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Library Assessment Challenges

The Library Assessment Conference took place in Seattle from August 4-7 and at the opening session, the audience heard three academic library directors’ perspectives on the “Most Important Challenge for Library Assessment.”

Susan Gibbons, Dean of the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries, opened with the observations about the attractions of qualitative data: they give you a sense of “precision” and a “correct” answer, they’re perceived as weighty, and their collection can be automated. She emphasized the importance of thinking about what we are counting, and why, and provided the example of the decrease in reference questions answered at the University of Rochester by 10,000 from 1996 to 2006. To learn about the “why” behind this quantitative finding, the library used qualitative approaches. For example, they asked students to take pictures of what they carry with them all the time, to map out their daily movements, to indicate what is useful/not useful by writing on a printed copy of the library’s web page, and to imagine what they would wish for if they had a magic wand. They learned that all students carry cell phones but that their library’s phone number did not appear on its home page on the web (in fact, 40% of ARL libraries’ home pages lack phone numbers!) and that students’ peak time period for studying is from 11pm to 1am. Those findings led to better visibility of the library’s phone number on the web and near library computers. Through the magic wand exercise they learned the importance of providing skills and tools to graduate students early in their careers. She emphasized that local assessment methods are required since every campus is unique and accountability is local. If opportunities are available for wide staff participation in assessment, changes are easier and work better.

Rick Luce, Director of Libraries at Emory University, characterized assessment as a method of planning for improvement–a catalyst for change rather than a quick fix. Performance measures are an organization’s vital signs through metrics that show innovation, research leadership, brand identity, and gains in market share. Successful organizations offer something that others can’t do, do poorly, or have difficulty doing well. Satisfaction can be studied through questionnaires that function as “happiness meters,” investigation into what’s important, and looking at how an organization rates against the best in an industry. He cautioned that assessment efforts can be hampered by pitfalls such as lack of accountability, too many initiatives, forgetting larger organizational drivers, and lack of discipline. He reminded us that time and patience are needed for real change in organizations. Providing a brief mention of the “Hedgehog” concept (a single, simple idea that guides great organizations’ efforts to be the best) from Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, he urged us to understand what we are passionate about, what we are best at, and what drives our economic engines.

Betsy Wilson, Dean of Libraries at the University of Washington, provided her perspective that the most important challenge for libraries is accelerating relevance. Assessment can help by providing fuel for that acceleration. So, it is extremely important for libraries that assessment becomes part of their organizational lifeblood, turning cultures of complaint into cultures of assessment.

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