published quarterly by the university of borås, sweden

vol. 27 no. Special issue, October, 2022

Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science, Oslo Metropolitan University, May 29 - June 1, 2022

The impact and concept of public libraries in the twenty-first century

Tomoya Igarashi, Masanori Koizumi, and Naomi Wake

Introduction. Although impact evaluation has been required in public libraries, it has rarely been attempted in public libraries. This study described the potential impact of public libraries in the twenty-first century, including theoretical background.
Method. The conceptual study investigated, and this paper discusses, the functions and possible impacts of libraries based on a survey and review of the extant literature.
Analysis. The impact compass of the Roskilde Library in Denmark, an early attempt to evaluate the impact of public libraries comprehensively, was utilised in the study. Based on a review of published literature, the possible impact of public libraries has been presented.
Results. The impact compass captures the impact of public libraries; however, the tool is ambiguous. The primary concepts of public libraries were found to be the provisions of reading, information, and meeting place.
Conclusions. Although the impact compass has some limitations, the information it provides is an important base on which to develop impact assessments of public libraries. Future development of an impact evaluation process, using the impact compass as a base, is necessary.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.47989/colis2225

Public libraries in the twenty-first century

In the twenty-first century, ideological changes, such as the development of digitalisation, globalisation and multicultural society, and the spread of neoliberalism have had significant impact on public libraries (Evjen and Audunson, 2009). With the accompanying social changes, various new functions have been suggested for libraries recently, including promoting digital inclusion, integrating immigrants, building social capital and providing a place for citizens to meet and interact (Audunson et al., 2007; Johnston, 2018; Kinney, 2010; Vårheim et al., 2008). These functions have been modelled in the four-space model (Jochumsen et al., 2012) that has been reflected in the establishment of some libraries (Jochumsen, n.d.).

Some public libraries, especially modern ones, are renovating their buildings to accommodate multiple functions; new services are also being provided. The New York Public Library has undergone a major renovation since 2018 to expand its public space for reading, learning and programming (New York Public Library, 2017). It offers approximately 93,000 free and diverse programmes annually (New York Public Library, 2020). Deichman Bjørvika, a new library that opened in Oslo (Norway) in 2021, has a floor for creative activities and cinema (Deichman, 2020). The Oodi in Helsinki (Finland) and libraries in Denmark also offer a wide range of programmes that encourage users to discover and experience new things (Igarashi et al., 2021; Mathiasson and Jochumsen, 2020). The traditional provisions of collections and reference services have been maintained; services have not been altered but have expanded. Public libraries in the twenty-first century fulfil a wide variety of roles beyond their traditional book-lending function and contribute to the local community in multiple capacities.

It is important to evaluate new and diverse library services appropriately, in accordance with changing environments. Even if a new service is developed and improved, its appropriateness and worth cannot be determined with criteria that many people will agree upon unless it is properly evaluated. Several evaluation methods have been devised to improve library services, such as book lending. A few methods, including the impact compass (Seismonaut and Roskilde Central Library, 2021) and economic impact (Allinson et al., 2019), have been newly created with the goal of capturing the invisible values of libraries in current society. Considering these new evaluation methods, how can we evaluate libraries, including new library services?

Library evaluation

Library evaluation is integral to library management. There are two roles in library evaluation. First, it is important to improve existent library services and develop new services based on objective data, which tend to be statistical or have multiple qualitative sources. These aims centred around services have been essential aspects of library evaluation traditionally (Lancaster, 1993; Matthews, 2007). An evaluation of a library’s current situation reviews the insufficient and weak points of the library service in order to improve services.

The second objective in library evaluation is to be accountable to the public and funding organisations. In recent years, the financial difficulties faced by universities and local governments have made it necessary for libraries to demonstrate their value. Therefore, this second objective has become increasingly important. Moran and Morner (2018, pp.460-461) pointed out the importance of this responsibility, stating that ‘all types of library and information centers must demonstrate a value of service or value-added aspect to the larger organization of which they are a part and to their constituencies’. Wiegand (2015) also cited the assumptions created by the reliance on traditional library statistics as a reason for authorities to question the value of libraries. It is critical to evaluate library activities correctly to fulfil both objectives of a library evaluation and to ensure accountability.

