• October 25, 2014

College Librarians Look at Better Ways to Measure the Value of Their Services

How do you take the measure of academic libraries and librarians? At the Association of College and Research Libraries conference, which began here Wednesday, presenters took up the problem of how libraries can demonstrate their value to their institutions—and whether conventional attempts to measure return on investment, or "ROI," are any use in that campaign.

Like most of academe, libraries have been feeling increased pressure to justify themselves quantitatively. The bold title of James G. Neal's paper—"Stop the Madness: The Insanity of ROI and the Need for New Qualitative Measures of Academic Library Success"—indicated where its author stands on the issue. Mr. Neal is vice president for information services and university librarian at Columbia University.

Return on investment "has become the new mantra of academic libraries, a relentless and in many ways foolish effort to quantify impact in the face of budget challenges and the questioning of our continuing relevance to the academy in an all-digital information world," Mr. Neal told a packed meeting room at the Philadelphia Convention Center. "ROI instruments and calculations fundamentally do not work for academic libraries, and present naive and misinterpreted assessments of our roles and impacts at our institutions and across higher education. New and rigorous qualitative measures of success are needed."

In a paper he described as "a polemic and a call to arms," Mr. Neal urged libraries to take a different sort of measure--of their users, what they want and need, and how they interact with the physical and virtual resources and spaces of the library. Librarians ought to be asking, "How much did the user receive through an investment of time, energy, and resources in the resources and services of the library?" he said. He called on libraries to embrace what he called the "human" objectives. "Design for the agile rather than the static," he said. "Start with the user and not the collection."

After Mr. Neal delivered his broadside, a pair of librarians from the University of Colorado system presented the results of a more traditional attempt to measure their libraries' worth to users.

Denise Pan, associate director of technical services at a library that serves the University of Colorado at Denver and two other institutions, and Gabrielle Wiersma, electronic-collections and assessment librarian of the University of Colorado at Boulder library, described a multicampus pilot study that examined, among other things, how many articles cited by certain groups of Colorado scholars in the last couple of years were obtained by using library resources. If the multidisciplinary group of scholars surveyed at the Denver campus had not had access to electronic library resources, the study found, it would have cost them about $100,000 to get access to the material they cited in their work over a two-year period.

The study came across as a modest but telling example of libraries' sometimes hidden value, especially when the presenters pointed out that the faculty members surveyed tended to underestimate how many resources they had actually gotten because of the library.

In the most theoretical of the three presentations, two researchers from George Mason University offered up an overview of their paper, "New Metrics of Engagement for Academic Libraries." Craig Gibson, associate university librarian for research, instruction, and outreach, and Christopher Dixon, the university libraries' assessment, planning, and development coordinator, emphasized the need to measure academic libraries' engagement with their campus communities. Mr. Gibson said that the concept of engagement had been central in librarians' conversations in recent years. "What rose to the top for us was relationships within the institution," Mr. Dixon said, and how creative partnerships can lead to higher visibility and a better reputation on campus.

13 Ways of Looking at a Librarian

Taking a page from the local sage and founding father Benjamin Franklin, who as a young man came up with a list of 13 personal virtues to cultivate, three up-and-coming librarians presented their own list of qualities, this one on what "next-gen" librarians need to thrive in the 21st-century university. They named nine virtues at a panel called "In the Spirit of Ben Franklin: 13 Virtues of Next-Generation Librarians," and asked for the audience's help to pick four more qualities to match Franklin's number.

Carissa Tomlinson, an emerging-technologies librarian at Towson University, named collegiality, playfulness, and being collaborative as critical attributes. Andrew Burkhardt, an emerging-technologies librarian at Champlain College, added flexibility, creativity, and courage to the list. "It's really necessary, especially in this day and age of librarianship, to take risks," he said, whether that means speaking up at the faculty-senate meeting or closing your library for two years to give it the renovation it badly needs. Catherine Johnson, a reference and instruction librarian at the University of Baltimore, added service-oriented to the tally, along with an ability to stay balanced and to be curious.

It couldn't been a list of nicer attributes. One commenter wondered, during the question-and-answer period, whether a bit more aggression wouldn't come in handy, too, given the times. Audience members nominated other desirable virtues and qualities by texting keywords to a designated number; the top contenders were "engaged," "authenticity," "passionate," "persistent" and "patience." "Adventurous" also made a strong showing.

In a conversation afterward, the three panelists were convincingly optimistic about the future of their profession. "We are young librarians, which means the libraries of the future are ours to form," Ms. Johnson said.

"We know that the library is changing. It's not what it was 10 years ago," her fellow presenter, Ms. Tomlinson, said. "We have to be flexible. We have to be positive." She added, "I don't have any fear about the library going away."

Mr. Burkhardt said that he encounters a real desire among his students to do more than quick Internet searches for what they need to know. "I'm excited that they want to access information," he said. "When they're doing real research, they get frustrated with Google and Wikipedia."

In its presentation, the trio was careful not to define "next-gen" librarians as only the young. Anybody with a creative, flexible, collaborative, risk-taking approach can qualify as next-gen.

Irene M.H. Herold, dean of the library at Keene State College, in New Hampshire, said that librarians of all generations were adopting many of the qualities the panelists celebrated. "Librarians who want to be relevant and current are doing all that and more," she said after the panel. "In some ways, we're all playing catch-up."

Ms. Herold said that, at her institution, half of the librarians retired over the last three years. Bringing a new crop of librarians aboard has given her and her staff a good chance to try new things. "If you're not passionate, if you're not engaged, you're irrelevant," she said.

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