Monday, July 2, 2012

Ideas I hope will become trends: assessment

This series is, at its core, a recap of my trip to ALA's Annual Conference in Anaheim. But I prefer talking about the practical applications of what I learned to simply recapping programs.

The first installment was about user stories and the second was about communication.

The third installment is about assessment.

I was not planning on attending LITA's Top Tech Trends panel. But, I returned back from an off-campus lunch too late to attend the session I'd hoped to catch and too early for the next round of programs.Having found myself with a few minutes on my hand, I decided to catch a few minutes of the program.

Meredith Farkas was one of the panelists and I found myself nodding in agreement when she talked about how academic libraries can't really stand on the assertion that the library is the center of the academic community anymore. Instead, academic libraries are being asked to justify their impact on those they serve.

Farkas suggested that assessment tracking tools were a good way of managing data that would help libraries build stories of user impact.

But this isn't so much about what Farkas had to say as it is about what people had to say about what she had to say.

It seemed like the Twitter backchannel was musing about how difficult it was to cultivate the kind of organizational culture that breeds an interest in assessment. Basically--nobody teaches this kind of stuff in library school.

The thing is, I couldn't agree more with the notion that academic libraries are being asked to justify their impact on those they serve. It's no longer enough for them to say that they're the center of the academic community. Researchers, both novice and expert, are finding other sources for information than traditional library resources. And many academic libraries grapple with how to stay at the center of the campus community--a completely different challenge.

And I also couldn't agree more with the idea that data helps libraries build stories about their impact on the lives of users.

And, while we're at it, I also couldn't agree more with the idea that creating that kind of organizational culture is really, really hard.

But it's not impossible.

So, how do we do it? How do we create organizational cultures in our libraries that embrace assessment and the data it generates?

I think we start by shifting our focus toward things that are measurable. Which means that every project or program needs to have outcomes built into it during the design phase. How else will we know if the project is successful? And, in the case of programs, how will we know if the audience has learned what we'd like for them to learn?

Academic libraries need to think critically about how adopting this kind of culture could affect them for the better. What would it look like to have data supporting your assertions about how bibliographic instruction sessions have prepared student researchers for upper-level research? It's one thing to consider gate count (which is valuable data, indeed), but it's another to show how you've created good consumers and stewards of information.

I think it's equally important for user-centered back room folks to generate, synthesize, and store data as well. If it's true that academic libraries are being asked to justify their impact on the academic community, it's equally as true that many units performing back-room functions are being asked to do the same. And, when the day comes that you have to advocate for your job, it's much easier to do so using data.

So, try gathering some usage statistics after you finish a cataloging project. Did usage of a hidden collection go up after you added it to the catalog? Did analyzing that serial prompt more people to use it? This kind of data collection can help justify some of the most important work you're doing.

Alternately, though, data of this kind can help you decide what to let go of when budgets are tight and time is fleeting. You can see what your users value most and what they can live without and make decisions about resource allocation accordingly.

So...start with an outcome and measure your success accordingly. And let the data do the talking.

Be visible. Be proactive. Be awesome.

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