Library evaluation has been a subject of long-term discussion. Before World War II, standards were set and variations from the standards were evaluated. After the war, quantitative measurements became popular. Since the 1970s, interest in library evaluation has increased even more (Heath, 2011). Significant books on library evaluation have been published, including The measurement and evaluation of library services by Baker and Lancaster (1991) and If you want to evaluate your library... by Lancaster (1993). The 1998 publication of ISO 11620: 1998 Library performance indicators, an international standard for performance indicators in libraries, and the launch of the LibQUAL+ project in 1999 to assess the quality of library services demonstrate that interest in library evaluation has been increasing. Since the 1990s, evaluation from outside the library, such as outcome evaluation, has become increasingly important (Closter, 2015). Global financial difficulties and growing neoliberal values have required public libraries to demonstrate the significance of their services, which had been recognised implicitly previously.

In library evaluation, change is described in terms of output, outcome and impact. The term output refers to the direct use of library resources and services. Outcomes are also the direct consequences of library use. Outputs can be measured by internal library statistics, while outcomes are the results of services; that is, changes in users, which cannot be measured within the library only but require an outside perspective from users (Poll and Payne, 2006). In recent years, there has been considerable interest in evaluating the impact of public libraries. Impact is the change in an individual or a group of people due to library services. Impact is similar to outcomes, but while outcomes are direct and short-term changes resulting from services, impact is a broader concept, referring to longer-term changes, including indirect changes. In the example of a language café in a public library, the output would be the number of language café participants and the outcome would be the change in participants’ language test scores. The impact of the language café would be the improvement in quality of life as a result of language acquisition.

Impacts demonstrate long-term changes in users; therefore, evaluating impact reveals how much a library has contributed to an individual, group or community. In today's world, where public libraries are required to show clearly how they contribute to their communities, impact is a measure of contribution; an evaluation can explain contribution. In 2014, ISO 16439: 2014 Methods and procedures for assessing the impact of libraries was published. The standard described a growing demand for proof of library value, traditionally accepted as obvious. The standard was published in response to these growing demands. The increasing interest in impact evaluation has also been evidenced by the National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment, an American Library Association project that attempts to measure the impact of library programmes (Barchas-Lichtenstein et al., 2019).

Acknowledging rising demand for the demonstrated contribution of public libraries, this study focused on impact evaluation, an increasingly significant assessment method that demonstrates the value of libraries to citizens and communities.

Impact evaluation in libraries

Several studies have reported on impact evaluations that have been conducted for libraries. The British Library, the national library of the United Kingdom (UK), implemented the concept of impacts to measure the library’s direct and indirect value to the economy of the UK (British Library, 2004; Pung et al., 2004). In 2013 and 2016, the British Library estimated its value from broader perspectives to demonstrate clearly the impact on the current UK economy (British Library, 2016; Tessler, 2013).

Stone et al. (2012) conducted a study using focus groups to examine the relationship between students’ library use and academic performance at seven UK universities. Students who checked out more books and used more electronic resources in the library had higher academic performances. The focus groups also indicated that electronic resources were a frequent topic of concern. Bowles-Terry (2012) found that at the University of Wyoming (USA) students who completed library instruction in a discipline-specific course had significantly higher GPAs than those who did not. the results of a focus group with 15 graduates supported this finding.

Impact evaluation in libraries has been attempted in academic libraries mainly, and only rarely in public libraries. The primary reason for this imbalance is that, to some extent, a university’s purpose is defined as research and teaching; at a university, there is a clear objective that must be evaluated. Evaluation objectives are unclear for public libraries owing to the diversity of library users and their purposes. Evaluation involves setting targets and comparing targets to the current situation. Therefore, it is very important to define objectives and determine exactly what should be evaluated. To evaluate the impact of public libraries, it is necessary to discuss the impact of public libraries.

In 2021, the Roskilde Library in Denmark, a city-level library, developed a new framework for impact evaluation to identify the library’s impact on society, help with advocacy work and determine if library services were working as intended (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, 2021). The Roskilde case is the newest and most advanced local public library evaluation.

