you would like the listeners to change their attitudes about the service.
  2. A story about the way the service impacted a patron of the service;
  3. A statistic on the number of patrons;
  4. A public value statement which links the changes in patrons’ behaviors due to the service in ways that generate indirect benefits for non-patrons (often those who are paying for the service via taxes); and
  5. Research that the change in patrons’ behavior outlined in the public value statement are true. The above are illustrated using library services but apply to most types of publicly provided services.

Statement on Desired Attitude Change: You are working on stories about the public value of your service or parts of your service because you want the listener or reader to support you financially. To get this support, you want the listener to realize that your service is an excellent investment, even if they are not a direct patron. For example, for libraries, you would use some variation of: “Let me tell you a short story of why I think our library is a great investment for all of us.” Alternatively, you might just want the listener to emphasize that everyone in the community benefits in some way from the library, possibly starting with: “Let me tell you a short story which illustrates why I think the library benefits the entire community, even people that don’t use it.” Don’t forget to end at the same point.

The exact language you use for convincing your listener that your service (e.g. library) is a good investment doesn’t matter. But every story about different parts of your service (e.g. in a library – early reading programs to services to shut-ins) should focus on building the attitude that the library is a good investment. You don’t need to ask for money for the annual appeal or a capital campaign but you are building toward that at some point. And, as discussed under public value, you want people to realize that it’s a good investment for patrons, partial patrons, and non-patrons. Be creative in how you cover this – but cover it at the beginning and end.

For additional ideas on the attitude changes which might help be useful in building funding support for libraries, see pages 6-12 in Chapter 6 of “From Awareness to Funding (PDF).”

Stories About Your Library: Stories are an effective and memorable way to illustrate how your library makes a difference in the lives of your patrons. Stories carry more emotional punch than just a strict logic model statement and hence people remember them longer and are more moved to action. Some youngsters learned to love reading or even learned to read. Immigrants learned American customs and culture, found a job, or built entrepreneurial skills. There are many stories about why patrons love libraries. But for a story to be useful in explaining the public value, it has to show how it changed the life of a  single user and in a way that creates spillover benefits. Most people find it much easier to describe the public value when they start with a story. However, if you don’t feel like a natural storyteller, here are some tips for finding and developing the stories that we have found very useful.

Particularly note what the authors Michael Bosworth and Ben Zoldan say about adding emotion to the story and how to use story cards to help you tell a story with emotion.

For examples of stories that others have developed on libraries, click on: Stories: How My Library Makes a Difference and Changes Lives — Libraries’ Direct Benefits:

Statistics on Participation Reinforce Story: Helping one kid learn to read is great but it’s even better when more are helped. Start with a story about one person who is impacted by the service and then point out that many others also participate in this same service. For example, in the story on 8 year old Curt reading to a dog in the library, Curt’s Story, we then point out that 100 other kids are in this program.  So include the number of participants after telling the story. See the narratives for examples of this. There are pros and cons to using stories vs. statistics. But we suggest you use both.

Research on Impacts of Library Programs: While stories provide an emotional punch, some listeners will be more impressed with in-depth research on the effectiveness of a particular service. As one of my former Purdue professor used to sarcastically say: “You can prove anything with a good story but will it hold up generally?” Stories, statistics on participation and public value messages are valuable. But sometimes popular programs seem valuable but actually are not effective. When this is the case, there is no long term direct benefit to the participants (even if they enjoyed the program at the time). When there are no direct benefits, there are no indirect benefits or public value. So it is important to identify any research which documents the effectiveness of the program in creating the direct impacts. For an example of that, see the section on research.

This part of the narrative isn’t always easy to do. Sometimes there just is no research on the effectiveness or you haven’t found it yet.  Here are several steps if you don’t have it:

  1. Look through the examples in this website to see if other stories have already identified it. Stories: How My Library Makes a Difference and Changes Lives — Libraries’ Direct Benefits:
  2. Do a literature review, or ask others to help with this, to check on existing research. Be careful when doing this, however. Treat each claim of results with skepticism so that you get results which will stand in-depth scrutiny.
  3. If you don’t have any evidence of the validity of your logic chain, you can either do nothing or use the logic and if challenged, say:
    1. “I don’t have the type of research evidence that you are asking about yet. But I’m pretty confident that this is correct. What do you think? Is there evidence you know of that runs counter to what I’ve suggested?”
    2. “I don’t have the type of research evidence that you are asking about yet. We are exploring that with researchers at the University of “XYZ.” But do you think our logic is incorrect?”

Public Value Statements: Stories and statistics paint a picture of how the library is of value to patrons. However, others in the community often want to know how, or if, the library benefits those who do not use the library — or how libraries create in-direct benefits for non-patrons. For examples, see the public value statements at end of Curt’s story and the other narratives. Stories are better when the public value statement is developed before developing the story.

Sometimes, however, the public value statements are used alone. For a list of 15 different public value statements, developed by Maine librarians, trustees and community members in 2013 and 2014, check out these public value statements. You can add them to public value narratives or use on their own.

Identification of the public value is easier if you use a public value message graphic to trace the action from the service provided by a library to the private and public value. For an example of how to do this, see the following: Identifying the Public Value a Unique Public Service.