How do Libraries Evaluate Social Value? A Review of the Research Literature


Our Literature Review on evaluating the social value of libraries has arrived!

As new Prime Minster Boris Johnson recently said, libraries are part of the ‘vital social and cultural infrastructure‘ that makes our communities vibrant places to live and work.  But how can libraries learn to evaluate this important but hard-to-measure impact in all its diversity and richness?    Download our report to find out what the academic literature reveals on the means by which libraries in the UK and elsewhere are choosing to assess and evidence their ‘social value’.




Download our FREE Action Learning Toolkit to support change agents in your organization

Action Learning has underpinned the success of the Unlimited Value research project. The Arts Council England funding has enabled us to develop a toolkit which can help your organization embed and benefit from the principles of Action Learning.

You can download this toolkit here:  Action Learning Toolkit - Unlimited Value

This short and practical guide will be useful for participant, facilitators and line managers.  It includes information on:

  • The principles of Action Learning, its origins and uses.
  • A breakdown of ‘what happens’ in Action Learning Sets and how they work.
  • A guide to the closed and open questioning techniques that help participants provide one another with valuable peer support.
  • Guidance on supporting virtual and ‘in person’ Action Learning.
  • Recommendations for additional reading, and information sources.

‘It’s changed my life’ – participant feedback on Action Learning as Leadership Development

One of the most successful parts of the Arts Council England funded Unlimited Value project has been the Action Learning inspired leadership development programme that informed our  participatory Action Research.  Action Learning is an important leadership development tool because it enables participants to tackle live challenges as they arise, and to help one another develop practical solutions and next steps for tricky issues that are often seen as ‘too difficult’.

Our first Social Value Champions, with the research team and Ciara Eastell, then CEO of Libraries Unlimited, at the first Research Summit.

For some, this experience can be truly transformative:

“I do really think it has changed my life, and I think that if more people had the chance to take part in action learning, it’s got the potential to build a very strong organisation…” (Participant, Social Value Champions Programme, 2018).

Together, the University of Exeter Business School and Libraries Unlimited enlisted a team of Social Value Champions, to work on developing a better understanding of Social Value over time.  The programme centred on 6 action learning sets of up to 4 hours’ duration each, spread over 9 months.  Between meetings, participants also attended research summits, staff conferences, colllaboration days and other training workshops.  The sets provided an important data source for the project, showing the researchers how individuals learn to share new ideas and translate learning into action.  Equally importantly, they helped Libraries Unlimited to embed,  across the organization, a better understanding of how to connect social value to the daily experience of working in frontline library services.

It’s often said that a good action learning challenge begins with ‘How Can I…’?  And certainly, at the heart of action learning is an open-ended peer questioning technique that develops practical problem-solving skills. Feedback from participants supports this argument:

‘[I] approach problems a lot more analytically now and I find I open things up to my team a lot more… I’ll invite them to have an input, feed back, say what they think we could do to move things forward.  And [Action Learning techniques] really helped me with breaking down what I needed to do [for a major piece of recent work] putting it into a plan and working out who I needed to talk to…’ (Participant, Social Value Champions Programme, 2018).

As the programme progressed, we noticed that the Champions became more confident about their ability to enact change.  They moved from focusing on small, individual challenges, towards tackling more challenging and systemic organizational issues.  As one participant reflects:

“I have found the open question technique invaluable; absolutely fantastic.  It allows me to have challenging conversations in a really collaborative way, it’s enabled me to open up conversations with people that I have previously found difficult.  It has given me confidence to have a greater say.” (Participant, Social Value Champions Programme, 2018).

An important legacy of the Unlimited Value project is a greater awareness within libraries sector of the power of Action Learning to develop leaders and change agents at all levels of the organization. Stand by for our free Action Learning Toolkit, based on the process developed through Unlimited Value, to help you create the next generation of leaders.

‘Libraries are Heterotopias’ – multiplicitous places of potential

You might have recently watched Ciara Eastell’s emotive TedEx talk on the power of libraries to transform and empower lives.

In her talk, the former CEO of Libraries Unlimited reveals an important finding from the Unlimited Value research.  We argue that libraries are ‘heterotopias’ – places of potential where there is opportunity for transformation.  They are places characterised by multiple meanings, which cater to diverse stakeholders with even more diverse needs. As one frontline member of staff put it:  ‘A library is a place where people can come to be themselves’.  A library is a place of possibility, which ‘opens up’ rather than closes down identities and social categories.

Ciara shows, in her talk, that libraries play a vital role in our social fabric.  They support people at the heart of communities and in the margins, work to maximise potential at individual and regional levels, and bring together people who might not otherwise encounter one another.  Libraries are ‘both/and’ places – they cater to children and the elderly, they can be a quiet refuge and a host of loud ‘bounce and rhyme’ activities.

The challenge from a ‘social value’ perspective, is with the difficulty of arriving at a single purpose definition associated with heterotopic places.  Which can make it difficult to calculate and create a coherent narrative around, the difference a library makes to its service users and surrounding community.  But whilst the ‘what’ of social value might vary depending on a library’s location, service users, and so on, perhaps we might arrive more precisely at the ‘how’ – the tools that library services can harness to develop a better understanding of a library’s unique contribution.

You can read more about heterotopias, and about our approach to social value in our project report here:  Unlimited Value Report.

Download our report “Leading Practice in Unlimited Value Creation”

It’s here! We are pleased to announce that our final project report has been published, with a launch coinciding with World Book Day in March 2019.  You can download it here:  Unlimited Value Report

In the report, you’ll find details about the activities and data underpinning the research, our dissemination events and about our new 3-D model for building understanding on social value creation.

We’d like to thank Arts Council England for funding this important piece of work.  You can find more useful presentations and toolkits on helping your staff develop more understanding of social value creation here.



Gender Pay Gap Reporting

New Gender Pay Gap Reporting Regulations come into effect on the 4th April, which means that all British organisations with over 250 employees must disclose information about pay differentials between men and women in their employment. But what does this mean for library services?  The Chief Executives of four English library mutuals met on 20th March to discuss the implications of this initiative for their organisations and the wider library sector, and to explore how they might shape discussion within and beyond their organisations on improving pay equality in a profession with high proportions of female and part-time workers.

Three of these organisations – Libraries Unlimited, Suffolk Libraries and Inspire: Culture, Learning and Libraries –  have published their gender pay gap data this year – relating to the mean and median averages for men and women for pay and bonuses, the proportion of women and men receiving bonuses, and the proportion of men and women occupying each quartile of the service pay structure.   For these leaders, this represents not only a learning experience, but an opportunity to lead the sector by offering new insights into how libraries might actively advocate for women’s career progression and increased diversity across the library workforce.

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Power to Create – Collaborative routes to social value.

Who has the power to create?

What social and economic conditions are needed to enable people to think and act creatively?

And how can organizations encourage people to solve challenges in new, creative ways?


Tony Greenham’s presentation explored the possible conditions under which creativity to emerge.


These provocative questions reflect the challenges of inhabiting an economic context beset with uncertainty and ‘austerity’ – a context that demands creativity and innovation from organizations in all sectors, if they are to flourish. They are perhaps especially salient where organizations operate in multi-stakeholder contexts, where some voices are amplified and others risk marginalisation. How can we encourage an environment where everyone has the ‘power to create’ – at work, and beyond?  In this blog post, Value Unlimited lead researcher Dr Beverley Hawkins explains how Value Unlimited is contributing to these debates around ‘Power to Create’, a theme identified by one of the world’s oldest think tanks, the Royal Society of Arts, Commerce and Manufactures.

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