Research purpose and contribution

The purpose of this study was to describe the function and possible impact of public libraries in the twenty-first century, utilising the impact compass of Roskilde Library in Denmark. Two research questions were set.

RQ1: What impact can public libraries have on the community? RQ2: Why and how do public libraries have such impact?

A discussion of the impact of public libraries, including their theoretical foundations in RQ2, clarifies this impact in detail. In practice, libraries may prioritise the services on which they focus depending on local conditions and issues. In this case, the theoretical background can be used as a criterion for prioritisation. Furthermore, theoretical background contributed to discussions of specific evaluation methods, by providing the elements to be evaluated. The newly provided services appearing in the twenty-first century are often offered only in a few advanced public libraries, although they are expected to be offered in many more libraries in the future. By clarifying the impact of public libraries in the twenty-first century and the theory behind library impact, this study’s results can help libraries reaffirm the importance of their services, explain those valuable services to patrons, and contribute to the development of many public libraries’ evaluations.


This was a conceptual study based on the existent literature. It examined the function and possible impact of libraries in the twenty-first century. In 2020, the Roskilde Library in Denmark published a new report on library evaluation methods: The impact of public libraries in Denmark: A haven in our community (Seismonaut and Roskilde Central Library, 2021). The report aimed to establish an evaluation method that would understand the various impacts of public libraries on citizens. The report designed the impact compass as a framework for analysing the impact of public libraries. The impact compass consists of four dimensions: haven, perspective, creativity, and community, and twelve parameters, three for each dimension. The twelve parameters are measured using questionnaires to evaluate the impact of public libraries from the users' perspective. The impact compass is an important tool that evaluates the impact of public libraries on various activities. Its twelve parameters were determined by reviewing previous studies and through librarian workshops; however, the compass’ theoretical background is not clear. The study investigated this research gap, the impact of public libraries based on the twelve parameters of the impact compass important in evaluating public libraries, and the theoretical background of impact as discussed in the literature.


For each of the four dimensions of the impact compass, this section discusses the parameters therein.


Within the impact compass, the parameters of haven include creates an opportunity for immersion and concentration, stirs emotions and creates well-being.

Traditionally, public libraries have been institutions that provide knowledge information; public libraries are locations where citizens can learn and acquire new knowledge (Larsen, 2018). To learn and acquire new knowledge effectively, it is important to have a space to concentrate and immerse oneself. Opportunity for concentrated reading and access to information from books are obvious library offerings; however, in recent years, there have also been many hands-on activities available at libraries where people can learn in makerspaces and workshops (Gahagan and Calvert, 2020; Igarashi et al., 2021). Opportunities to immerse oneself in creative activities, learn how to use equipment, and develop creative skills are new public library services. This first evaluation parameter is the existence of a place where students can concentrate and learn, through reading and hands-on experience. Arranging a space for reading and experience has considerable impact. It is important to note that learning and gaining new knowledge and information are also related to the parameters of other dimensions of the impact compass, such as stimulates reflection or provides food for thought and strengthens or develops skills.

The second parameter of haven, stirs emotions, is abstract; it may not be perceived as a direct impact. However, experiencing emotions can lead people to feel awe, improving their mental health (Anderson et al., 2018; Rudd et al., 2012). Positive emotions have been suggested to impact physical health positively (Stellar et al., 2015). Other studies have shown that feelings of awe may promote children’s scientific learning and reasoning (Valdesolo et al., 2017). Similarly, people who strongly embrace awe have been shown to be more likely to think scientifically and understand how science works. Awe is associated with curiosity and inquisitiveness, which motivate the acquisition of new knowledge (Gottlieb et al., 2018). Through reading and events, libraries provide new knowledge that was previously unknown to library patrons. Even if the newly acquired knowledge is comes from fiction, that content is often previously unknown. Exposure to unknown ideas and knowledge leads users to feel awe. This parameter of haven encourages an emotional impression that can have several positive effects. It is important to remember that these are indirect effects. However, the improvement of health, curiosity and inquisitiveness are directly measured by other parameters.

