Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Should we serve bagels or croissants? An irreverent look at library assessment

Assessment and evaluation of programs is a major component of my rather non-traditional librarian job of a whopping 3 months. I can't say I'm any good at it yet but I'm optimistic, relatively good at picking up things quickly and running with them, and surrounded by phenomenal resources on an everyday basis.

At the same time, I think every one of you can relate to this...

The conference I crashed on Monday (sitting on the floor in the back of the room without a conference badge, let alone a single ribbon from it) was the Library Assessment Conference. We had kinda-but-not-really been invited to attend sessions of interest to us as long as we didn't eat the food or attend their social events. Fair enough. I scanned the schedule to see what was possibly useful to me from my job perspective and found something I couldn't miss:

Plenary Session I: The Most Important Challenge for Library Assessment
Three visionary library leaders each present what they see as the most important challenge for library assessment in the future. The session promises to be provocative and stimulating, but never boring.

I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting with a buildup like that, but I can assure you it wasn't along the lines of the provocative future Andrew Zolli had at MLA 08 in Chicago.

First up, with the best-designed Powerpoint for clarity in a large room, was Susan Gibbons, Vice Provost of the River Campus Libraries at the University of Rochester. She challenged our field's obsession for focus on quantitative data (suggesting maybe The Count from Sesame Street was partially to blame) and instead to consider what are we counting, why, and what the numbers actually tell us. Reference queries are down: is the Internet to blame? On the surface it's easy to say yes, but their deeper look found other barriers. Users did not want to leave their spots at the popular library computers (they did another study that found students walking 2-3 miles a day, thus why they didn't always want to haul laptops with them) to ask a reference librarian a question. They had students photograph what they always carried with them; cell phones appeared in every picture, yet both their own & 41% of the Association of Research Library (ARL) websites didn't have a phone number on the front page.

Next up was Rick Luce, with an overwhelmingly detailed dark blue background/white text with yellow headers Powerpoint I couldn't read most of the time, who is Vice Provost and Director of Libraries at Emory University. He whipped through his presentation with amazing speed about the $100 million investment approved for his aggressive strategic plan that wasn't based on ARL statistics and emphasized staff understanding for the need for systems-wide improvement. He suggested studying the criteria for the Malcom Baldridge National Quality Award winners, to get beyond assessment as a "happiness meter" (level 1) or just asking what's important (level 2) and considering 'How do we rate against the best in the industry?" (level 3). He ended with a charge of avoiding measures not focusing on strategy, a lack of accountability, a lack of discipline, and an emphasis on no action without a plan, and no plan without data. Whew!

Last but not least was Betsy Wilson, with another blue background/white text/yellow headers Powerpoint but she used minimal text with clear pictures for a better effect, Dean of Libraries at the University of Washington. She focused on 'accelerating relevance', of looking to the past to think about the future with a clear vision in mind. What got everyone's fingers tapping on laptops or scrawling on notepads was when she asked us to consider something I'll highlight and get back to later:

What will the scholar of 2050 want us to preserve? Blogs? Mashups? Wikis? How can we stem the data deluge? How can we make quality data convenient?

She continued with two main points of how assessment can help listen, look, connect & replenish; and that we are not the first to wrestle with the relevance of the library of the future. President Suzzallo at the University of Washington was canned by the Governor over the campus library's vision and construction, but then the voters sacked the Governor in the 1932 election. (source)

My brain merged obsession with front page library phone numbers (can you tell from yesterday's post?), level 3 thinking about (perceived) 'best in the industry' (can't you just Google the information and get it?), and what 2050 would want us to keep about today's information torrent.

For the last one I wasn't thinking along the lines of blogs (plenty of backup opportunities there) but the vast stream of both data and ephemera in various forums of social networking and instant messaging. What is useful for 2050 about now? Is it pointless to write a traditional journal article about these media when it can and will morph into something else within 6 months & have a shorter half life still in the future? Or is this part of what we need to document about the data flow in society now?

These communication methods are a part of everyday life for most students and what many of our library users are used to while many librarians are not. I believe in the use of wisely applied assessment measures, but not in using them as a crutch to keep from trying out new things without reams of data first and/or fear of the unknown. Get the mammoth when it's in sight! If we spend much time looking for our ribbons instead of encouraging users to use their cell phones to call us or efficiently respond to their Meebo widget queries, they'll never even know about the fine quality cheese to go with the bagels and croissants.