An Aesthetic Philosophy of Librarianship
The role of the academic librarian is to create content-rich environments (“libraries”) that stimulate scholarship, cultivate knowledge and inspire creativity.
Prologue. Years ago I went for a job interview for a technical services/systems librarian position at a community college library 10 minutes from my home in a suburb on the far southeast side of Houston.
I have more than a few years of experience as a Technical Services Librarian, Digital Services Librarian, Head Cataloger and Automation Librarian for a large school district, Collection Development Manager and technical consultant for a commercial digital library (the first large-scale online undergraduate library, modeled after Harvard’s Lamont Library), Director of an Art Institute library, Data Standards Manager for the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and Client Relationship Manager for a popular and powerful federated search application whose technology was used by EBSCO and Gale (among the largest library database vendors in the world). I am a Certified Information Professional (CIP) through AIIM.
Having worked for the last 18 months as a Project Manager and Corporate Librarian for a software company two hours commute from home on a project that was coming to an end, I was eager for the chance at a position close to home with more stability, and especially one where I could put my library and IT skills to use.
To my surprise, especially since I was interviewing for a technical position, I was asked to share with the search committee my “Philosophy of Librarianship”–one of only a few questions, none of which were technical.
Hmm. Ask me about my experiences with library systems or digital libraries or federated search technologies, about responsive web design or proxy servers or cataloging or web services, and I might have something to say. Ask me the difference between HTML and XHTML, or name three differences between Unix and Windows, or what DNS stands for. Ask me to define “responsive web design.”
But my “Philosophy of Librarianship”?
I had nothing, and whatever I thought to say in that moment I feared would come across as disingenuous, or reveal how out of touch I was with current trends in the library world. I could not name a single authority whose librarian philosophy I most closely aligned myself with. Did I miss something, working outside of libraries for a while? Were Philosophies of Librarianship a “thing” now? I responded honestly, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have a Philosophy of Librarianship.”
ince that time, I’ve learned that academic librarians of all types, both in public and technical services, are being asked to provide a philosophy of library practice or rather, a personalized mission statement, in job interviews or as part of their performance review process. They may even need to provide one to keep their jobs.
By Googling “philosophy of librarianship,” as I did when I got home that afternoon, you can pull up this page from the USC Library,1 for example, which states that one’s philosophy of librarianship can give one an advantage over others in terms of hiring and promotion:
In companies, whenever one is asked to justify one’s value in some sort of formalized statement, it is never a good thing. It means that your worth is not obvious, and even worse, is in question by decision makers. Whenever this happens in the corporate world, no philosophy or explanation is likely to change anyone’s mind:
This trend of self-justification in academic librarianship has become so pervasive, however, that librarians are even posting them on their personal blog sites.
ow that I work in an academic library at a university, I find myself thinking more about philosophies of librarianship at this uncertain time when many both outside and within the library profession are proclaiming libraries, librarians or print books (“pbooks”) to be obsolete.2
Some academic libraries are getting rid of print altogether 3 4 5 6 while at the same time erecting new 21st century “libraries,” bookless architectural wonders consisting of collaborative work spaces, meeting rooms, and high-tech classrooms–resembling more a modern open office at a tech start-up company than a traditional library. If there are physical books, they are hidden from view or stored off site. It might seem that the building’s design, furnishings and concessions are more the attraction than the resources the library provides. One might question whether these are libraries at all, except for fact that, for the time being, librarians work there.
Schools are spending millions to create impressive, highly innovative spaces for students to study, socialize, drink coffee and learn in a more collaborative, interactive fashion. “Collaborative learning,” where students work together as a team to solve problems (discover the answers to problems given to them), or come together to share knowledge with each other, emulating some idealized vision of the project-driven business world7, often seems from a traditionalist point-of-view to be at the expense of more individualized and self-directed styles of learning, especially when it comes to the allocation of space in these newly constructed facilities called “libraries.”
The focal point of the modern library is no longer on its content, but on seating arrangements and architecture, sculptural spaces offering various support services, provided in partnership with other entities on campus.8
At some large universities libraries, like at the University of Chicago’s Mansueto library,
or North Carolina State University’s Hunt library,
and many others, books are no longer visible to the public when they walk through the door, or in most places in the library; the stacks are not browseable, nor immediately accessible, but rather items must be retrieved from enclosed storage bins through robotic retrieval systems.
There is a peculiar rhetoric surrounding new modern library architecture which justifies an enormous outlay for facilities, all the while spending very little on the actual collections housed inside of them.
According to the Vice Provost and Director of NCSU Libraries, for example, when planning the new Hunt Library, “Our goal was to make a difference in the education and research of students, and something that made them want to become lifelong learners, so we decided on an iconic building.”9
How can a building’s architecture alone inspire lifelong learning?
Aesthetics is a very important component of the user experience of an academic library, just as it is with churches. Not only does it makes the library more enjoyable to users, and encourages them to stay, but it also symbolizes the value placed on scholarship and learning by the university. But without the content, without books, without quality collections to go along with it, an iconic building is an empty gesture.
Through this Amazon-warehouse book retrieval technology and locking print away in remote storage, many libraries may have unwittingly embraced that which they claimed they feared becoming, a mere “repository for books.” Honestly, you can’t get much more repository-like than underground storage bunkers and robotic retrieval systems. Sure, it creates an interesting spectacle for the casual visitor (like the way one might stand in idle curiosity in front of a Japanese vending machine or gumball roller coaster), and helps keeps things orderly, but how effective is it compared to traditional library delivery systems (humans, books in stacks and on display) at encouraging reading, stimulating research and supporting scholarship?
Worse, the fact that the library may be spending very little on books is concealed because the collection is hidden from view, therefore making it harder to evaluate.
I get that the focus of new libraries is the architecture, and various spaces for study, interaction with technology, social learning and collaboration10, ostensibly to promote the informal passing of knowledge from person to person, student to student, and expert to student (the experts are now officing in the new library as well, which makes the process easier), or to develop new knowledge through a magical melding of communication with technology.
In most “new libraries,” collaboration is focus while the stacks are pushed to the margins, or put in less public, visible or accessible locations of the library. Large collaborative spaces for inclusive, active, participation with movable tables, chairs and walls are replacing the stacks. But I am skeptical that collaboration can provide a new, revitalized foundation for librarianship, pedagogy or knowledge creation in higher education.
First of all, I do not believe collaboration should be pursued as an end in itself, and certainly not at the expense of knowledge. The philosophy behind collaboration is that everyone has an equal voice and valid opinion, everyone ought to be able to express himself, everyone has something to offer, regardless of educational background, familiarity with the topic, or level of preparedness; and also a blind faith that through a collaborative method, new knowledge will emerge. I do not believe in this premise, unless those collaborating are already highly educated investigators (think “The Manhattan Project”). It doesn’t necessarily work well for undergraduates. Rather than stimulating creativity, in cultivates group think.
This egalitarian trend also runs counter to “higher” education, where greater respect is afforded to those with greater expertise and credentials. It undermines respect for published authorities, the act of reading (which is not a group activity), and scholarly research (also not a group activity). Knowledge diffusion through informal channels–running into someone at the library–a “learning commons”–is also haphazard and inefficient, as opposed to getting knowledge out of relevant and authoritative publications.
While these modalities (oral vs. written word) are not mutually exclusive, and can co-exist in a library setting, it strikes me that prioritizing dialogue, collaboration and consensus–oral modes of knowledge transmission–over print hearkens back to a time before printing, books and libraries, when most people were illiterate.
And, most importantly, if you thought traditional research libraries were uninteresting places before, taking the books away and replacing them with more computers and tables and chairs on wheels and glass-walled study rooms and offices and co-labs is not likely to make them more exciting places to be.
Don’t get me wrong. I love beautiful architecture. I love coffee. I like computers and technology. I love a good debate. Who doesn’t like comfortable chairs? I just don’t believe that innovative architecture, cafes, collaboration or computing power can form the basis for the academic library, or the library profession.
I believe our primary obligation as academic librarians is to provide our users with content-rich learning environments and great collections which supports learning, knowledge and scholarly research.
That is the aesthetic experience that matters most to our users.
Dumbing Down the College Library. When people speak about the design of innovative spaces in libraries that foster collaborative learning, spaces where people from different disciplines come together to share knowledge, it all sounds very promising. But today’s libraries are zero-sum game: in an almost Orwellian fashion, we have to get rid of the books to promote “collaboration,” which apparently requires a lot of space and specialized furnishings. . . kidney shaped tables on wheels, and so forth.