Emphasis on the importance of well-being has risen in recent years. Well-being was highlighted as a value of culture and the arts in the AHRC cultural value project in the UK. The report inspired the creation of the impact compass. While this report does not describe well-being in libraries, it demonstrates the relationship between well-being and other cultural facilities, such as museums and art galleries. Public libraries can contribute to well-being by promoting emotion. Reading is also important in improving well-being. Many studies have revealed that reading enhances literacy (e.g., Kim et al., 2010; Landi, 2010; Senechal, 2006). According to Clark and Teravainen-Goff (2018), literacy skills are correlated with mental health. Substantial research indicates that reading is an important factor in achieving higher levels of well-being. The provision of books and the guarantee of reading opportunities are traditional activities of libraries; they also make a strong contribution to improve well-being. The UK National Health Service (2019) recommended connecting with other people and learning new skills to achieve mental well-being. Learning opportunities and encounters with other people at libraries are ways in which libraries can contribute to well-being. The contribution of public libraries to well-being is also shown in the Future libraries report by Arup in the UK (Arup, 2015).


The parameters of the perspective dimension include helps improve critical thinking skills, stimulates reflection or provides food for thought and expands horizons through new knowledge or information.

With the development of the Internet and the current abundance of digital information, critical thinking skills have become very important in daily life and job-seeking. Acquisition of information about any subject matter to deepen understanding, the information obtained from various perspectives, is required for critical thinking. Public libraries with access to all types of information can provide what is necessary for critical thinking. This provision includes not only information from books but also exposure to the diverse ideas of others through events involving discussion and communication. Users can improve critical thinking skills by acquiring and examining information (Critcher Lyons, 2016). Self-reflection, thinking about oneself in a critical way, is also important. Reflection can lead to personal growth. Libraries provide information that can be used for reflection or as a catalyst for reflection.

The third parameter, perspective, expands horizons through new knowledge or information, is a simple way of expressing the impact of the public library's information-provision function. Libraries offer users a broader perspective by providing new knowledge and information through various collections and events. Many studies have shown that reading, including recreational reading, improves literacy (Krashen, 2004). By improving their reading comprehension, users can acquire new knowledge from books on their own. Public libraries, which support reading, help develop the ability to continue learning on one’s own. Knowledge gained through experience also has an impact. Many libraries now have makerspaces. In makerspaces, library users can also acquire knowledge by using equipment and through artistic and other creation activities (Bevan et al., 2015; Li, 2021). The knowledge gained through experiences also makes an impact.

The parameters of perspective are centred on the impact of the availability of a variety of information types. The traditional role of libraries is to provide this variety of information. The quality of the information public libraries provide is also of value (Ingham, 2014). Hence, public libraries should contribute in this way, as they provide a variety of information, and the quality of the information they provide is well regarded.


The parameters of creativity include stimulates the imagination, strengthens or develops skills and provides motivation to try or do something new.

Rich imagination is essential for stimulating new ideas and facilitating smooth communication. One of the most effective ways to develop imagination is reading (Hutton et al., 2015; Pennington and Waxler, 2018), an activity public libraries are known to promote. Reading continues to be critical. The library is also a meeting place where people can introduce themselves to, and interact with, a variety of other people. These interactions can broaden imagination by exposing people to a wide variety of values.

Public libraries have diversified their services to offer experiences beyond reading. For instance, libraries have installed computers so that citizens without access to the Internet can perform Internet-based activities at the library. Libraries hold workshops, events and other activities to enhance creativity (Igarashi et al., 2021). Through these same opportunities and offerings, public libraries help users improve their skills. For disadvantaged and young people who do not have resources, especially, public libraries are one of the few places to utilise equipment and develop skills (Jaeger et al., 2012). As a result, the impact of public libraries is even greater for these users. Public libraries and all that they offer are free, regardless of a user’s social status. As a free institution, a library can impact a wide range of people through important skill-development opportunities.

