The Library as Value-Creating System

Here are a few thoughts on how we might apply the Value-Creating System (VCS) approach – which focusses on relationships as much as transactions or products, emphasises collaboration as much as competition, and incorporates values other than the financial – to public libraries.

Box full of colourful characters and figures with placards labelled "Library of the Future - Some assembly required

What Does a Library Do, Anyway?

It can be hard to define a library’s purpose these days.

This is more of a problem for public libraries than for other institutions. Universities and colleges have well-articulated information needs, as do hospitals, courts, and other government bodies, or large enterprises which employ librarians of their own. Libraries within these organisations serve the information needs of a specified group, and often those needs and services are pretty well defined too.

Public libraries, however, struggle more with self-definition. They provide a wide and varied range of services, plus the communities they serve are often more diverse and less tightly defined. Some corners of Libraryland have been talking about this online for a while.

The latest round of this discussion started with a Twitter call-out:

“The solution to any problem, the meeting of any need, depends on how that problem or need is defined. So what problem or need is the public library currently configured to meet?”

I argued that compared to schools, public transit systems, or hospitals (also institutions in need of reform and adaptation in a changing world), it’s hard to clearly state just what problem or need the public library is currently configured to address.

You can read the ensuing discussion in this Twitter Moment:

The conversation didn’t stop there – in fact, it was taking place independently on different platforms and from different perspectives in various parts of the world.

Denmark’s Christian Lauersen reposted a link to a 2014 article in the journal Places, “Library as Infrastructure“.

Shannon Mattern’s piece asks:

How far can we stretch the public library? […] What ideas, values and social responsibilities can we scaffold within the library’s material systems — its walls and wires, shelves and servers?

It calls on public libraries to focus on “their places within the larger infrastructural ecology” and to recognise their role in facilitating values beyond the merely monetary.

Mattern concludes,

We need to develop — both among library patrons and librarians themselves — new critical capacities to understand the distributed physical, technical and social architectures that scaffold our institutions of knowledge and program our values. And we must consider where those infrastructures intersect — where they should be, and perhaps aren’t, mutually reinforcing one another. When do our social obligations compromise our intellectual aspirations, or vice versa? And when do those social or intellectual aspirations for the library exceed — or fail to fully exploit — the capacities of our architectural and technological infrastructures?

Lauersen’s tweet formed part of a wider conversation inaugurated by R. David Lankes’ new concept of “the library as movement”. Lankes recently elaborated this idea in a discussion with Marie Østergaard of Aarhus Libraries and a presentation to the Victoria Libraries 2019 Planning Summit in Australia.

Lankes suggests that “[t]he concept of a library is evolving faster than our terms for describing the change”, and proposes that the library should be seen as a movement, or “a community-wide effort to improve the lives of community members through knowledge”:

The focus isn’t on collections, or access, or places, it is on mobilizing a community for social action. Instead of calling folks patrons or users, or even my personal favorite members, we don’t have a name at all – because the walls between “them” and “us” begin to break down.

[…W]e help members of a community find meaning, and power in each other. And in the era of the library as movement, how this happens is going to be different in every library and every community.

So what would it look like to deploy some of this thinking – to take a toolkit and apply it so that we began to configure a specific library to serve its specific community?

I decided to focus on public libraries because their identity is less clearly defined than that of their fellow institutions. To give us the tools to realise something akin to Lankes’ vision, I applied the strategic framework of the VCS, or “value-creating system”.

Value-Creating Strategy and the Public Library

VCS, as articulated by Ramírez and Mannervik in their book Strategy for a Networked World, encourages organisations to stop seeing themselves as links in a value chain – suppliers and customers – and instead recognise that they are participating in a diverse and complex system of value creation in which they may play multiple roles at once.

Ramírez and Mannervik note, for example, that social media users are also creators of content, consumers of advertising, and “products” when their data is sold on to third parties. They may also be enrolled in multiple overlapping systems, such as MySpace, and later Spotify, integrating with Facebook.

The authors point to the way that apps such as Uber and Airbnb enrol users into systems of managed trust and co-creation, so that we travel in strangers’ cars and let strangers stay in our homes. In this way, the industries of hospitality and transportation are transformed.

VCS aren’t just found in the digital domain, either. IKEA convinces people to collaborate with them and take on the roles being offered in the firm’s VCS: seeking out furniture for themselves in the warehouse, taking it to the check out, taking it home and assembling it with their own hands. Some trucking businesses have transformed into providers of “total transport solutions”, where instead of selling or leasing trucks to operators, the firms use their specialist skills and capabilities to help customers organise end-to-end logistics in ways which are beneficial and offer better value for money.

Value-creating strategy is a robust and rigorous way of detailing how value is created through interactions within a system of relationships.

