How do you measure the success of academic libraries and librarians?
This is the question brought up by Jennifer Howard in an article recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The important issue of effectively demonstrating in a meaningful way the library's value to the academic institution as a whole was one of the main points of discussion at ACRL's conference last week. As an academic librarian, this article really got me thinking about how success can be measured to show how the library is having a positive impact on students, faculty and the overall institution.
Howard states that, "Like most of academe, libraries have been feeling increased pressure to justify themselves quantitatively." Now, when I think of quantitative research, I think statistics, statistics and more statistics. Graphs, charts, tables, numbers, blah, blah, blah-- don't get me wrong, they are definitely important, but they hardly paint the complete picture of how successful the library is at creating a presence and fulfilling the needs of students and faculty. Empirical observation and basic measurement are absolutely necessary to understanding the impact an academic library is having. I think this numerical basis gives weight to the librarian's claim that, hey, we are doing a good job. See? Look at what we've done and here are the numbers reflecting our success.
However, and this is a BIG however, I do not think that libraries should be forced to justify themselves or their success based on quantitative standards alone. Numbers after all, can only reveal so much.
Enter return on investment. The disturbing fact is that many academic libraries are now being forced to show in quantitative terms just what they are contributing financially to the institution. I don't want to go off on a tangent about how so many colleges and especially universities have become nothing more than cash cows, but this new trend seems pretty ludicrous to me. James G. Neal, the Vice President for Information Services
and University Librarian at Columbia University, seems to think so, too:
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... 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."
Neal believes that libraries need to be focusing much more on going back to the basics: WHO are our users, WHAT is it that they need and WHAT is it they want. HOW are they interacting with librarians, the library space and the resources/services being offered? HOW can librarians interact with library patrons and find out what is needed to make them happy and satisfied with their library? HOW do we draw in new patrons who have never even been inside the library and keep them coming back? The focus should be on the how's, not the how many's.
I am only too aware of how undervalued the academic library is at many of today's educational institutions; both large and small, rural and urban, public and private. After reading this article, it has become even more apparent how librarians really need to spend more time assessing their own assessments and making qualitative measurements just as much of a priority as quantitative ones. This is the only way to reveal the hidden value that libraries otherwise have no way of showing through numbers alone.