Public libraries are increasingly expected to be spaces that empower citizens (Goulding, 2013; Yoshida, 2021). In the library, users can make discoveries that were previously unknown to them. The discoveries, and the discovery process, promote confidence, self-control, motivation and willingness to try new things. It is important to promote citizens’ growth; feeling empowered and facing new challenges, library users have opportunities to grow. Public libraries are places to encounter a wide variety of new information and unfamiliar people, an important community contribution.


The parameters of community include provides insight into other people's lives, creates opportunities for togetherness and stimulates conversations. Public libraries promote citizens’ knowledge of others and togetherness through the provision of meeting places.

Audunson (2005) explained public libraries as high-intensive meeting places and low- intensive meeting places. The former are arenas where people interact in-depth with others who share their primary interests and concerns; the latter are places where people encounter others who have different interests and values. Participating in a workshop or attending a game or event related to one’s own interest and interacting with other participants there is using the library as a high-intensive meeting place. However, participating in a debate or interacting with immigrants in a language café is a low-intensive encounter with diverse values. Language cafés are specifically designed to allow immigrants and natives to talk about their lives and learn about each other's values (Johnston, 2018; Johnston and Audunson, 2019).

Providing opportunities for citizens to meet and converse with each other can lead to dialogue and create substantial democracy since dialogue is the basis of democracy. These interactions are expected to accumulate social capital and have a positive effect on the community (Vårheim, 2011; Vårheim et al., 2008). The parameters included in the dimension of community create such an impact. Libraries are open to everyone, regardless of demographic status; people are treated equally and, therefore, interactions are on an equal level. An overall positive impact on interaction requires trust in the library and the people who visit it. This trust in the universality of libraries allows libraries to accumulate social capital and form that positive impact (Vårheim et al., 2008). Furthermore, the attribute library user itself leads to a sense of safety in interactions (Audunson et al., 2011).

Opportunities for citizens to interact with each other exist outside of libraries, of course. High-intensive meeting places include sports clubs, while low-intensive meeting places include supermarkets and transportation stations. However, there are a limited number of user-trusted facilities in which a diverse range of citizens can interact on an equal basis. Public libraries are representatives of such institutions and, thus have significant impact. Public libraries are expected to contribute to their communities through citizen interaction, interactions that are based on the equality that public libraries emphasise and the trust that users feel in the institution.

Impact of public libraries expressed by the impact compass

Public libraries are increasingly required to demonstrate their value to society, value that was implicitly recognised previously. Therefore, impact evaluation has been a remarkable. This study investigated the impact of public libraries on society based on the Roskilde Library impact compass, a novel attempt to evaluate the impact of public libraries comprehensively. The parameters identified in the impact compass are those to which public libraries can contribute. These parameters are related to the traditional services provided by public libraries and the nature of libraries. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that libraries will impact society in multiple ways. Related to RQ1, the twelve parameters identified in the impact compass are the most likely areas in which the public library will have an impact.

However, the impact compass contains some ambiguities, including parameter definitions and scales. The impact compass provides only parameter names, some of which are ambiguous, and not full parameter definitions. For instance, if a researcher or evaluator asks the user ‘Did the event impact you by “stirring your emotions”’, the perception of the word impact may be very different for each user. Impact is difficult to quantify clearly (International Organization for Standardization 2014). While a certain degree of subjectivity may be acceptable, reducing the subjectivity as much as possible is essential. Subjectivity is even more important when researchers and consultants develop evaluation methods. The definition of the parameters and evaluation objectives should be preserved and communicated to other researchers and librarians without misunderstanding. These parameters and evaluation objectives can be improved and developed through critical review. Other libraries and cultural institutions may choose their own suitable evaluation parameters or make minor changes by referring to the definitions of what should be evaluated and why.

The scale and conception of each parameter is also ambiguous. For instance, the parameter creates opportunity for immersion and concentration may promote expands horizons through new knowledge or information and lead to creates well-being. Different conceptual scopes, and their interactions, may cause confusion and duplication of the assessment content.

Future work should focus on adapting the rigour of the concepts within the parameters of the impact compass.

Despite its challenges and limitations, the impact compass is a leading tool for evaluating the comprehensive impact of public libraries, which has been difficult to measure. The compass, useful now, is significant for the future of public library evaluation. Future refinements and the development of new measures based on the compass will expand and enhance the impact evaluation process for public libraries.

