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Defining and measuring outcomes for better management

Power to the Librarian: Exploring the impact of the 21st Century librarian

Mar 13, 2012

The Power to the Librarian project illuminates the experiences of exceptional library professionals who are empowering their users to achieve great success. These experiences are explored in a series of case studies available here: Power to the Librarian case studies.

Megan Oakleaf, Assistant Professor in the iSchool of Syracuse University, has taken up the challenge of calculating and presenting libraries’ value to their parent institutions. Recommendations are available in her 2010 report, “The Value of Academic Libraries,” commissioned by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL).

The report makes several recommendations. The first is the institutional goal audit, or identifying the key goals of the institution as a whole so that the library can align its services to them. Although most institutions have broadly similar goals in terms of delivering courses to students, there are essential differences between institutions.

“For research-focused universities, a major goal is seeking grants and endowments to pursue faculty research,” says Oakleaf, “whereas student-centered colleges focus on the institutional goals of student learning, degree or program completion, and job placement. Different institutions have different goals, and their libraries should help achieve those goals.”

Whatever the goal, it needs to be clearly defined in the librarian’s consciousness, Oakleaf insists. Her report says, “Libraries cannot demonstrate institutional value to maximum effect until they define outcomes of institutional relevance and then measure the degree to which they attain them.”

Academic libraries face particular ongoing challenges in calculating and presenting their value to their parent institutions, primarily because of advancements in technology greatly simplifying the availability and dissemination of academic content. Adequately gauging the value of a library in today’s world requires a more subtle and considered approach to the work of libraries and librarians than before, especially in the current economic climate.

“We need to be able to identify patterns and combinations of events that result in positive outcomes,” says Oakleaf. “It may not be as simple as saying that you will do better if you take a library instruction class or download x number of articles from a database or check out y number of books. It’s likely a more complex combination of library interactions that will result in significant impact.”

By tracking user behavior while being mindful of data safety and privacy, librarians will over time be able to look for correlations between library data and outcomes such as program completion, test scores, or career placement records and to ascertain whether the connection is causative.