Project Design


Margo Gustina and Meg Backus have been talking about communities, power, and librarianship for years. After COVID-19 disrupted a collaborative project and laid bare challenges to libraries acting in support of their community members and their workers, they shifted their focus into making Libraries in Community Systems research.

They wanted to research ways in which libraries, in their role as network convenors or builders, increased people’s capacity for collective action in the face of disruption. They wanted to help policy makers and deciders to see the value for libraries to act in this role–a role that helps the individual to transfer a skill into a lever, a private ability into a capability to own one’s own power and destiny.

And so, like any study of action, this is also a study of power. Once can imagine community networks as resource pathways–this is a comfortable place for libraries because it speaks in the language of access. But what of the power to influence the direction of those resources? The power to add to or remove nodes from a network? The communication style and mechanism of organization and individual linkages? The nature of the agreements each party enters into?

Core Questions

When holding these general questions of power, leverage, and action in relation to librarianship from a project design and management perspective, each had a list of information sufficient to answer them, which we did not have. What follows is our establishment list of sufficient knowledge required nested within question-steps. As a set, these form the backbone of Libraries in Community Systems project design. In the section below, each question is accompanied by a set of actions the team took to gather data and create new understandings.

    • What is the definition, function, and value of a public library within its community?
    • How are the library, community, and networks measured?
    • Is there a story of place that can reveal individual capabilities or community capacities?
    • How do we make new understandings of library and community co-production of capabilities valuable to decision makers?

Mixed Methods Design

Libraries in Community Systems is a project designed to help us learn from a diverse set of sources: stories, cooperative mapping and design, games, semi-structured interviews, perspective and statistical surveys, and mechanical measurements. Many of these methods were employed to answer each of the questions in the project. The specifics of our approach can be found nested under each of our questions below.

What is the definition, function, and value of a public library within its community?

Primarily, we gathered this information qualitatively through game facilitated conversation, semi-structured individual and group interviews, and literature reviews. Secondarily, we considered value as an empirical question for which we gathered quantitative data for statistical and econometric analysis.

The Radical Imagination Game Facilitated by designer Ozy Aloziem (co-created with Bobby LeFebre), the game was played with public library and state agency workers to explore the emotional, imaginative, and experiential thoughts participants had about belonging, wellbeing, and libraries. Check out Ozy’s TEDx talk on the game to learn more about its inception and motivation.

Semi-structured Interviews Originally conceived with state library partners, Margo, and Ozy, as an online World Cafe adaptation, the team learned that the set up intimidated invited participants, and quickly adapted to a more traditional semi-structured interview approach using questions below. Ozy and Margo were joined by Blake Andrew to conduct interviews with 47 library workers selected from a maximum variation sample of library performance and community wellbeing indexes, who in turn invited community members to participate.

  • What experiences have you had with libraries in your community?
  • What value do libraries bring to your community? What value could thy bring?
  • What would a “community library” look and feel like?
  • How can public institutions promote community wellbeing?

Ozy’s registration for this component of the research, including both Radical Imagination Game and World Cafe style design, can be found here: OSF Registries | The Definition and Value of Libraries – a qualitative study

Systematic Review of the Literature on Public Library Value This investigation attempted to estimate a monetary value of library service through meta-regression, but the empirical work on monetary value was too thin, and almost never conducted as a contingent valuation study in the United States. This was then adapted to a general systematic review of the extant literature on economic value with an overview of non-economic values. Data for the meta-analysis can be found here: OSF | Valuation Meta-Analysis

Public Library Referendums Communities vote on library funding every year. Here we combine referendum data with voting boundary community and environmental characteristics to explore how library funding per capita and levels of support interact with library services. 

How are the library, community, and networks measured?

The primary process we took to answer this question was replication then extension, using the 2021 report’s, Understanding the Social Wellbeing Impacts of the Nation’s Libraries and Museums, brilliant and clear Technical Appendix. We also extended this indexing approach to an additional framework for understanding community level functioning called “adaptive capacity”.