In truth, no one seems to know for certain how to get people to collaborate, mentor and share knowledge once old spaces are renovated or new facilities are built11, or how to differentiate collaborative learning from other, less culturally and epistemologically significant forms of social discourse. Although architects explain how their designs are intended to promote collaboration and engagement and active learning, at the end of the day, they are not the ones responsible for the learning outcomes of these new facilities: the librarians are–at least for now. Only it is not engagement with technology or people that we librarians want to encourage, so much as engagement with scholarly and culturally significant books and articles. How well do our new bookless libraries, our monuments to learning, accomplish this task?
Without the capacity to present our users with a rich selection of materials that are of interest and relevance to them when they walk in the door–without the ability to create content-rich learning environments that encourage independent learning–the library becomes a vacuous and intellectually barren space with furniture for studying and hanging out, but nothing to encourage intellectual curiosity, learning outside the classroom (outside of a graded assignment), or participation and engagement in a larger cultural conversation of educated people.
A student gains entrance into the world of educated people through familiarity with the publications read by educated people. If they don’t know what The New York Times is, or a certain journal by name, why should we expect that they will “discover” it using one of our discovery tools and find value in it if they do? Inside of a content aggregator’s database, a publication is sliced and diced into discrete articles and converted into a homogeneous HTML format, stripped of editorial content and context. Articles from The New York Times sits side by side with Bitch Magazine.
Despite protests by some library users and faculty when initiatives to eliminate print are implemented or proposed, and even after similar projects are deemed failures and the books are brought back–for example with the Cushing Academy’s celebrated bookless library12 13–this trend of placing print books out of sight, into underground storage lockers, into compact shelving, or integrating them like merely decorative objects into the architectural features of the library (the worst was where stairs serve as bookcases), or print altogether purportedly as a means of promoting alternative methods and modalities of learning–as if the books themselves were in the way of learning–continues trending upwards in higher education.
This war on print is not limited just to books. While librarians and administrators are often eager to leverage the latest Web 2.0 technologies and social media to build active online communities, they are same time they are taking away the cluttery community bulletin boards (where students could advertise babysitting services, search for a roommate or sell used textbooks)–visible traces of physical communities–and replacing them with video monitors. Books, fliers and bulletin boards are not clean and modern. Again, in Orwellian fashion, paper, print and writing are replaced with screens.
From Libraries to Learning Resource Centers. At the same time as these new bookless, paperless monuments to learning are being erected at universities, a similar kind of thing is going on at small community colleges, cash-strapped institutions, for profit and vocational schools, which have been quietly ditching their print collections and downgrading their libraries into bookless entities which they are calling “Learning Resource Centers,” because at least for now, accrediting agencies won’t let them get away with providing students with nothing but a web page with links to online resources.
LRCs are not new. They are what was once called the “resource room” before enrollments grew large enough to warrant a library. Now that collections are shrinking or being eliminated, and many accrediting agencies have relaxed their standards, LRCs are making a comeback. LRCs are ambiguous entities ranging from computer labs to tutoring centers to media centers, to low-tech resource rooms housing nothing more than a couple of computers, old textbooks and instructional materials. They all fall short of a real library in significant ways, which is why they are not libraries, but “LRCs.” The ambiguity of them, the lack of qualitative standards applied to them, is part of their appeal. There’s no expectations made of them, no external standards applied to them. But they are philosophically very different entities from an entity known as a library.
One major distinction between a library and an LRC is that with the latter, collections are optional. Libraries have always been collection-centric entities–with collection development plans supporting to varying degrees the curriculum, independent learning, and academic scholarship—where LRCs are not collection-centric. They support instruction, often at the remedial level, the reinforcement of learning objectives of the classroom. LRCs provide only those resources that help students succeed according an institutional definition of success, and have nothing at all to do with the loftier librarian ideals of “academic freedom” or “life-long learning” or the student’s definition of success.
If an LRC provides resources at all, it typically obtains them on an ad hoc basis, whatever is thought to be necessary for students to complete specific course assignments, master specific learning objectives, or to reinforce classroom instruction. They support a very limited concept of student success, albeit one which is perfectly aligned with the business goals of the institution: providing basic resources for getting students through their program.
LRCs are what happens to a library when an institutional assessment plan is allowed to completely define its mission.
If the only legitimate goal of the library is the retention and graduation of students, then the library will become nothing more than a remedial tutoring center catering to the least ambitious and most at risk students. All of the students enrolled at that school are shortchanged by this model, because they are denied access to a good college library.
Professionally and philosophically, the college and academic research library does not exist merely to support the business objectives of the institution, but rather to support the scholarly, disciplinary and academic interests of its student and faculty.
There is no librarian philosophy behind a Learning Commons or LRC, because these are not libraries at all, but tutoring centers.
ooklessness–or rather, lack of commitment to collections–as well as changes in how libraries are evaluated through their institutional assessment plans, has muddied the waters between a library and an LRC.
Because college library booklessness has become acceptable, fashionable–equated with progress–LRCs and other forms of bookless learning (innovation labs, maker spaces, news rooms, learning commons, information commons, media centers and “active learning labs”–as if any sort of engagement with print is passive learning) are becoming more common in libraries on college campuses, replacing a large portion of the library or cutting significantly into its budget.
I would say “replacing a large portion of the traditional library,” but despite the enthusiastic participation of library directors in creating these hybrid spaces, I’m not sure others in the college and university administration regard media labs, maker spaces, smart classrooms and “co-labs” as belonging to the library proper, as opposed to being housed within it.
Librarians who resist these trends risk vilification by proselytizers of ebooks, administrators looking for ways to save money (that is, by not buying print books), by those wishing to experiment with innovative pedagogical methods, by those eager to be regarded as forward-thinking, and by architectural firms who are eager for opportunities to design unique and expensive buildings.
Now, I think it is great that libraries are striving to become more social places. To me they always were, but maybe that is just my experience attending various universities and working in them most of my life. Libraries were never the stultifying study halls some make them out to be. Like a neighborhood bar, any decent library has its regular crowd. Students have always been able to study and socialize in libraries, and relaxed food and drink policies have become the norm for years. Many libraries were built with cafes in them or nearby, in a basement or in a neighboring student center.
There is nothing especially “21st century” about the combination of coffee, books, and people, or comfortable seating. What is new, however, is the new library professional antipathy for print, as if the books themselves are impeding learning or progress, impeding student success, impeding the advancement of the library profession, or draining the budget, requiring to much staff, standing in the way of the library’s becoming “popular,” and/or risking turning the library into a “book warehouse.”
For the first time in library history, print represents a burden that we need to be liberated from. Print is an albatross around our necks and out students’ necks. The rationale is, “Get rid of print, and we librarians will be freed up to do more important things–like helping students.” “Get rid of the books, and people will want to come to the library once again.” Get rid of books, and our students will be forced to embrace new technologies and be better prepared to enter the workforce.
Print is viewed as an outdated product 14 that library directors and administrators are eager to distance themselves from.
Within what’s left of the graying and still employed library profession, dividing lines are being drawn over the role and importance of “book” books and the need to maintain print collections, with remaining staff often reluctant to say what they really think about plans to go completely digital. Those who resist risk being typecast as resistant to change, obsolete or technophobic. An example of this can be found in Lura Sanborn’s (2013) article “Bookless library?”:
In this tense political climate, some librarians may feel pressured to reiterate exaggerated claims–or they may believe them–about “the cost to warehouse a book on the shelf” each year–about $4.20–taken from a very impressive analysis done by economist Paul N. Courant, who was on the board of several large scale book digitization ventures 16 when published that study (2010), and concluded:
His figure of $4.20 per annum per book has been repeated so often at library conferences and in power point slides, even in Newsweek,18 it has become a factoid,19–a perfect example of what happens when articles are mined for information and not read critically to detect bias, which is what all of us librarians should know how to do.
First of all, all libraries weed, they do not “warehouse” for posterity. Collections must be continuously evaluated and maintained, buying new and get rid of the old. Most titles depreciate rapidly between 5 and 10 years from publication. Those that are no longer of scholarly interest are weeded, not left on the shelf to take up space and gather dust.
But for those who raise such complaints against traditional libraries, I say would you ask an art museum curator what it costs to “warehouse a painting” each year, just in case someone might want to look at a painting?
And have you investigated the price of academic ebooks for libraries and compared these to their print counterparts? I am not talking about Kindle prices, but what the library has to pay for a comparable academic ebook.