The concept and function of public libraries

The various impacts of public libraries as presented within the impact compass are related primarily to the traditional services of libraries, specifically reading and information provision. These services include the information users gain through experience. Although they are new contributions, these services represent the impact that public libraries are expected to have on their communities, since they are based primarily on the traditional functions of libraries. Furthermore, public libraries affect the community in their function as meeting places, an important aspect emphasised more in recent years. A library’s meeting-place function may be interpreted as the provision of information about different interests and values. The universality and equality of public libraries and the trust of citizens in them mean they can function effectively as meeting places. As one of the few institutions of this nature, public libraries can impact communities as a meeting place. Public libraries clearly have an impact beyond book reading, which includes information provision outside of books and as meeting places. These additional services also require consideration. Related to RQ2, one can anticipate the impact of public libraries according to the impact compass because as these are extensions of their traditional services and the nature of public libraries is significant.

It should be noted that statistical evaluation does not directly lead to impact evaluation. Although an increase in the amount of reading by users can be used as a supplemental measure to evaluate the impact of libraries, it is not sufficient. However, when considering methods to evaluate the impact of public libraries in the future, appropriate evaluations can be made by taking these concepts into consideration.


This study explored the impact of public libraries based on Roskilde Library's impact compass. The compass is a tool that attempts to evaluate the impact of public libraries comprehensively. The theoretical background of the impact of public libraries was also examined and presented within this paper. The fact remains that public libraries have different cultural, geographic, and economic relevance in the regions in which they exist, and these should be carefully considered when making specific evaluations. The theoretical background presented in this study may also serve as a helpful reference for developing evaluation methods that take regional differences into account. As the concept of a public library and its functions are essential in considering the elements of a public library to evaluate, those aspects were researched and presented as well. This research has contributed to the development of specific evaluation methods by providing details about the elements to be evaluated. Findings may also assist with the prioritisation of evaluation elements in practical terms.

Impact evaluation, which considers the more implicit and long-term value of public libraries, is, and will continue to be, a requirement for public libraries. The impact compass can be an effective foundation for future development of impact evaluations in public libraries. However, conceptual ambiguities exist within the impact compass tool. The purpose of this study is to discuss the impact of public libraries, not to propose a specific evaluation methodology. Future and further development of impact evaluations for public libraries is essential. This goal could be achieved using the impact compass as a base for improvements and new considerations. The discussion in this study will contribute to the future development of impact evaluation in public libraries, including the evolution of the impact compass.


This work was supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant Numbers JP20H04479, JP21J10661.

About the authors

Tomoya Igarashi is PhD candidate in Graduate School of Comprehensive Human Sciences, University of Tsukuba, 1-2 Kasuga, Tsukuba, Ibaraki, 305-8550, Japan. His current research interests are evaluation of public libraries and public libraries as space for overcoming social division. He can be contacted at igarashi@klis.tsukuba.ac.jp.
Masanori Koizumi is an associate professor at the Faculty of Library, Information and Media Science at the University of Tsukuba, 1-2 Kasuga, Tsukuba, Ibaraki 305-8550, Japan. He has written extensively on topics related to library strategy, information specialists and the public sphere. Institution of highest degree, PhD. Keio University, Library and Information Science in 2013. He can be reached at koizumi@slis.tsukuba.ac.jp.
Naomi Wake is visiting scholar in Organization for Information Education and Research, Mie University, 1577 Kurimamachiya-cho, Tsu, Mie 514-8507, JAPAN. She received her Ph.D. from University of Tsukuba and her research interests are in the public library services to multicultural populations. She can be contacted at wake.naomi@dhier.mie-u.ac.jp.


How to cite this paper

Igarashi, T., Koizumi, M., & Wake, N. (2022). In Proceedings of CoLIS, the 11th. International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science, Oslo, Norway, May29 - June 1, 2022. Information Research, 27(Special issue), paper colis2225. Retrieved from http://InformationR.net/ir/27-SpIssue/CoLIS2022/colis2225.html https://doi.org/10.47989/colis2225

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