Given that librarians as information professionals often see their work as facilitating library users’ access to knowledge, information, and culture, you can see why VCS and the public library might make good bedfellows.

In research conducted for the new public library vision in Queensland, Kate Davis and I found that

Public library services are built on relationships, not just transactions; they are entwined with the specific and deeply local context of everyday life in the communities they serve.

In Christian Lauersen’s words, librarians are in a people business, not a book business. So how would they go about applying VCS to this context?

Using VCS in the public library

Taking a VCS approach in the public library would mean mapping out all the relationships held by your service – everyone that you interact with. You’d also look at how these actors relate with one another, independent of their connection to your library.

Detailing these relationships would also include a strong focus on what value is being created for each actor. If the aim is to be more than just bean counters, but also to avoid woolly or sentimental expressions of value which are hard to express in concrete terms, we need to start developing better measurements and metrics.

We could look, for example, to the work of Stephanie Chase and her colleagues at Hillsboro Library in Oregon.

In 2019, I helped the team to roll out a new strategic plan which focuses on wider impact, second-order effects, and metrics beyond “people through the door and books out on loan”. You can see the measures Stephanie and her team decided on here.

In seeking to define and identify value, you would also look to reports such as Nesta’s 2019 Public Value: How can it be measured, managed, and grown? (PDF). The report’s authors note that the continued dominance of traditional market valuation methods can skew policy, and they propose alternatives. Understanding innovations in measurement of public value, and relating them to Libraryland, is a major part of librarians’ strategic responsibility.

You would also simply look to your local community to establish what they value in their own terms. Ramírez and Mannervik reflect on the complex and sometimes unpredictable nature of value in their discussion of Walter Palmer, the Milwaukee dentist who killed a lion in Zimbabwe on a hunting tour in 2015.

The ensuing outcry turned the hunter into the prey of an online campaign which vilified his actions and values. Walter Palmer had paid $54000 to kill the lion, but was that the “value” of the kill? Palmer got what he paid for, only to find that the cost of the hunt might be much greater in terms of his notoriety, and that his own personal values would be made public and questionable.

How do we capture such values among the communities we serve? Ethnography, co-design, and other forms of user experience (UX) research will help libraries to understand what is valued by the people they interact with.

These practices also help libraries to understand how and where users connect with the library’s offers. Donna Lanclos’ excellent work mapping student interactions with college libraries is worth checking out for inspiration.

Ramírez and Mannervik note that ethnography and history – understanding how you came to enter the system you find yourself in today, with your current value offering – are vital parts of their strategic approach. Questions to explore this might include:

  • How did we come to define ourselves this way?
  • How were we originally funded and how are we funded now?
  • Who uses our service and who are we supposed to serve?
  • What “invaders” have come into our system and encroached on our territory, or reshaped it, over the generations?

Here’s where a deeply local point of view becomes valuable. I worked with a small rural Australian library service as a consultant over a number of years, helping a council serving just 15,000 people to win a national award for innovation.

One of the interesting things about the system in which they were operating was the way in which they managed the loans of movies and TV shows on DVD.

There was a video rental store in the town at the time, and obviously they didn’t want to be put out of business by the library loaning movies and TV shows. Therefore the two institutions came to an agreement: the library collection could include movies and TV shows that were adapted from books, and the video store would accept that compromise. They had configured their offerings in a way which was collaborative rather than competitive.

Each public library service needs to examine its system at the local level to allow for the specific offerings and values created by different actors.

Perhaps your local bookstore offers a children’s storytime for nursery-age children and their families. Perhaps a local coffee shop is the preferred place for spoken-word nights and poetry performances.

Perhaps the local museum “owns” responsibility for heritage and history in your community. Perhaps the homeless are made unwelcome in many public spaces and therefore seek out the library as a preferred place of safety, rest, and respite.

The VCS model resists a “one size fits all” approach to defining what a public library does at the global level, but it also lets you specifically detail the relationships you hold and the value co-created by each relationship.

Enacting Strategy and Attending to the Future

As we’re talking about strategy, you’ll recognise that our aim is not merely description, but judicious decision-making with an eye to the long-term future.

This is where VCS intersects with scenario planning, the foresight methodology I’ve written about in The Conversation and Public Library QuarterlyScenario planning allows us to imagine plausible futures which our institution might have to inhabit.

Recognising the impossibility of gathering data from the future and the challenge of predicting what’s coming in turbulent times, the criterion for a good scenario is plausibility: is it useful in challenging our assumptions about what will happen next?

The great example is Pierre Wack’s work for the oil company Shell, which became famous in the 1970s when the company successfully anticipated the oil crisis that followed the Yom Kippur War.

Shell hadn’t predicted the conflict, but had imagined scenarios where Middle Eastern oil producers worked as a cartel to control global supply. When those countries did start an oil embargo, scenario planning meant Shell had already thought through this possibility ahead of its competitors.

