Stuck on a problem …

When I left full-time public library work in 2003 and began a shift of my professional identity – from practitioner to LIS researcher-doctoral student, I brought with me a few particular “problem statements” that remain unanswered from my practice. And one of the most important ones relates to the ideas of “value” – value as an economic concept, value as a social and philosophical concept. Library values and library value – for example, intellectual freedom and contingent valuation schemes for library services.
If you substitute the word “value” and its derivatives for the words “good” and “goodness” in the following statement from Buckland, (1982, 1988), then the conversation has not-so-simply moved across the time-space continuum, but the problem remains: have we actually resolved this issue as Buckland characterized it?

The concept of library goodness is ambiguous: “How good is it?” a measure of quality and “What good does it do?”a measure of value. are valid but quite different questions. If not, why not …. Although the quest for the Grail of Library Goodness has not (yet) been successful, there has been no lack of measures of performance proposed, nor of people proposing them. There have been plenty of suggestions. What is lacking is a sense of coherence ….

I continue to believe that despite a great deal of progress made on methods for assessing library performance over the years and summarized well in various ways (Durrance & Fisher, 2004; Matthews, 2007) libraries remain stuck in the language of value-values. Or the “how” and “what” of goodness. And for public libraries specifically, outcomes remain difficult to capture and methods are in the earliest stages of development and implementation (Durrance and Fisher, 2004).

I was asked by a colleague recently to justify the “value-add” of a particular library service – And what I wanted to reply was that depends (doesn’t it always depend?) on whether you take the user or the institution’s point of view on performance, on whether the value is only ever local or contextual or is subject to some global norm or standard. Is there a way to recognize both perspectives in the same equation? Or is there an equation at all?
Buckland poses a similar question framed as a “grand LIS research challenge” but using a different concept from “value” or “goodness”:
How could we achieve a deeper understanding of what makes the use of library services personally meaningful? (Buckland, 2003, p.?)

I think we should set aside “value” as a keyword and focus more attention on “meaning.” The questions then are more like those posed by Durrance & Fisher (2004) – how do libraries contribute to making meaning in our social and informational communities and how do such indivdual and shared meanings change (or not) ourselves and/or the world? Taking a practice-based or a “contextual” approach to the library service or activity seems to me, to be THE key to making this shift from value to meaning.

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