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From Need to Want: How to Maximize Social Impact for Libraries, Archives, and Museums

At the NDP at Three event organized by IMLS yesterday, Sayeed Choudhury on the “Open Scholarly Communications” panel suggested that libraries think about return on impact in addition to return on investment (ROI). He further elaborated on this point by proposing a possible description of such impact. His description was that when an object or resource created through scholarly communication efforts is being used by someone we don’t know and is interpreted correctly without contacting us (=libraries, archives, museums etc.), that is an impact; to push that further, if someone uses the object or the resource in a way we didn’t anticipate, that’s an impact; if it is integrated into someone’s workflow, that’s also an impact.

This emphasis on impact as a goal for libraries, archives, and museums (or non-profit organizations in general to apply broadly) resonated with me particularly because I gave a talk just a few days ago to a group of librarians at the IOLUG conference about how libraries can and should maximize their social impact in the context of innovation in the way many social entrepreneurs have been already doing for quite some time. In this post, I would like to revisit one point that I made in that talk. It is a specific interpretation of the idea of maximizing social impact as a conscious goal for libraries, archives, and museums (LAM). Hopefully, this will provide a useful heuristic for LAM institutions in mapping out the future efforts.

Considering that ROI is a measure of cost-effectiveness, I believe impact is a much better goal than ROI for LAM institutions. We often think that to collect, organize, provide equitable access to, and preserve information, knowledge, and cultural heritage is the goal of a library, an archive, and a museum. But doing that well doesn’t mean simply doing it cost-effectively. Our efforts no doubt aim at achieving better-collected, better-organized, better-accessed, and better-preserved information, knowledge, and cultural heritage. However, our ultimate end-goal is attained only when such information, knowledge, and cultural heritage is better used by our users. Not simply better accessed, but better used in the sense that the person gets to leverage such information, knowledge, and cultural heritage to succeed in whatever endeavor that s/he was making, whether it be career success, advanced education, personal fulfillment, or private business growth. In my opinion, that’s the true impact that LAM institutions should aim at. If that kind of impact were a destination, cost-effectiveness is simply one mode of transportation, preferred one maybe but not quite comparable to the destination in terms of importance.

But what does “better used” exactly mean? “Integrated into people’s workflow” is a hint; “unanticipated use” is another clue. If you are like me and need to create and design that kind of integrated or unanticipated use at your library, archive, or museum, how will you go about that? This is the same question we ask over and over again. How do you plan and implement innovation? Yes, we will go talk to our users, ask what they would like to see, meet with our stakeholders and find out their interests and concerns are, discuss ourselves what we can do to deliver things that our users want, and go from there to another wonderful project we work hard for. Then after all that, we reach a stage where we stop and wonder where that “greater social impact” went in almost all our projects. And we frantically look for numbers. How many people accessed what we created? How many downloads? What does the satisfaction survey say?

In those moments, how does the “impact” verbiage help us? How does that help us in charting our actual path to creating and maximizing our social impact more than the old-fashioned “ROI” verbiage? At least ROI is quantifiable and measurable. This, I believe, is why we need a more concrete heuristic to translate the lofty “impact” to everyday “actions” we can take. Maybe not quite as specific as to dictate what exactly those actions are at each project level but a bit more specific to enable us to frame the value we are attempting to create and deliver at our LAM institutions beyond cost-effectiveness.

I think the heuristic we need is the conversion of need to demand. What is an untapped need that people are not even aware of in the realm of information, knowledge, and cultural heritage? When we can identify any such need in a specific form and successfully convert that need to a demand, we make an impact. By “demand,” I mean the kind of user experience that people will desire and subsequently fulfill by using that object, resource, tool, service, etc., we create at our library, archive, and museum. (One good example of such desirable UX that comes to my mind is NYPL Photo Booth: https://www.nypl.org/blog/2013/08/12/snapshots-nypl.) When we create a demand out of such an untapped need, when the fulfillment of that kind of demand effectively creates, strengthens, and enriches our society in the direction of information, knowledge, evidence-based decisions, and truth being more valued, promoted, and equitably shared, I think we get to maximize our social impact.

In the last “Going Forward” panel where the information discovery was discussed, Loretta Parham pointed out that in the corporate sector, information finds consumers, not the other way. By contrast, we (by which I mean all of us working at LAM institutions) still frame our value in terms of helping and supporting users access and use our material, resources, and physical and digital objects and tools. This is a mistake in my opinion, because it is a self-limiting value proposition for libraries, archives, and museums.

What is the point of us LAM institutions, working so hard to get the public to use their resources and services? The end goal is so that we can maximize our social impact through such use. The rhetoric of “helping and supporting people to access and use our resources” does not adequately convey that. Businesses want their clients to use their goods and services, of course. But their real target is the making of profit out of those uses, aka purchases.

Similarly, but far more importantly, the real goal of libraries, archives and museums is to move the society forward, closer in the direction of knowledge, evidence-based decisions, and truth being more valued, promoted, and equitably shared. One person at a time, yes, but the ultimate goal reaching far beyond individuals. The end goal is maximizing our impact on this side of the public good.