The true cost of ebooks for libraries. It is often assumed by college administrators and non-librarians, based exclusively on their own personal experiences with Amazon and Kindle, that ebooks are significantly cheaper than print. And it seems absolutely intuitive that they would be. While they typically are for consumers, they are not for academic libraries, unless they are flunky titles that are no longer in demand (in the publishing biz., those flunky titles are called “backlist” titles). Ebooks purchased through EBSCO, our flagship vendor, cost significantly more per title than their corresponding print editions, even for single use.
Vendors charge institutions more for an ebook, even for single use. The cost of purchasing a recent (published in the last 3 years) academic title through a typical library vendor like EBSCO is 1/3 to 2/3s higher than the cost of the same book in print for single simultaneous use.
Take a look at this title, taken randomly from EBSCO’s Collection Manager tool. Natural Gas Processing: Technology and Engineering is $146 for the print book paying full list price (librarians usually get a 20% discount for print books through their book jobber). The same ebook is priced at $177.60, $222.00 (for 3 simultaneous users) and $266 for unlimited use.
One explanation for the higher costs for institutions is that the vendor is also providing hosting in perpetuity for the ebook–even if we do not want access to the book in perpetuity. When libraries buy books, unless they are extremely large research libraries (and even then), they never buy with the idea in mind of having a book forever. Suddenly the cost of maintaining a book on the shelves doesn’t seem so bad.
Despite what people may think, ebooks do not represent a significant cost savings over print unless the library is buying into a cheap grab bag of oddball academic titles that represent niche interests, UK imprints, dated titles, or things that the publisher can’t move in print any longer, in which case the book is valued at less than list price for print anyway.
Sometimes, in an effort to go digital quickly–to force the library to evolve–collections are altogether replaced by ebook packages often consisting of random titles gathered around publisher agreements, rarely containing the newest titles (which are available only in print) and lacking any semblance of intentionality and selectivity, which previously defined a library collection.
What was developed for supplemental use, that is, to augment the print collection, now becomes “the collection”–serving a function it was never intended to fulfill–no matter how many thousands of books are there. There are often older books no longer selling well, which is how they ended up in the grab bag. There are also often disproportionately high numbers of foreign imprints, which are not as relevant to American scholars in the fields of business, sociology, healthcare administration, law, public affairs and education. With academic packages, there are a lot of secondary sources, literary criticism on exceedingly narrow topics, but no critical editions of the works themselves.
An ebook database not a collection any more than Google Books, that is, it appears to users that no one actually selected these titles for the library, because they didn’t.
The vendor may have provided a pick list of additional titles which could be added at a premium price, but it’s not as if we are capable of choosing whatever title we want. Most new titles are not even offered. It is too bad that libraries cannot offer Kindle downloads.
More than cost and quality, there is a psychological aspect of ebooks which is perhaps most bothersome to a librarian concerned about literacy. Since no personal investment by library staff appears to have been made in selecting titles, and no great expense appears to have been made by the university to acquire them (since everyone believes ebooks to be dirt cheap), why should our students value them?
Ebooks are or appear to be mere commodities to be called up when needed to write a paper for information, and quickly forgotten about. They are not intended to be “read” read, or remembered, valued or appreciated as a cultural object, just something to be mined as a resource for paper writing. They are impermanent and ephemeral, like a Facebook post. No one expects that others will have read or heard of an ebook they come across in ebrary, but the same is not the case with print.
I’m not arguing that the library should not invest in ebooks to supplement print collections, but that we need to carefully consider the consequences of the strategy of divesting ourselves completely of print.
Digital natives place greater personal value on physical books, and have a higher opinion of the library and librarians for having the book in print that they need. When they come to the library and do not see books, they express disappointment, cheated out of something they feel entitled to as part of their college experience. This is because students, like administrators, also think of print books as being more costly, and believe ebooks to be “cheap.” It would never occur to a student that the ebook they click and scroll through, just as they do free internet resources and free books on Google Books, actually cost the library $200 or more. And they want their library to raise awareness of new titles and resources which might be of interest to them. This qualitative aspect is one big difference between a well-managed library and a “book warehouse.”
As a librarian, I am in favor of promoting our content, raising awareness of new titles and trends, cultivating appreciation for books as works, not as commodities. I am for rational collections which provide a context and a catalyst for scholarship.
At this point, ebooks alone present us with a limited capacity to accomplish the higher order educational goals and objectives of librarianship.
Squeezing Blood from a Stone: Tangible Outcomes from Intangible Goods
Until a few years ago, no one ever questioned the importance of the academic library to higher education. People in administration questioned whether their library was good, and how we knew it was good, not whether a library was needed. No one was requiring personal philosophies of librarianship or annual self-justifications to keep one’s job, either (they don’t where I work, but at some university libraries they do each year). It was enough to be competent, proficient and resourceful. As a librarian, the ideal of the library, and the ideal of higher education, endowed you with purpose, not vice versa.
The decline in the perceived relevance of college and academic libraries can be accounted for in many ways. The most obvious cause is an increased reliance by administrators and scholars alike on information resources found by “Googling” (the Open Web). These days, neither the physical library nor the library’s website is the first place people come to when beginning their research. Often the library is utilized to gain access to the full-text of an article found online, that is, to get around a publisher pay wall. Rather than checking our catalog and online resources first, researchers find books they might like on Amazon and Google Books, or they locate book and article citations on Google Scholar, and then check to see if the library has them.
Some of “this” we have done to ourselves by setting the bar too low for library vendors and our online presence. The modern library is a content provider like Amazon and Netflix, but, for various reasons, our catalogs and user interfaces have not evolved into the kind of content-rich environments that might allow us to compete for our users’ attention with commercial entities whose websites people enjoy visiting and browsing.21 Having succumbed to professional insularity stemming from vendor-sponsored conferences being used for continuing education and professional development, we often accept products which would not be competitive in a commercial environment, especially where user interfaces are concerned. For example, we permit, even promote, blatant branding (EBSCOhost, ProQuest, Gale-Cengage, etc.) rather white labeling, and take it for granted that traffic will be driven away from the library’s website off to a 3rd party platform to conduct research.
Our professional energies often seem misplaced teaching students how to navigate the library’s antiquated catalogs and unintuitive websites–teaching archaic search techniques like using Boolean search operators as part of an “information literacy” curriculum, for example–rather than concentrating on developing intuitive user interfaces which would put more of our content in front of the user, and would encourage academic “literacy”, that is, an intimate familiarly with significant titles, publications and authorities in their field and related fields.
Along the same lines, our facilities are increasingly being built as large-scale, design-heavy, multi-purpose spaces which diverts attention away from our content, leaves people feeling that there is no “there” there, and makes it even more difficult for us to promote print and electronic resources to foster communities of readers and learners.
There are things that can be done to make our websites and our facilities more appealing and relevant to students and scholars, some which I will discuss below, but all involve traditional library strategies of promoting user engagement with content, specifically with the written and printed word.
It’s the low hanging fruit, titles that are new and current and interesting, which keeps users coming back to the library and makes them interested in coming through our doors.
Once vibrant facilities are risking becoming that which they hope to avoid, devolving into mere repositories, through practices and policies which pretend that collections do not matter despite what users say. (Please don’t get rid of print and then complain about low stats and lack of foot traffic in the library!) Our content, not our services, is what matters most to our users, and this should be emphasized in the design of our facilities, our websites and assessment models. Meaningful, relevant and interesting content should always be the focus of a library, not the flexible and diverse seating arrangements or the number of transactions at a service desk.
Corporate U. Another cause of the perceived irrelevance of libraries, which I find more interesting from a purely philosophical standpoint, is the increasing corporatization of colleges and universities, where everything–including the library, librarians and our acquisitions budget–must be justified according to a seemingly universal set of business management techniques whose applicability to the educational mission of academic libraries no one, including the Association for College and Research Libraries (ACRL), seems to have questioned.
As a result of ACRL’s (revised Oct. 2011) Standards for Libraries in Higher Education and those of regional accrediting agencies–upon which ACRL SLHE are based–it is through a business management model (Quality Assessment) that librarians now seek to demonstrate their relevance, and their library’s relevance, to their institutions.
Just to clear up any confusion, I am not referring to strategic planning (goal setting and evaluation), nor rejecting the need to be accountable to those who fund us, but discussing very specifically the limitations of a certain popular business management approach which I first encountered years ago working as a library director for two for-profit vocational schools, and which now seems to have become ubiquitous in the library world and in higher education under the names of “quality assessment” and “outcomes assessment,” where “rubrics” and “KPIs” are applied to everything, ostensibly to create a culture of continuous assessment and improvement.
One person aptly referred to this phenomenon as the “outcomes assessment movement.” 22
I believe that this business technique–that’s where “Quality Assessment” all started–has limited application when it comes to higher education, and and especially assessing the real impact of the college and research library and librarians on our users.