Library Presence and Utilization Index We replicate the index of 8 presence and 5 usage indicators for an 11-year time span and share individual index driven reports with our library partners. We survey them based on their reading of the indicators, the usefulness of standardization and comparison, and what is missing based on thier own ideas of local library service. These responses were used to build a (very) brief survey on library measurement which received 309 responses from US library workers. For detailed process steps and datasets, see: OSF | Library Index: replication and expansion

Social Wellbeing Indexes Rather than attempt a single reduction of all social wellbeing measures, this replication is of 10 distinct social wellbeing dimension indexes, each with their own collection of indicators. These are conducted on the smallest scale and level of data collection, rather than on the county boundary as chosen by the Understanding… authors. Indexing details were made into location specific reports for each partner library to review, interpret, criticize, and correct. Amended indexes were then analyzed for potential correlations with library service, usage, and funding.

Adaptive Capacity Index In this investigation we replicate the indexing methodology but with proxies chose to align with community capacities described by Norris et al, 2008. Adaptive capacity enters the library – disaster response crossover literature through Veil and Bishop, 2014 and Patin, 2020. Here we statistically test the potential for adaptive capacity to be the “function” of public library service.

Partnership Network Mapping This in-depth exploration of public library partnership is conducted with our sixteen practitioner partners and began with replication of partnership visualizations in Understanding… case study reports. We can’t make any general network analytic claims from this series of exercises, but participants shared that this is a useful asset and needs mapping strategy.  

Is there a story of place that can reveal individual capabilities or community capacities?

Can library people, with support, ask these questions of and with their communities? Can the act of asking reveal which networks are activated to achieve a community-based goal? Can the process of learning from community increase access to power along the libraries links? Or are the rules of place so set that this new set of actions can only use existing connections, structures of power, and reinforce flows of resources.

How do we make new understandings of library and community co-production of capabilities valuable to decision makers?

Once sufficient information is gathered to answer our questions about the library and capabilities, how we make such information actionable. There are many paths to action people tend to take that rely on professional development and skills building structures. These are well established and meet continuing education needs. But the actual things that drive our individual actions as managers, directors, trustees, and councilors, are our local norms, patterns of information, and culture of our personal networks. To reach these practitioners at each layer of information acquisition an individual is willing to undertake requires knowing how people dip into practice and how they integrate new knowledges. We want to give products for each depth of interaction and willingness to engage in change.

Theoretic Foundations

Appreciative Inquiry

Capability Approach

Social-Ecological Systems

Structure of Project Implementation

Libraries in Community Systems leverages partnership and shared decision making to accomplish ambitious goals. To learn more about the individuals working on this project, visit the People page. The project administered and supported by Northern New York Library Network staff, including Meg Backus and Chuck Henry giving web support. The multidisciplinary research team is composed of contractors, structured with Margo Gustina conducting overall project management as well as quantitative research design. Ozy Aloziem designs qualitative research with implementation support from Blake Andrew.

The three person team works directly with sixteen library workers to gather information and create meaning out of what we hear. Without these partners, and the research they are conducting with their own communities, the project couldn’t be completed. 

Advisors to this project are engaged, critical friends of the work. This is not a support board – they use their extensive expertise and creative intelligence to make our designs, methods, analysis, and interpretations richer and more effective. In addition to our formal advisors, we have been privileged to have a rich network of thinking partners including Ben Haggard of Regensis Group, Mike Norton of Reinvestment Fund, David Lankes of University of Texas-Austin, and the Economics Department of University of New Mexico.

We are grateful to have formal partnerships with state library agencies of Alaska, Georgia, New York, and Texas. And also for the support we’ve received from California, Florida, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Washington. 

Throughout the project lifecycle we have asked library workers from around the country to answer brief surveys, the responses to which we use to enrich our understanding and check our assumptions. The public library community is a warm and generous place we are honored to be a part of.