In the public library and VCS context, this means imagining different, plausible, and challenging futures for the network of people you interact with.

  • What factors will affect them in the future?
  • How will they change?
  • What new actors will emerge, which old ones will disappear, or which relationships will be transformed?
  • How will they interact, not just with you, but with one another?

Scenarios allow us to map out plausible futures which test our assumptions in the here and now. Once we have created a scenario, we can also “descend” into that world, putting ourselves in the shoes of various actors, considering how their strategies and operations will change, and how that future world will feel for them as well as for us.

You can imagine, for example, how a public library service in the mid-to-late 20th century might have engaged in scenario planning and reflected on what would happen if the computer networks used by the military and universities became available to the public.

Would people search for information online, cutting out the library entirely? What if such networks became wireless, with portable devices? Would people visit the library to use maps, encyclopaedias, and recipes, or to view photographs from local history – or would they find those things via hand-held devices?

The value of such a scenario to the mid-20th-century library lies not in its predictive power (I’m cheating here, by using hindsight, anyway). It would lie instead in testing assumptions about the library as a physical place that people needed to come to for certain kinds of information.

  • What would such a library, considering this scenario, chose to do if it saw this future emerging?
  • What relationships would it cultivate?
  • How would it reconfigure its offer to the community?

Making informed decisions about your library’s configuration and future relationships would, in essence, be defining the deeply local “library movement” articulated by Lankes.

He gives an example:

In this new era we not only support reading because literacy is a vital skill in making change and democratic participation – we team with the primary schools and the local pizza restaurant to ensure we use common vocabularies and we create a whole culture of reading.

The librarian as VCS strategist would be exploring the different players in their community, their own strategies and missions, wants and needs, and considering how to enrol them into the library’s system.

The library would design an offering which appealed to the pizza restaurant – by connecting them to the community and therefore to consumers of pizza – and to the schools – who recognise that the grades they are measured on are affected by factors outside of the school campus. By setting the common vocabulary and articulating the culture of reading, the library would help the other entities to participate in the value creating system.

This needn’t happen all at once: Ramírez and Mannervik emphasise a “stepping stone” approach to enacting VCS, and recommend focusing initially on areas where innovation will not meet fierce resistance.

They give the example of the transit company Ryder, which radically transformed trucking one step at a time.

Ryder bought trucks from manufacturers and leased them to trucking companies who might previously have bought those trucks directly. When it was established as a key client for the manufacturers and had developed strong relationships with the finance departments of its customers, Ryder then began to offer new services, such as HR and administrative support, as well as leasing other resources like trailers. More trucking companies became customers and this increased Ryder’s buying power.

Now Ryder began to work with other operators and helped them to organise their fleets together, just as airlines share codes. Each operator had more filled trucks on each route, which reduced costs and gave them more capacity. This was an example of when VCS is about collaboration rather than competition, enlarging the pie for all rather than fighting to take a bigger slice than your rivals.

Finally, Ryder began not only to operate repair and maintenance workshops, but also to sell spare parts, sourced from other equipment manufacturers, at a price well below the heavy mark-up of the truck manufacturers themselves.

The truck makers, who thought of value in terms of chains and sought to compete with others who they perceived as having similar positions in the chain, discovered that Ryder – who they thought of as a customer – had actually taken a substantial part of their business.

Ryder had shown its customers, the operators, that it could improve performance, create value, and make the pie bigger for the whole trucking system. By becoming a big customer in its own right for the truck manufacturers, Ryder could not easily be ejected from the position it had created. It had developed an offering, built it step by step, and enrolled those around it into a VCS of its own design.

In the same way, a great public library would examine the system in which it was currently creating value, reflect on the futures which it and its transactors might face, then design an offering which gradually enrolled other local actors into the public library’s preferred way of seeing the world. This would secure the future of the public library while bringing benefit to all involved.

Public librarians may be unused to thinking in these terms, but, to extend the metaphor, the reason to concern yourself with how the pie is sliced, and how big it is, is that if you aren’t seated at the dining table, you’re probably on the menu.

Putting it all into action

Public libraries are the perfect sector to implement the VCS approach. Their work is as much about relationships as products or services. They are going through a period where their identity is unclear and their traditional offer will need to be updated. The times they face are deeply turbulent: technological innovation, cuts to public funding, new ways for the public to access information, and the challenge of labour relations in an automating and privatising world are all breaking on Libraryland’s shore like a succession of wild waves.

Luckily, libraries also have the perfect tools to strategise and act in ways which meet these troubled times. They are community spaces with a long history of trusted service and adaptation to technological change. Library staff who are trained in information science are effectively social scientists with special insights into how communities interact with, consume, and produce information.

Above all, public libraries need VCS, or something like it: a strategic tool which allows them to make a specific, convincing articulation of the value they add to their community now and in the future.