Over reliance on these methods by administrators, however, along with complicity with them by our library professional associations, will ultimately have a detrimental impact on the quality and future of academic libraries wherever library budgets must be strictly tied to 1. institutional objectives and 2. outcomes-based assessments, or both, as new standards for libraries in higher education recommend.
Rather than resulting in continuous improvement, I believe that outcomes assessment will result in the opposite: a continuous degradation of quality, precisely because it marginalizes that which cannot be effectively measured: the impact of our collections and content (library resources) on our users.
As we have seen with similar initiatives to establish core standards to ensure greater accountability in K-12 education, whatever assessment model is used to measure educational outcomes will ultimately redefine and shape the end product, often in ways that perhaps were never intended, anticipated or desired.
Quality (Outcomes) Assessment: Our New “Grand Narrative.”23
One of the most influential trends over the last 20 years in academic librarianship has been efforts to assess library quality and effectiveness, and not just in-and-of-itself (i.e., “Is the library good?“), but within the context of the goals, objectives, and business management methods (“Quality Assessment”) employed by their parent institutions to evaluate institutional effectiveness, sometimes referred to as the “Institutional Effectiveness Plan” or “Quality Assessment Plan.”24
This approach has also become a relatively new (since 2011) best practice, or standard, for academic librarians, as defined by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL Standards in Libraries in Higher Education), the professional association for college and academic librarians. By the standard committee’s own admission, this latest standard represents a shift in the way libraries are to think about assessment, in terms of methodology (must be “outcomes-based”) and emphasis (prioritizing the achievement of institutional and departmental instructional objectives, instead of those internal to the library):
The bottom line is that academic libraries no longer have any prescriptive standards or guidelines of their own but, according to ACRL, must adopt those of their parent institution, their parent institution’s accrediting agency, and their parent institution’s Quality Assessment plans. We are to adopt the goals, objectives and outcomes of our respective institutions, including other departments and even student affairs as our own to facilitate greater partnerships across institutional boundaries, and establish our relevance accordingly.26 And we are to demonstrate our effectiveness by measurable and verifiable (evidence) assessment outcomes tied to the goals of the institution.
Let’s consider regional institutional accreditation guidelines as a library standard, since ACRL SLHE asks us to use these when formulating library outcomes. If these guidelines mention anything about libraries, they are meant to be baseline or minimum standards, not something libraries can use to achieve academic excellence, or even “goodness.” For example, SACS doesn’t say all that much about libraries except we are to offer qualified staff, library instruction and access to sufficient resources and collections:
CR 2.9 The institution, through ownership or formal arrangements or agreements, provides and supports student and faculty access and user privileges to adequate library collections and services and to other learning/information resources consistent with the degrees offered. Collections, resources, and services are sufficient to support all its educational, research, and public service programs. (Learning resources and services)
“Sufficiency” and “adequacy” are not usually what professionals in any field strive to achieve. Which goes to my point that institutional accreditation standards are not library standards for achieving excellence, goodness or quality.
Also, because accreditation standards are intended to be minimum standards, if the word “library” is dropped and replaced by “learning and information resources,” as has already happened in several places in SACS,27 it is with the understanding that small colleges with limited enrollments, or online colleges, or vocational schools, can still obtain institutional accreditation even if they lack full-fledged libraries.
The wording of regional accreditation guidelines is not intended to be a checkered flag for research institutions to divest themselves of their libraries, or to downgrade them into less costly Learning Resource Centers (LRCs), which require neither a library collection nor professional librarians to operate or maintain.28 Nor is it intended to encourage the provision of merely adequate resources by the library–whatever might be construed as the defensible minimum needed to pass an accreditation review–even though, again, such brinksmanship might be lauded by an administration in terms of cost reduction, maximizing return on investment, and the achievement of institutional objectives. In most cases, academic libraries cannot simply “adopt institutional objectives as their own” without significantly compromising quality.
Without any qualitative standards for collections for academic libraries emanating from ALA/ACRL, how can library administrators ever make a compelling case to their administration that their libraries are not being adequately funded, specifically, that they are not able to provide adequate resources to function as a good library should?
If libraries are not encouraged to have their own goals and objectives for excellence, their own external standards for goodness or quality, how can they prevent existing library budgets from being cannibalized for institutional objectives that have little or nothing to do with sustaining a good college and academic research library?
I believe that this shift we have seen from resource-based evaluation to outcomes-based evaluation, especially with the latter emphasizing institutional accreditation and effectiveness rather than the benefits and value that good libraries provide to students and faculty, poses a threat to our core professional values, to the continuity of libraries, and to the education of our students.
It is also philosophically incorrect from a professional library standpoint.
any faculty members have decried the rise of “managerialism”29 or an increasing corporate orientation in the university.30 31 32 The best definition of managerialism I have come across is “an exaggerated belief by professional managers in the value of the management concepts and methods they use, regardless of the unique values, culture and methodology of the organizations they manage”; the notion, for example, “that the same principles, values and methodology can be applied to managing a university, a hospital, a TV station, a car factory, a chain of coffee shops or an army.”33 Some have argued that corporate culture threatens to undermine or erode the humanistic and intellectual ideals of the university.
There is tension between the business orientation and an academic one at any university, although people in higher education have come to recognize that both perspectives are needed for the institution to thrive. The latter values deep thinking, scholarship, and knowledge as virtues in themselves–knowledge for knowledge’s sake–even if doesn’t lead to a specific outcome, aside from a more educated human being.
This is a sometimes referred to as a humanistic model because it supports the pursuit of knowledge to allow a person to reach his or her full potential, but not necessarily because it leads to a specific “student learning outcome.” It encourages and supports personal enrichment and independent learning and the creation of new knowledge. It does not ask, “Why do you want to know that?” “How is that related to your degree plan?” Our professional commitment is to student success as defined by the student, helping him achieve his educational goals and objectives, not primarily to student success as defined by the institution.
From another perspective, however, this model is elitist. While costly, specialized resources are sometimes acquired to benefit a few faculty members and their students–one profound difference between an academic and the more demand-driven public library–academic libraries usually have policies against buying textbooks, which would certainly benefit many students who cannot afford to buy them.
This model is also elitist because it places value on a kind of production (writing/research) that is of immeasurable or indeterminate economic benefit to the university. Publishing in peer-reviewed journals or though academic presses typically has little impact on enrollment, retention and graduation rates–the most pressing concerns for the college or university administration. (Research adds prestige to the university, but it has virtually no impact on undergraduate enrollment.) The more humanistic and academic goals of the college and academic research library (scholarship, life-long learning, etc.) and the more pragmatic goals of the institution (degree completion) just might not line up very well.
If fact, operating within a strictly institutional or business framework, where the library’s goals have become one with that of their administration, the most successful and effective library manager could conceivably be one who spends as little as possible on library resources, but still manages to skate through an accreditation review. This isn’t good for students or faculty, or for libraries or librarians–who will surely have difficulty “partnering with faculty” (one of the stated goals of the new ACRL standard) if the materials that they and their students expect to find in the library are never there; if users are routinely compelled to use other libraries to access significant or core titles in their discipline; or forced to buy the books they want or need to support their research interests out of pocket.
Over time, if collections are not maintained, demand for the library’s services will drop off, and suspicions by decision makers that the library or books or librarians are no longer needed will be confirmed. The library will be eliminated or (because of accreditation requirements) be converted into some kind of lab/tutoring center/LRC housing instructional materials, and whose activities can be more directly linked to student achievement. This will happen not because of changing times, or because of Google, but because the library will have been diminished by not buying anything new, by not promoting resources, and by using assessment tools that measure the wrong outputs or outcomes for an academic research or college library.
The new ACRL standard was intended to promote greater collaboration and advance our roles as partners educating students and contributing to their success.34 However, real collaboration is a two way street: partnering is more than just our teaching information literacy courses or co-piloting courses taught by others. Librarians have traditionally been recognized as partners in educating students through the quality content and resources we provide, and ensuring that the collection is appropriate, highly accessible (systems/access services) and engaging.
Problem is, we lack a standard set of outcomes through which to evaluate the impact of collections (both print and online, leisure and scholarly) on student learning. This does not mean that these are not a worthwhile, but that the assessment tools and standards used to determine the value of academic libraries are wrong. We have an outcomes problem.
More than ever, libraries need from our professional associations prescriptive standards to serve as reinforcement, “strategies of resistance,” in order to keep themselves from being over run by other departments by the university administration–our budgets and space re-appropriated for initiatives that have little or nothing to do with the library.
