Friday, February 23, 2007

Article Note: On impact measures for libraries

Citation for the article:

Poll, Roswitha and Philip Payne. "Impact Measures for Libraries and Information Services." Library Hi Tech 24.4 (2006): 547-562.

Read via Emerald.

I mentioned this article a couple of weeks ago when I was musing about retention and what role academic libraries may play in it. I have not been able to post here for almost two weeks given the intense instruction schedule I am keeping. So, I use my little scratch pad to quickly toss ideas I want to remember but that I lack the time to reflect on. I managed to read the article, and the draft has been sitting on my desk for a while. Since I was not teaching today, I figured I would take some time and write up my notes while I have a chance. On a side note, a reminder to myself: I remember seeing another article on ROI for libraries, but I don't quite remember where. One of those things you glance at. I may need to look it up again and toss the reference on the scratch pad.

This article is an argument in favor of impact and outcome research for libraries. This is one of those things I have thought about on and off but like many things I start thinking about, it ends up in the low priority list given other pressing matters. We are in a time when it seems libraries have to prove their worth at every turn, and I will leave that debate to others. The authors argue that "in the competition for scarce resources, it becomes vital for libraries to show evidence of the impact and value of their services, preferably in quantified results" (548). My interest, or part of it, comes in terms of retention. That my campus's retention numbers leave a lot to be desired is common knowledge. I may make an administrator or two for mentioning it, but I am not saying anything that is not true nor unknown. So I wonder if the library could have an impact when it comes to retention of students. Is there anything more we could do or should be doing? The next question down that path is: how do we know it is working?

I have a theory. Well, a half-baked idea really that much of it has to do with the human factor. Sure, the L2 evangelists proclaim that libraries and librarians should have a presence in every online toy/gadget/space possible. They make it sound as if our salvation lay somewhere in cyberspace. At the end of the day, it boils down to the human element. Students will still come into the library, and they will be seeking someone who can help them. They may come looking for a friendly face. Sometimes they need to talk to someone. And I wonder what happens in other places. But I am digressing, or maybe not?

Some ideas from the article:

  • Library School 101, in my estimation at least: the library is tied to its institution. In my case, we work for the university, which has certain aims and goals. "In summary, universities aim at achieving independence of thinking and judgment, competent use of information, thorough professional knowledge for their students, and research results of high relevance. Most of these goals can be supported by library services, and libraries should try to prove the connection between use of their services and the institution's success" (550).
  • A problem with assessing impact: "But the most challenging problem is that it is nearly impossible to separate library impact from other influences and to prove that changes in competencies or behaviour are indeed an effect of using library services" (550).
Due to that problem mentioned above, the best we can do is come up with what the authors describe as surrogate measures. These are meant to provide researchers with some hint or indication about impact. The authors distinguish between quantitative methods (for example, tests) and qualitative methods (for example, a survey).

  • A warning on the idea of user satisfaction: "High satisfaction could mean that the library has been effective in conveying the view: it is well worth to use a library. But this does not mean that there is already a change in skills, competencies, and behaviour" (552).
That, in retrospect, is one thing I wonder about the little library survey we do every couple of years or so. It mostly measures satisfaction. But no way to get an idea of impact. Plus I get the impression that it is easy for library staff to become complacent if the satisfaction scores are high.

The article has a summary of impact assessment activities. This looks at things that have been done or can be done. I would be particularly interested in measuring library impact on information literacy. The social impact measurement intrigues me as well.

  • An issue of urgency: "But the most urgent issue is to promote the library's role, to show what one library, what all libraries can do for their users and society. Libraries are too often forgotten in legislation, in community or institutional planning, or when setting priorities in funding. They should actively promote the benefits derived from their services and substantiate such statements with the evidence of data and live stories" (555).
That is an issue that strikes close to home for me. I could say a few things I feel strongly about that apply to my setting. However, I will just leave it be and jot down anything extra offline.

Overall, this was a summary article. For me the sample statements related to information literacy might lead to further exploration.

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