This value needs to be understood, measured, and expressed in terms which make sense to their funders, stakeholders, and the communities they serve. Everyone within a community should know roughly what the library does and why it’s of benefit, in the same way they roughly know what a school does or a public transport service does — irrespective of whether they liked school or ride buses themselves.

Vague statements about libraries’ mission to promote equity and social justice just won’t cut it. Nor will raw numbers alone. UK librarians were once fond of citing a 2015 statistic which said that Brits visit libraries twice as often as they visit football matches, theatres, museums, and galleries combined. However, the Birmingham Central Library was named the UK’s most popular visitor attraction outside London in 2016, just as it was foundering in cuts and crisis.

In the context of the UK local government’s value system, the offering was unsustainable – and it wasn’t even clear if all those visitors were doing more than heading up to the library roof to take a photograph of the city skyline.

Providing a great view of the cityscape is certainly adding value, but probably not a sufficient one, alone, to justify funding a public library. It reminds us that we have to know the value of interactions, not just the quantity.

The best news of all is that the VCS approach builds on recent trends in library design and strategy. It represents the next wave ready to surge as the old fads expend themselves upon the shore.

The skills in user experience and ethnography which librarians have been developing will be vital for mapping current systems, developing empathy, and thinking through future interactions.

The turn to scenarios and judicious foresight reflects the comment from Frankie Wilson of Bodleian Libraries at this year’s EBLIP evidence-based library practitioners’ conference, that strategy can be informed by evidence, but sometimes organisations have to take other factors into account. (Given that we don’t have time machines and can’t gather evidence from the future, strategic thinking will always be this way).

The embrace of design thinking in the library sector will also be enormously valuable – as Ramírez and Mannervik point out, the VCS strategist is essentially a designer:

Designers can think “out of the” box more easily than conventional managers and are lending renewed perspectives to how strategy is imagined, shaped, defined, and communicated.

Professional development events introducing library staff to design thinking, such as those offered by the State Library of Queensland’s Asia Pacific Design Library, will equip them with the tools to become better strategists, more aware of the ways in which they co-create value and how to configure offerings which  suit the context in which they find themselves.

Great public librarians are already taking this approach in an informal way. Rachael Rivera’s widely prized work configuring Auckland Central Library to better serve the homeless is an example.

What Rachael did for the homeless is comparable to what IKEA did when it found that people were hacking its products to make new items unintended by the designers.

IKEA had created a VCS which transformed a furniture store into something more complex. They saw themselves as in the business of creating a better everyday life for as many people and homes as possible, and to this end enlisted customers as co-creators. Some customers then went further and began to create “hacks”, transforming IKEA products into their own unusual creations.

Initially the firm disapproved, but now have walked this back, navigating a cordial relationship with people who make their own value from IKEA in unconventional ways while seeking to avoid liability for harm caused by unendorsed uses of the product. Now, IKEA learns from the hacking culture by offering “open platform” modular products. It has found a way to embrace the hackers without compromising its own business.

Similarly, homeless people visiting Auckland Libraries were arguably “hacking” the library space and service by using it on their own terms. (“Hack” is a word with some interesting burdens of privilege by the way: it’s interesting to note who gets to be called a hacker).

The homeless people took books and stashed them in the library overnight, so that they could go back to reading them even though they did not have library cards and could not borrow the books. They used the restrooms as washrooms, and saw the library as a place of safety and respite at a time when the city was imposing punitive regulations on street life.

By attending to the relationship with homeless visitors to the library, and paying attention to the value they derived from the interactions, Rachael and her team reconfigured the library’s offer so it better met the homeless community’s needs, including a dedicated meeting space available on a regular basis, a movie club, and other opportunities.

The homeless library users now get more value from their interactions with the library, and the library gets better value from serving the homeless visitors efficiently rather than seeing them as a “problem”.

The value of this service to librarians themselves was debated at first, as comments to a New Zealand radio show from an anonymous librarian expressed concern and dismay over the prospect of developing new services for the homeless population, provoking a discussion which made national news in the country. NZ librarians proved themselves overwhelmingly in favour of this kind of adaptive and inclusive service, and the work in Auckland was recognised internationally, bringing yet more value in the form of prestige for Rachael, her team, and the wider organisation when they received a US Library Journal “Movers and Shakers” award.

So we’re already making good on Lankes’ vision of “the library as movement” – and starting to define, service by service, in a clear and robust way, how the library brings value to their community through co-creation within a wider ecosystem.

VCS is a tool to help you think through this approach more clearly. It will let you know who you can include in your movement, and what direction that movement could be steered in.

Like any tool, however, it needs to be used in order to make a difference.

Are you ready to make that difference?

You can read more about VCS in this blog, or check out Ramírez and Mannervik’s Strategy for a Networked World.

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