From this perspective, rewriting our mission statements in order to adopt the goals and objectives of other departments and even “student affairs,” as ACRL suggests as a way of promoting “greater collaboration,” seems like a very bad idea indeed.
Measuring the tangible impact of an intangible good. The business strategy of aligning ourselves with institutional goals and objectives, specifically institutional quality assessment plans, is particularly problematic for academic research libraries because their collections cannot be properly or rigorously assessed through any objective measure that can be tied back to “student success” as defined by the university’s quality assessment/enhancement plans.35 Years before the publication of the new ACRL standard, a similar approach was discussed in an often cited article by Sarah M. Pritchard, “Determining Quality in Academic Libraries.” Library Trends, 44.3 (1996):
Pritchard goes on to say, however, that despite higher education managers adopting the business methods of quality management, and the “micro-evaluation of libraries have given countless opportunities for detailed studies . . .”
Today, academic librarians are still struggling to find ways to demonstrate their library’s relevance to their respective institutions, which usually translates into contriving ways to demonstrate our value within the context of an institutional Quality Assessment plan.
By making institutional outcomes our exclusive focus, it is easy for academic librarians to forget who we are, and why most of us got our degrees in Library Science–which I doubt was to “support the curriculum,” “teach Information Literacy,” to “improve institutional outcomes,” or any of the other phrases commonly found in librarian philosophies and in newly renovated mission statements these days.38 Not that these are not worthwhile objectives, but they are too narrow and not student focused–and they miss the point of why our users (those who use the library regularly) like and value the library, which is one thing a mission statement should try to articulate.
Many of us academic librarians had hoped to enrich the lives of others, quite likely as ours have been enriched, through the experience of a great library, a library we probably enjoyed going to because, well, it was interesting, and made us feel connected to a larger community of scholars who were passionate about the same things we were, and made our world feel like a larger, more interesting place. It provided a kind of transcendence. Great libraries are great because they have great collections which afford users with a great experience. This is what I call “the aesthetic.”
Of course, “greatness” is subjective and not measurable, an aesthetic judgment, which are to be avoided when it comes to all types of quality assessment planning. This poses quite a philosophical dilemma for libraries.
he managerial art of objectifying what is inherently subjective and experiential, through inputs, outputs, outcomes, performance indicators, benchmarks, feedback, usage stats, metrics, documentary evidence and analyses, and then folding this meaningfully and compellingly to institutional goals and objectives, and last, into our own budgetary justifications in ways college and university administrators will ultimately appreciate, is the challenge now laid at our collective feet.
Libraries have always attempted to measure themselves and their services to evaluate their effectiveness, impact on users, or “goodness.” This is nothing new. Some have even criticized the discipline for its seemingly unbridled enthusiasm for measurement, for being “confounded from the outset” by false “certainties of empiricism” stemming from the fact it regards itself as a science and takes as its domain information.39
For many reasons both theoretical and practical–whether stemming from professional orientation, need for greater accountability, or job insecurity–librarians already do tend to place great emphasis on empirical data, inputs (budgets, size of collections) and outputs (circulation, reference questions answered, usage stats), ratios (percent of budget spent to support certain programs, numbers of books per student per major) and performance measures which, regrettably, cannot ever be meaningfully tied to user outcomes, and which therefore “do not assist managers in providing a true picture of libraries to the lives of our users. . . “40
For many academic libraries, and particularly those in Southern states,41 “Quality Assessment” has presented new and interesting measurement challenges, tantamount to devising Rube Goldberg Machine that will, at the end of the day, reveal and heighten our impact on the much larger machinery of institutional outcomes assessment.
There is certainly a lot that could be written about Quality Assessment planning with regard to libraries, such as, how do we assess our assessment plans to know that they are good? Has the practice of assessing the academic library’s value through the rubric of institutional effectiveness been good for academic libraries and those who use them? Has this practice resulted in improved library services? How has it changed us, for better or for worse?
Rube Goldberg was a master of imagining complicated mechanical processes to perform the most mundane tasks, which could otherwise be performed with just a slight bit of human effort and common sense, for example, here a self-opening umbrella:
I do not mean to suggest that there is an easy and obvious solution to the problem of assessment or accountability in libraries–or that one should not rely upon all available tools and reports to make informed decisions–or that objectivity is not worth striving for.
That’s a given for any library manager. We compare ourselves, statistically-speaking, to our peers, and then try to figure out what they are doing better than us so we might improve. Strategic planning is an excellent tool for bench-marking growth. Setting and pursuing goals is vital to continuous improvement–who would not agree with that?
However, as the title of my philosophy statement suggests, I believe good libraries are about a very special kind of aesthetic user experience whose impact or value or information content cannot be measured in ways that would ever rationally justify them (libraries are intangible goods after all) from the business perspective which is always being foisted upon us. There is no cost/benefit analysis that will justify the expense of an academic research library. (It reminds me what was said before cutting the school lunch program, “We tried it but didn’t see results.”) Therefore, I am especially mistrustful of reliance upon overly rationalized processes and externally imposed business measures like QA when it comes to library management, but most especially when they threaten to change the priorities of the academic library to value only that which can be counted, measured or valued by “the plan.”
If the library’s budget must be tied only to measurable, institutional outcomes of “student success” (graduation rate, retention, enrollment, persistence, employment rate, transfer rate, and other business objectives of the institution) or “student learning success” (how well they students do on an information literacy test), this will change the priorities of the academic library into something that is not recognizable as an academic library.
The sort of accountability required by institutional quality assessment plans inevitably entails both measurement and outcomes, but–and this may come a s a surprise–the library profession has never been able to successfully arrive at meaningful measures linked to outcomes,42 nor able to arrive at any evidence-based methods to assess the impact of libraries on its users, except for customer satisfaction surveys.
And it isn’t for a lack of effort or focus on these problems, which are further exacerbated by a failure to recognize that academic libraries are about the subjective experience of users–which I call “the aesthetic”–including browsing, familiarizing oneself with a discipline, reading for enjoyment (i.e., because users find it interesting/significant/relevant), seeing what is new, reacting to the works and ideas of others, and, perhaps most cherished by users, “serendipitous discovery.”43
We librarians deal for the most part in the realm of private experience, in intangible goods, but we are expected to deliver, or provide an accounting of, our tangible value so university administrators can see a return on investment.44 If we do have measurable user or student outcomes, they are often contrived for the sake of satisfying our QA plan, and usually involve those charged with teaching Information Literacy courses to freshmen–because here learning might be demonstrated through testing or better grades. By what mechanism is the library evaluated, in terms of its impact, other than this limited intervention? We cannot lay any claim to research and publications by the faculty, even though we support them.
The quality assessment standards imposed on academic research libraries today are often missing the finer points of the academic research library, and really the purpose of higher education, which is to encourage learning and research that is not necessarily part of “the curriculum”–at least not yet. Our users have no predefined learning outcomes: and that’s the point. We want them to feel as if they are standing on the shores of a vast ocean of knowledge and human experience, and they are free to go in any direction.
However, one unintended consequence of the imposition of QA on libraries at some institutions has been a reallocation of the library budget away from library resources, the collection–whose impact on students or outcomes cannot be effectively assessed or measured–toward staffing and instructional services, such as information literacy programs, tutoring, writing labs, and basic computer skills classes, and a variety of tangential student support services involving “doing” and which lend themselves to outcomes assessment more easily, especially in the short-term.
This is because within the context of the institutional QA, libraries don’t get much credit for having resources or even use of resources–only demonstrating tangible results–and these “results” must occur within the time constraints of the plan, making it hard to connect it even with scholarship in a meaningful way.
Selling out our Core Values? Another issue fundamental to our identity as library professionals is that by adopting as our highest aspirations an institutional model of student success as defined by external IE/QA plans (plans shaped exclusively by goals and objectives for institutional accreditation, rather than library standards), as ACRL has now advised45, we are moving away from a wholistic model of librarianship, in which the user defines his success, towards one that is narrow, passive, unambitious and not user-centered: we merely “support the curriculum” with “adequate resources” rather than (more idealistically) keeping up, and helping scholars keep up, with new publications and trends in their field of study, or supporting the creation of new disciplinary knowledge.
While this latter role is perhaps more pertinent to academic libraries supporting graduate research, there are corollaries at the community or junior college level, where librarians support, or have traditionally supported, the co-curricular and extra-curricular, self-directed interests of our students: leisure reading, current events, bestsellers, graphic novels, biographies, life skills and “how to’s” for young adults transitioning into adulthood and into a professional workforce.
