Unpacking Assessment

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Lisa Horowitz, Assessment Librarian at MIT Libraries.

As an assessment librarian, I am always looking for different ways to think about assessment. Most librarians aren’t statisticians, and for some, even the word itself, assessment, is daunting in that its meaning is unclear. Additionally, it’s such a broad topic that many of us are interested in only specific angles: learning outcomes, collection assessment, return on investment, the Value of Academic Libraries, and so on.

So what is assessment, when you come right down to it? Some librarians where I work find that the terms assessment, evaluation, statistics and data seem to be used interchangeably. The most meaningful way for me to approach the topic is to think of assessment as quality control. It is a way to look at your services, your workflows, your teaching — whatever — to determine what works and what can be improved. In that sense, yes, it is also evaluation. I’ve seen explanations that differentiate between assessment and evaluation, but I tend to just use the term assessment.

Statistics that are gathered for whatever reason, for ARL or ACRL, or for accreditation or other purposes, are actually gathered to assess something. Sometimes they are separated from that assessment because often those who gather these statistics are not the ones who do the assessment. About a dozen years ago, I was on a team that was involved in assessing our reference services while a different team was analyzing our reference-statistics-gathering procedures, until we all realized that the procedures we used to gather statistics would really depend on what we were trying to learn about our services; in other words, we needed to know what we were trying to assess in order to determine what statistics would be useful. Statistics should be inextricably tied to what you are assessing.

The use of the word “data” in libraries can be equally confusing. In the case of assessment, data are the actual numbers, or anecdotes even, that are used to assess. The data themselves are not assessment, but the use of those data are. Sometimes collections librarians see their data-gathering as separate from assessment. Sometimes instruction librarians see their evaluations as unrelated to assessment of library services as a whole. Sometimes librarians from different areas will collect different data to represent something (e.g., the number of items in a collection), but because they use different sources, they come up with different numbers. All of this relates to assessment, and ideally, it should all support library planning, resource allocation and project development.

Assessment, if done well, shows how services, workflows, collections, etc., can be improved. At the same time, it also should contribute to the library’s planning efforts. Let’s say that a library has done collection assessment which shows that a particular collection needs to be developed because of a new area of research among the faculty. At the same time, the instruction assessment has shown that students’ learning outcomes could be improved if information literacy training efforts were doubled, while assessment of the workflows at the service desks show that books are getting to the stacks more efficiently but interlibrary loans are taking longer than users expect. The point of assessment is not only to use these results to determine how to improve those particular areas, but they should also contribute to decisions made by senior management about resource allocation and strategic directions. In other words, assessment should help determine priorities by comparing needs uncovered by assessment with strategic goals, and by advocating for resources not only where they are most needed but where they advance the strategic goals of the library.

If you are new to assessment, there are a few articles that you may want to look at.
• Tina E. Chrzastowski (2008): “Assessment 101 for Librarians: A Guidebook,” Science & Technology Libraries 28:1-2, 155-176.
• Lisa R. Horowitz (2009): “Assessing Library Services: A Practical Guide for the Nonexpert,” Library Leadership & Management 23:4, 193-203.

Both of these have bibliographies that may be helpful, as well as links to tools, blogs, and organizations that may be useful.

What does assessment mean to you? What tools do you use? What have you done that helps staff at your library be more comfortable with assessing library services?

About Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian and Department Chair, Library, at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

One thought on “Unpacking Assessment

  1. What does assessment mean to me? I go back to ADDIE, the long-time instructional design system. The “A” in ADDIE stands for “Analyze” in most textbook definitions. When I learned about ADDIE in a course in instructional design, we learned that “Assess” could be the “A” as well. It meant to identify an existing need or problem that requires a solution that creates improvement. The designer’s task was to assess the current situation in order to determine what was needed to fill the gap between the current state and the existing state. Assessment isn’t just a matter of determining if things are being done correctly, but rather having a process to determine what needs to be done to create a needed improvement to the current situation.

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