The Costs and Benefits of Technology

We’ve all been exhilarated at some point by the impact of technology on our lives and our libraries, but at other times computers feel like a huge, unfunded mandate. In the last ten or fifteen years, libraries have become the biggest provider of free computer resources in the country (except for public schools). But rather than acknowledge this shift where it matters the most, local and state governments have been slashing library budgets. In order to push back, we need to emphasize the true costs of technology, as well as the true benefits.

To put it as simply as possible, our job here is to help you figure out how much time and money you’re investing in your technology (the costs) and what you and your patrons are getting back from that investment (the benefits). Sounds easy! Of course, it really isn’t, and some of this material has a steep learning curve, but we’ll start off slowly. If you’re looking for some basic tips and tools and recommendations on where and how to get started writing your technology budget, be sure to review our Writing a Technology Budget — Ideas in Action tool.

Why Measure Your Technology Costs?

  • Accurate financial statements are part of your baseline for planning and decision making. If your website is hard to navigate, spending more money may or may not help, but you need to know how many resources you’ve been allocating to this project in the past.
  • Anything and everything is possible if you don’t look at the cost. You could buy life-size robots and let patrons check them out if price wasn’t a factor. So without a budget, you’re in danger of overspending now and then trying to cut back later. Staff and patrons don’t appreciate the inconsistency that comes from poor budgeting. Everyone gets accustomed to a certain level of service, a certain number of public computers, a certain amount of bandwidth, and then those services are cut back.
  • However, libraries often do the exact opposite when they don’t have accurate budget projections. They buy little or no new technology, and they have to explain to funders why they haven’t spent all the money that was allocated to them. Nothing is more likely to cause budget cuts than unspent money.
  • There’s usually a tradeoff between explicit costs and hidden costs. If you reduce your tech support budget by $70,000, you may end up paying much more than that in lost productivity, which is harder to see and harder to measure. This idea is discussed in more detail in Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).

Why Measure Technology Benefits?

  • Again, it’s all about the money. You want to demonstrate that technology is expensive, but also that it’s worth the expense. How is your community benefiting? How are the politicians and town council members benefiting? How are their constituents’ lives improving? You can use general, abstract arguments, but numbers and stories have more of an impact.
  • If you don’t measure benefits and outcomes, you’re driving blind. You and your staff may have an intuitive sense that a service is succeeding, but intuitions are sometimes wrong. And even if you’re right, there’s always room for improvement.

Key Actions

  • Ask some other city departments if you can look at their budgets and their other financial statements. Compare the technology expenses that they’re reporting on to the ones that you have in your budget.
  • Pick out three technology metrics that you can track during the upcoming year. For an idea of some basic metrics that you can choose from, see Evaluations and Metrics on our site, or Demonstrating Impact on the WebJunction site.
  • Review some of our basic information on Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).

Further Resources

There are a lot of different ways you can think about your technology spending. The right model for you depends largely on the goals of your organization, the audience you’re trying to reach (e.g. board of trustees, patrons, politicians, etc.) and any relevant laws or regulations.

If you're looking for some more articles to get you started, look at our Further Resources section.