These may not be directly, meaningfully or demonstrably tied to the curriculum, but they make the library good for, and interesting to, students, and habituates them to independent learning, that is, independent from the more task-oriented objectives-based curriculum we are supposed to be supporting. It also exposes them to other points of view and ways of thinking, and enhances their educational experience, even if we cannot prove that it does.
One would assume that promoting self-directed and independent learning at all levels–from leisure reading for college students to original research for publication for upper division and graduate students–would be fundamental, or foundational, to the core values of “lifelong learning,” a principle we are supposed to be instilling in students.46 But even the seemingly straightforward concept of lifelong learning has been co-opted by what Elmborg alludes to as a “neoliberalist” agenda, as opposed to the more idealistic values traditionally upheld by the library profession:
While I cannot speak to the “neoliberal” vs. “social justice” perspectives Elmborg raises–I see the dichotomy more as a top-down business/managerial/”quality management” perspective vs. more scholarly / humanistic / user-centered approach–it does seem pretty clear no matter how you express it, that librarians as well as our professional associations like ACRL are embracing certain philosophies, strategies or best practices that may be detrimental to the success or survival of libraries in the long term. The imperative that libraries must closely align themselves with the business needs of their parent institutions and embrace their (and other departments’) goals and objectives as our own should be critically evaluated to see how it complements our core values as professional librarians and the impact this might have on our user communities.
A facility that merely “supports the curriculum” with resources “sufficient” to complete various assignments with pre-determined learning outcomes is not technically even a library.
Beyond the Curriculum? Academic librarians are, presumably, scholars committed to scholarship and the principle of academic freedom. We help students pursue knowledge and achieve their chosen educational and learning objectives–whether it leads to a degree or not.
Now, my own theory of library usage–which has to be at the heart of any philosophy of librarianship–is that people who value and use academic libraries, our constituents, do so because they benefit from immediate access to relevant, significant or interesting titles, especially within the context of a meaningful and carefully considered collection.
To our constituents, academic libraries are not primarily “about” the services provided by librarians, at least not in an obvious way. They are about collections. They are about books, regardless of format. They are about publications. When people look forward to going to library they are not imagining librarians, they are thinking about interesting books and collections which they hope and expect to find there. Things they like. Library services are always secondary to collections. Services exist to support and promote use of our collections, our collections (whether in print or online) are not there to support librarians’ services.
The academic library is not primarily about inputs and outputs, users “getting answers to specific questions” or “satisfying specific information needs”–the latter are good things, of course, but despite the empirical information model which has often permeated our professional thinking about library operations–is not a correct model for any type of library, public or academic.
To scholars and regular library users, libraries are about the preservation of knowledge, sharing knowledge, facilitating the discovery of knowledge, and providing support for the creation of new knowledge through the quality of its collections.
To the extent that it does this well, it is successful as an academic research library.
Why Academic Library Collections Still Matter in the Age of Google.
I am asked this question not infrequently in graduate research methods classes. I know this can be my cue to promote myself and my services, and say, “Librarians are your greatest resource, and that is why libraries still matter!” But I do not believe that to be true. I am helpful, but I am not their greatest library resource. If I were, the library would be spending a million dollars on me and not on EBSCO databases.
Anyway, the library shouldn’t revolve around “me” or my services. I want people to benefit from and enjoy the library itself. Thankfully, many people use the library regularly without ever needing to consult with a librarian.
Let me explain. According to my aesthetic philosophy of librarianship, which is also a moral and spiritual philosophy, I should not benefit from the ignorance, frustrations, or disappointments of users in order to boost my own performance scorecard, desk stats, relevance or value: the wi-fi going down should not be a cause for celebration because, hey, my stats are going to go up! Website not intuitive? Students just need to take an information literacy class from me to learn how to use it. People can’t find any books on “globalization,” “big data,” “noSQL” or C#? Students can get what they want through me, through ILL. (After all, it’s what we do that counts, not what we have. . .) Can’t access it from home? Call me at the Reference desk, I can download and send it to you. Yikes! But in an environment where everyone is supposed to be assiduously documenting their own services, justifying themselves and their own services, gathering “evidence” to make themselves accountable to our institution, well, we just might not be as customer-oriented as we appear on paper.
When I speak to students, I am merely the messenger. I try to represent published authorities and the peer-reviewed Word. Although I provide library instruction, try my best to provide assistance, suggest and acquire resources which might be helpful, in my official capacity as an academic librarian I represent resources which promote disciplinary knowledge. That is what the library as a whole ideally does better than Google and Google Scholar–provided that the library’s collections, access services and systems are maintained.
In a university library, students, aspiring scholars, and newcomers to a field of study should benefit from familiarizing themselves with what books, journals, publications and publishers others regard as influential, significant or authoritative in a field of study, as opposed to say, what rises to the top of a Google query, an EBSCO database, ebrary, or even our library’s discovery tool.
Some accrediting agencies may be impressed (thank goodness, right?), but personally, I really don’t care if we can retrieve 10,000 titles on “Health Administration” from our databases if we don’t have–or are incapable of making students aware of–the most significant, authoritative and recent references in their field of study. Awareness of authorities and trends in a discipline is one thing that defines a person as a professional. Libraries have a vital role to play in this aspect of a student’s education.
Not through me or my services directly, but indirectly, through a well maintained collection, catalog and website, present and future scholars benefit by seeing and experiencing what is new and interesting in their field of study, because doing so inspires their own creativity, research, teaching, and their disciplinary knowledge. The kind of disciplinary knowledge obtained through a good academic library collection is a very important part of an aspiring professional or scholar’s education–which should never be limited just to what is taught in classes, or prescribed by a curriculum.
The library is a vital part of the education of our students. Apart from providing the student with disciplinary knowledge, including that which may fall outside of scope the courses taught at that particular college or university, the library allows students the opportunity to apply their newly obtained curricular knowledge in ways that are personally meaningful to them.
However, librarians are increasingly asked by QA plans to define themselves, their roles and their collections narrowly, in terms of measurable targets of student impact—in terms of what they do (services), not in terms of what they have (collections)–even though what many of us do, or believe we should be doing–in addition to helping students and doing the same services we have always performed–is creating and sustaining an exceptionally good college and academic research library collection.
Most surprisingly, we are even prompted by our own professional standards to redefine ourselves in terms of “institutional, departmental and student affairs outcomes. . . . student recruitment, retention, time to degree and academic success” (ACRL, SLHE, 2011, 1.1-1.6)–the university’s business objectives, as opposed to something more idealistic and perhaps less demonstrable within the plan’s reporting period: support for independent learning, knowledge, scholarship and the intellectual life of the university campus.
So then, after rewriting our library mission statements to express alignment with institutional objectives, as ACRL SLHE suggests we do, it is still not clear how we are to develop the recommended metrics and performance indicators to demonstrate contributions to “student recruitment, retention, time to degree and academic success,” that is, without fundamentally reforming the library to become something which is not an academic library, but something more along the lines of a tutoring center.
Many libraries have established “student success centers” and ramped up their instructional programs in an effort to be able to demonstrate their relevance and value to their parent institutions through mentoring students and increased direct engagement with them. These are worthwhile, but it would have been preferable to me had ACRL also succeeded in making the “library” part of the library more valuable, not just focused on services.
I mentioned earlier a trend in the literature of library assessment of marginalizing the role and value of collections, or proclaiming them to be irrelevant to the success or quality of the library. Although we try to carve out new ways of expanding out services, in most instances, the campus computer labs, tutoring and writing labs, student affairs, and Blackboard, are handled by other entities on campus. The only thing that makes the library unique, relevant and effective, are its collections, and the provision of support services related to these.
A number of articles in library literature discussing service-oriented assessment techniques for measuring quality also justify the services-only approach by arguing that libraries can’t continue to grow their collections, and therefore must focus on expanding services to justify their value.
Many of these articles quote, or use an epigram, a line from Danuta A. Nitecki (“Changing the Concept and Measure of Service Quality in Academic Libraries.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 22.3, 1996), “The measure of quality based solely on collections has become obsolete.” Danuta sets up a straw man to exaggerate service-orientation, for if you go back and read the article no librarian ever equated library quality with “size of holdings”–we all know better than to do that.
But the very idea that services can be completely disassociated from the collection and evaluated as autonomous business units presents us with a false dichotomy (collections v. services). For one thing, there is interconnection between “library collections” and “library services” which cannot be glossed over.
Historically, library services have always existed to augment and promote use of library collections, not vice versa.
