A Tool Kit to Help Academic Librarians Demonstrate Their Value

September 14, 2010

Like researchers and administrators throughout higher education, academic librarians have heard the drumbeat of accountability—the call to prove the usefulness of what they do on an institutional scale. A new report from the Association of College and Research Libraries seeks to help them make their case.

It reviews the research that has been done on how to measure libraries' value. It offers a long list of next steps that librarians can take to demonstrate their institutional worth, and identifies a research agenda that focuses on specific areas in which more data would be useful to help libraries make the case for themselves.

The report, "The Value of Academic Libraries," was prepared by Megan Oakleaf, an assistant professor at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. In an interview, Ms. Oakleaf described the document as "a primer on where we are now and how we have gotten here and what other librarians have discovered as they move their institutions forward."

Much academic-library research has explored the internal workings of libraries, according to Ms. Oakleaf. "There's a lot of room to grow in terms of looking at the library within the institution, which is where we want to move the conversation," she said. "What do librarians do, and what do they enable other people to do?"

Data-Driven Answers

The larger goal of the report—and of the association—is to equip academic librarians to demonstrate how their library contributes to the goals of their campus. How good is the library at attracting, retaining, and training students? How well does it support faculty research? How much does it enhance the institution's reputation? Having detailed, data-driven answers to such questions can help librarians explain what they do, not just to administrators but also to faculty members and legislators as well as students and parents.

"Library researchers do need to train their lens on these issues of institutional importance" instead of just scrutinizing libraries' inner workings, Ms. Oakleaf, a former instructional librarian, told The Chronicle. An important part of that outward focus, she said, is to look at what other libraries have done and what can be learned from it.

The report lists 22 steps academic librarians can take to help demonstrate that they're in sync with their institution's agenda. The first step is to know what that agenda really is. The report suggests that academic librarians must figure out what success looks like on their particular campuses and measure themselves accordingly. "Libraries cannot demonstrate institutional value to maximum effect until they define outcomes of institutional relevance and then measure the degree to which they attain them," the report states.

Institutional Values

Value is a slippery term. A top priority at one campus will not be a top priority at another. A small liberal-arts college might put teaching at the top of its assessment agenda; a large research university is more likely to emphasize faculty research. Among competing values and outcomes, "what are the ones that are most important at your institution?" Ms. Oakleaf asked. "Not everybody needs to do everything."

Once librarians have a grasp on what value looks like in their corner of the academic woods, they have many strategies from which to choose. For instance, the report says, some institutions have adopted assessment-management systems that collect and compare data on different outcomes; libraries may be able to plug into an existing system or develop one of their own.

The report emphasizes the usefulness of collecting data on what specific groups of users get from the library. More boldly, it encourages librarians to gather information on how individual users benefit from library services.

Ms. Oakleaf sees a "data-collection gap" that has hampered librarians' ability to figure out how well they're serving students and other patrons. "The problem is that librarians don't tend to collect data on individuals," she said. "There's nobody better than a librarian at protecting personal data."

That's an admirable trait, she said, but she added that it's possible to collect useful specifics on how individuals benefit from the library without compromising their privacy.

The report also spells out areas in which there is more room for libraries to make a campuswide impact. Pragmatism comes in handy here. "We exist to serve the institution," Ms. Oakleaf said, giving some examples of what libraries could do to enhance that role. For instance, they could provide useful information to the campus leadership as it confronts specific issues or gather company profiles for students who are job-hunting. "I'm talking about moving from a more-reactive to a more-proactive stance," she said, "reflecting on what we do and trying to do it better."

The report includes a "value checklist" to help librarians plan their strategies. The phrase "collect data" turns up again and again: "Collect data demonstrating the library's role in retaining students until graduation," "Collect data demonstrating the library's role in enriching faculty teaching," and so on.

Continuous Improvement

The report speaks to one of the library association's top priorities, according to Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, the group's president. She is coordinator for information literacy services and instruction in the university library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Articulating the value they're bringing to their institution" is one of the biggest challenges the group's members face, she said in an interview. The report's release marks the beginning of a three-year action plan that will include developing a tool kit for librarians who need help in making the case for their campus contributions.

Part of demonstrating value, Ms. Hinchliffe said, is being able to acknowledge what isn't working. "If reality doesn't turn out to be what you hoped it would be, you adjust," she said. "In many ways, this is taking the perspective of continuous improvement rather than 'You're good' or 'You're bad.'"

As for the report, it "really does lay out the framework of the research agenda and the questions we need to answer as a profession," she said. "Sometimes we can be so focused internally on our library goals that we don't take the time to reflect how those connect to institutional goals, and that's really where our accountability and our responsibility is."