Another motive for minimizing collections in favor of services within library quality assessment plans–and this is the big elephant in the room–is the difficulty evaluating the impact of collections on students (in terms of measurable results which contribute to their “success”), whereas with library instruction, a some kind of test is possible to show that students 1. have attended, and 2. learned something. There is evidence of student impact. The emphasis now is to move away from passive support through resources to direct engagement with students to be able to better document how the library is directly contributing to student success.
However, “student success” is more often than not a euphemism describing the extent to which a student is progressing in his degree plan, not a measure of a student’s learning, extra- or co-curricular goals and activities, or his academic or professional growth outside of graded classwork. It is not a holistic view of the student, his success, or his education.
In reality, the library profession–and historically, our professional commitment to “access”–has always supported a more holistic view of students and their education than the college or university administration: Libraries and librarians help students achieve their educational, intellectual and personal goals. We help them achieve success on their terms. If they want to read a book, we try to get it for them. We do not judge and refuse service if we think it is not part of a class assignment. And this is a good thing for a university.
We can’t pretend to know what the future holds in terms of career opportunities for our students. Nurturing the passions and interests of our students may ultimately be what leads to their success in life–not necessarily their practical Nursing, Health Administration or Respiratory Therapy degrees. Perhaps they will prepare themselves in a career or a field of study not yet established. I recall a time when there were no degrees in Computer Science, and all programmers were self-taught through whatever books and resources were available.
We talk about promoting innovation and entrepreneurship. There is no better place to cultivate that spirit but in the library, where there is real freedom to individualized learning, knowledge and ideas.
Now, many believe that the application of similar sorts of “quality assessment/quality management” techniques to K-12 education, with performance indicators, outcomes, standards, testing, tracking and recording for the sake of reporting back into a system, has not resulted in improved educational outcomes in the classroom, because the curriculum and methods of instruction have been changed in order to meet the needs of the assessment tools.
Assessing the impact of the library through some kind of matrix or rubric, where the only thing of value is what can be measured (what many university assessment plans require), is an impossible task for a library, but external pressures for greater accountability will ultimately transform it to become a remedial support or learning center, rather than a place of higher education where people enjoy visiting, where they see themselves and their interests affirmed, nurtured and supported.
The former may give the right outcomes for the assessment plan, but it will reduce learning opportunities in the process.
Libraries are not factories producing products. At its core libraries are intangible goods, very much like knowledge, and education–well, before education was redefined as a collection of discrete and measurable tasks tied to standardized test learning objectives so it could be properly “assessed.“
We say that “Libraries transform lives,” but proving that is another story.
One never really knows the impact of the library or its collections on users, especially on students. This is obviously a big and troubling problem for a library when it comes to evidence-based assessment.
We can’t assess our impact as a library without assessing the impact of the collection on users, a task which is technically on par with measuring the subtle gravitational waves from the Big Bang or something out of Chaos theory. Collecting data demonstrating the impact of the library’s collection on students, especially according to “measurable targets,” is difficult or even impossible.
This certainly puts the library at a disadvantage from a QA standpoint.
In fact, academic libraries have never been able to arrive at standardized measures and metrics to determine if a library is “good”; but even if this were possible, it is still not enough to be a good library today.
We must now demonstrate through evidence that we contribute to the business goals of the university through its “Rube Goldberg Machine” of Quality Assessment Planning, which, when we hit upon just the right metrics and measures, will be bound to attract enormous crowds at ALA conferences curious to see how it all works.
Let’s resist the temptation to teach to the test, to so eagerly re-establish the roles and priorities of the academic library and its librarians based on what is achievable through evidence, performance indicators and outputs, and what can and cannot be measured within the context of what is, essentially, a business model–whose relevance to education, teaching, research and scholarship has never been proven, and has already been placed into question by many.
Let’s not adopt as our own the goals and objectives of other departments and other entities within the university, in an effort to more closely “align ourselves with them,” as ACRL SLHE advises, without at least considering the impact this may have on the our own customers and constituents, considering whether we are meeting the needs of the scholarly community.
And let’s not be fearful of mission statements that are bold and visionary, making reference to things that cannot be quantified, such as “knowledge” and “creativity.”
Let us begin with the premise that libraries are intangible goods, offering intangible benefits to our community of users, rather than starting out with a management principle that if it can’t be measured, counted or assessed, then it is not a worth pursuing, or has little value.
Consider that many goals in life are worth striving for, even if we can never know if they are achieved: objectivity, knowledge, wisdom, insight, truth, beauty, just to name a few.
Without consideration for the aesthetic and subjective element, libraries become boring, prosaic and perfunctory, a collection of what will be sure to be utilized in the course of a semester (or whatever time period is determined by “the plan”)–a collection of Norton anthologies, textbooks, course-ware and test prep study guides, and a standard set of databases required for accreditation purposes.
The pleasure of coming upon something new and unexpected but deeply meaningful to the user, the subjective human element to collections which defy a vendor’s institutional profile, or just sharing with a fellow reader, are what makes a good library good to present and future scholars.
Good library collections are gratuitous. The problem with managing the academic library strictly according to the numbers–similar to the problem of “teaching to the test” in education–is that the library will fail to be a good library if ALL it does is pursue and measure tangible goals.
We need to be mindful to go beyond them.
We can and should gather stats on usage and solicit input from our users, and yes, we should compare ourselves to peers to try to continuously improve, but we (and the professional organizations who represent us) should recognize and proclaim the fact that the library’s impact on students and scholars cannot be accurately measured, reduced to data points or KPIs, or translated to a dollar value that would ever justify its costs.
A university library that is well-managed, stimulating and up-to-date facilitates learning and helps students grow independently, as self-directed scholars. It inspires research, which brings prestige to the university. But try as we might, libraries cannot be concretely or tangibly mapped to student achievement, higher enrollments, increased retention, improved graduation rates, the focus of most university strategic or quality assessment plans.
The Library as a Place for Inspiration and Exploratory Discovery:
- “Defining Excellence in Academic Librarianship at USC (DEAL at USC) / Your Philosophy of Librarianship.” University of Southern California Library. http://libguides.usc.edu/c.php?g=235091&p=1560270 ↩
- Kolowich, Steve. “Bookless Libraries? Technology leaders and librarians consider how the digital age changes the physical space and role of one of higher education’s oldest institutions.” Inside Higher Ed. Nov. 6, 2009. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/11/06/library. ↩
- “Nation’s First Bookless Library on College Campus is Thriving at UTSA.” UTSA Today, http://www.utsa.edu/today/2013/03/aetlibrary.html. Accessed 27 Feb. 2017. ↩
- Dwyer, Liz. “Are college libraries about to become bookless?” Web log post. The Daily Good. N.p., 13 July 2011. Web. <https://www.good.is/articles/are-college-libraries-about-to-become-bookless>. ↩
- Riley, Sharon. “Academic: New Florida University Unveils Bookless Library.” Library Journal 139, no. 15 (Sep 15, 2014): 13-n/a, http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2014/08/academic-libraries/new-florida-polytechnic-unveils-bookless-library/#_. ↩
- Hack, Husna. “‘Bookless libraries’ – has it really come to this?” Christian Science Monitor. N.p., 17 July 2012. Web. <http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/chapter-and-verse/2012/0717/Bookless-libraries-has-it-really-come-to-this>. ↩
- See for example, http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/10/managing-libraries/collaboration-for-hard-times/#_ ↩
- Rebecca M. Sullivan (2010) Common Knowledge: Learning Spaces in Academic Libraries, College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17:2-3, 130-148, DOI: 10.1080/10691316.2010.481608, p. 135 “. . . innovative partnerships” such as “writing and academic support centers, teaching and learning centers, disability coordinators, diversity centers, service learning initiatives, undergraduate advising programs, and digital centers.” ↩
- The Hunt Library Story, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Okr78MUrImI ↩
- See for example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Okr78MUrImI ↩
- See Rebecca M. Sullivan (2010) Common Knowledge: Learning Spaces in Academic Libraries, College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17:2-3, 130-148, DOI: 10.1080/10691316.2010.481608 ↩
- Digital School Library Leaves Bookstacks Behind” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120097876 ↩
- http://www.maschoolibraries.org/newsletter/reintroducing-printed-books-to-the-cushing-academy-library ↩
- “How Hunt Library Redefined the Library for the Digital Age,” https://www.slideshare.net/duvalunionconsulting/how-hunt-library-redefined-the-library-for-the-digital-age, slide 5 ↩
- EContent Quarterly, 1(2), 6-18. Retrieved from http://tsuhhelweb.tsu.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1490685978?accountid=7093 ↩
- “On the Cost of Keeping a Book,” http://www.leverpress.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/CourantandNielsen.pdf ↩
- I quoted from the pdf, but it originally appeared here in print: Paul N. Courant and Matthew “Buzzy” Nielsen, “On the Cost of Keeping a Book”, The Idea of Order: Transforming Research Collections for 21st Century Scholarship. CLIR Pub#147. June 2010, p. 102 ↩
- http://www.newsweek.com/even-university-libraries-arent-keeping-hard-copy-books-364853 ↩
- an assumption or speculation that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact. ↩
- Barr, Catherine, and Karen Adams. Bowker annual library and book trade almanac. Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc., 2016. 360. Print. ↩
- Lately, vendors of Library Management Systems have been concentrating on improving back-end functionality, workflows and analytics more so than enhancing the front-end user search experience, which has been hampered by inconsistent metadata and API restrictions by publishers. Publishers have more financial incentive to work with Amazon than they do with library vendors. ↩
- Lindauer, B. G. (1998, November). Defining and Measuring the Library’s Impact on Campuswide Outcomes. College & Research Libraries, 59(6), 546-570. ↩
- The term “Grand Narrative” was introduced by Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, in which he critiqued all forms of institutional and ideological forms of knowledge. Social scientists have used this concept to refer to an underlying ideological belief which provides societal legitimization to certain forms of knowledge over others. Historically, the value of libraries was tied into other, larger legitimizing values—democracy (the need for an informed citizenry), cultivating the habit of life-long learning; a European model of higher education where students are expected to function as independent scholars and investigators, that is, taking greater responsibility for their own education (therefore needing access to a research library), rather than remaining passive consumers of instruction. ↩
- According to Welsh and Metcalf, “The term ‘institutional effectiveness,’ promulgated by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, is interchangeable with a number of monikers for continuous improvement processes, such as ‘quality assurance’ and ‘quality enhancement.’ The specific initiatives included under these rubrics typically encompass activities such as student outcomes assessment, academic program review, strategic planning, performance scorecards, performance bench-marking, and quality measurement, each of which has numerous manifestations in academia. Despite variations in terminology, colleges and universities accredited by any one of the six regional accrediting agencies must demonstrate that they have designed and implemented acceptable processes of institutional effectiveness.” Welsh, John F., and Jeff Metcalf. “Faculty and Administrative Support for Institutional Effectiveness Activities: A Bridge across the Chasm?” The Journal of Higher Education 74.4 (2003): 445-68. Web. ↩
- ACRL SLHE, Introduction, http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/standardslibraries ↩
- ACRL SLHE, Section 1.1 says: The library defines and measures outcomes in the context of institutional mission. 1.2 The library develops outcomes that are aligned with institutional, departmental, and student affairs outcomes. 1.3 The library develops outcomes that are aligned with accreditation guidelines for the institution. 1.4 The library develops and maintains a body of evidence that demonstrates its impact in convincing ways. 1.5 The library articulates how it contributes to student learning, collects evidence, documents successes, shares results, and makes improvements. 1.6 The library contributes to student recruitment, retention, time to degree, and academic success. 1.7 The library communicates with the campus community to highlight its value in the educational mission and in institutional effectiveness. ↩
- Hernon, Peter, and Robert E. Dugan. Outcomes Assessment in Your Library. Chicago: American Library Association, 2002, p. 11 ↩
- LRCs provide remedial tutoring, curriculum resources (textbooks, study guides, and sufficient resources for student research papers), instructional media, collaborative study spaces, and computers. Their purpose is to assist students with the completion of course assignments and the mastery of specific concepts and skills–the achievement of “student learning objectives” tied to the curriculum. They are often associated with remedial, vocational and technical training, or the first year experience. See for example, Notre Dame’s LRC: http://firstyear.nd.edu/fys-resources/the-learning-resource-center/. Compared to libraries, it is much easier for LRCs to demonstrate student impact with a lot less overhead. Although both libraries and LRCs provide resources to students, they have very different missions. Cost effectiveness and close alignment with institutional objectives are reasons why LRCs are encroaching upon, or altogether replacing, the academic research library at schools which serve large populations of academically disadvantaged students. ↩
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Managerialism ↩
- Berg, Maggie, and Barbara K. Seeber. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2016. Print. ↩
- Ginsberg, Benjamin. The Fall of the Faculty: the Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2011. Print. ↩
- Gerber, Larry G. The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance: Professionalization and the Modern American University. Baltimore: John Hopkins U Press, 2014. Print. ↩
- From https://notnumber.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/a-definition-of-managerialism/ ↩
- The ACRL standards committee was guided by the idea that if we adopted the roles and missions of the institution and other business units, it would serve to “advancing and sustaining their role as partners in educating students.” ↩
- For three years, my university experimented with incorporating formal information literacy instruction into the freshman experience, including the administration of pre- and post SAILs tests; but the impact of these efforts could not be correlated to improved completion rates or higher GPAs. It was my observation that showing students how to use the library’s catalog and electronic databases–“library instruction”–was more impactful than the prescribed information literacy curriculum, which exposed students to the concept of Boolean searching, broadening and narrowing topics, using concept maps, avoiding plagiarism, and evaluating information sources found on the Internet. Demonstrating how to use the library to conduct research using our electronic databases was the primary thing students and faculty wanted, not the other course. ↩
- Sarah M. Pritchard, “Determining Quality in Academic Libraries.” Library Trends, 44.3 (1996), 573 ↩
- Pritchard, 573 ↩
- Libraries are advised to rewrite their mission statements to reflect and conform with the mission statements of their parent institutions, and set goals accordingly. ↩
- Rowena Cullen, “Measure for measure: a post-modern critique of performance measurement in libraries and information services.” Proceedings of the IATUL Conferences. Paper 10. http://doc s.lib.purdue.edu/iatul/1998/papers/10 ↩
- Crawford, Gregory A. Developing a Measure of Library Goodness. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 11:3 (2016): 117, https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/EBLIP/article/view/23875 ↩
- SACS, the accrediting agency for many southern colleges and schools, pioneered these techniques, and also developed more rigorous assessment and rule-based approaches than other institutional accrediting bodies. See Welsh and Metcalf. ↩
- Dugan, Robert E., and Peter Hernon. “Outcomes Assessment: Not Synonymous with Inputs and Outputs.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 28.6 (2002): 376-380. ↩
- Carr, Patrick L. “Serendipity in the Stacks: Libraries, Information Architecture, and the Problems of Accidental Discovery.” College & Research Libraries 76.6 (2015): 831-842. ↩
- Larry, N. W. (2007). Unseen measures: The need to account for intangibles. The Bottom Line, 20(2), 77-84. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/08880450710773011 ↩
- ACRL, SLHE, Introduction, “Accreditation language, trends, and contexts also inform the Standards. Academic library directors surveyed by the standards task force in spring 2010 stressed the importance of relating library standards to accreditation criteria. Accreditation agency library reviewers were asked by the task force to identify characteristics of library strength and weakness within the context of institutional accreditation. The task force also reviewed guidelines from each regional accrediting agency and extracted concepts and specific language (i.e., outcomes-based language, and terminology such as “sufficient” and “effective”). Trends in the accreditation process affecting libraries include an emphasis on using assessment results for continuous improvement; full library integration into the academic endeavor; a move away from a separate library standard within the overall accreditation standard; a focus on outcomes and bench-marking; recognition of information literacy as the catalyst for the library’s educational role; the library’s support of all student learning outcomes, not just those overtly library-related; an alignment of library and institutional missions; and a need for multiple forms of assessment and documentation.” ↩
- Elmborg, James. “Tending The Garden of Learning: Lifelong Learning as Core Library Value.” Library Trends 64.3 (2016): 533-555 ↩
- Elmborg 553-4 ↩
- Feldman, Sari. “The Future of the MLIS.” American Libraries, Nov.-Dec. 2015, p. 5 ↩
- Walters, William H. “Journal Prices, Book Acquisitions, and Sustainable Library Collections.” College & Research Libraries 69.6 (2008): 576-87. ↩
- Holley, Bob (2011) “Random Ramblings — Why Aren’t Faculty Complaining about Academic Libraries Not Buying Books?,” Against the Grain: Vol. 23: Iss. 2, Article 31. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7771/2380-176X.5808 ↩
- Bangert, Stephanie Rogers. “Thinking Boldly! College and University Library Mission Statements as Roadsigns to the Future.” American Library Association, September 29, 2006. http://www.ala.org/acrl/publications/whitepapers/nashville/bangert Document ID: 1497510b-f35b-3224-5d15-5453a6cea87d ↩
- Blog post. Retrieved May 3, 2014. http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2012/editorial-our-philosophies-of-librarianship/ ↩