On Being Valuable: Point-Counterpoint

The POINT: Amy Fry

On Tuesday, September 14, ACRL released Value of Academic Libraries: A Comprehensive Research Review and Report by Dr. Megan Oakleaf. The report lays out the current landscape of academic library assessment and seeks to provide strategies for libraries to demonstrate and quantify their value within the context of institutional missions and goals.

Oakleaf states that internal measures of value, such as use statistics, user satisfaction, and service quality, while interesting to librarians, are less compelling for external stakeholders such as administrators and trustees (11). Instead, she suggests determining externally-focused measures of value such as “library impact” (best measured by observing what users are doing and producing as a result of using the library) and “competing alternatives” (which focuses on defining what users want and how libraries, rather than our competitors, can help them achieve it) (21-22). She suggests ten key areas libraries should try to address in such assessment: enrollment, retention/graduation, student success, student achievement, student learning, student engagement, faculty research productivity, faculty grants, faculty teaching, and institutional reputation (17). Oakleaf also offers strategies for approaching assessment related to each area.

Oakleaf claims that “use-based definitions of value are not compelling to many institutional decision makers and external stakeholders. Furthermore, use is not meaningful, unless that use can be connected to institutional outcomes” (20). In a brief section about e-resources, she explains that usage counts don’t show why a library resource was used or the user’s satisfaction with it (50); she therefore suggests that, rather than collecting and reporting usage data for electronic resources, libraries try to collect qualitative data, like the purpose of the use (using the ARL MINES protocol). She also suggests examining successful grant applications to “examine the degree to which citations impact whether or not faculty are awarded grants.”

The question of how to use e-resources statistics to draw qualitative conclusions about users’ information literacy levels and the effectiveness of electronic collections (or even about the library’s impact on faculty research or student recruitment and retention), is of special interest to me now, as I have just agreed to examine (and hopefully overhaul) my institution’s management of e-resources statistics. However, such questions are overshadowed for me (and for most libraries), by how to effectively gather, merge, and analyze the statistics themselves, what to do with resources that don’t offer statistics at all or don’t offer them in COUNTER format, and when and how to communicate them internally for collection decisions. It is difficult to see arriving at higher-level methods for library assessment that involve overlaying complex demographic data, research output data, cost data, collection data, and use data in order to tell compelling stories about library use and impact when even the most basic systems for managing inputs and outputs have not been implemented.

I understand and even agree with Oakleaf’s characterization of the shortcomings of “use-based definitions of value,” but am not sure that surveying users about the purpose of their information use or linking library collections to successful grant applications truly gives a more compelling picture of the value of electronic resources collections, nor one that is more complete. For example, assessing value by linking library collections to grants funded or patents produced seems like it would discount libraries’ value to humanities research, because humanities scholarship will never approach the sciences in the amount of dollars coming in.

It is true that libraries currently “do not track data that would provide evidence that students who engage in more library instruction are more likely to graduate on time, that faculty who use library services are more likely to be tenured, or that student affairs professionals that integrate library services into their work activities are more likely to be promoted” (13). But that stuff just really seems like no-brainers to me. If we spend a lot of time and energy collecting the data and putting it together to get the numbers that will allow us to make these claims – then what? What’s the payoff for the library? Administrators who don’t think libraries are just black holes for funding? A way to prove to students that they should use the library? If administrators and trustees are not inclined to fund libraries because their backgrounds did not include library use, or students are not inclined to use libraries because they are focused on graduation and employment instead of research, I don’t know that any such externally focused assessment will result in what seems to be, ultimately, the desired outcome – a reassertion of libraries’ relevance to our core constituents. It will, however, be a drain on library staff time and expertise – time and expertise that could be spent on core activities, like collection building, collection access, and public service.

Oakleaf concludes that our focus should be not to prove but to increase value (141). We should not ask, “Are libraries valuable?” but “How valuable are libraries?” she says. What about “How are libraries valuable?” But this is semantics. No matter what our approach to assessment, I’m afraid the answer will still depend less on what data we present than who we ask.


What’s the payoff for the library? That’s an important question when it comes to assessment and efforts to demonstrate the academic library’s value to its own institution and higher education. Amy Fry makes a good point that we could invest considerable time and energy to collect and analyze the data needed to determine our value in any or all of the ten key areas recommended in the ACRL Value Report – but why bother? She states that when it comes to questioning if library instruction sessions can be connected to better grades or students graduating on time, that’s “no brainer” territory.

But can we in fact assume that just because a student attends an instruction session – or because faculty have access to research databases – that they are indeed achieving institutional outcomes? If, as a profession, we thought that was no brainer territory why are there hundreds of research articles in our literature that attempt to prove that students who sit through library instruction sessions are better off than the ones who don’t – we clearly aren’t just assuming they are, we want to prove it – and in doing so prove why we make a difference to our students’ education and learning process.

As Barbara Fister points out in her response to the Report, provosts already acknowledge, anecdotally, that they value their libraries and librarians. And we also know that the library is the heart of the institution, and that libraries are like Mom and apple pie; everyone likes the library. You probably couldn’t find an academic administrator who would go on record trashing the academic library (well, maybe this one). But none of that may stop administrators, when push comes to shove, from taking drastic measures with library services to resolve a budget crisis. Being the heart of the institution didn’t stop Arizona’s Coconino Community College from performing radical heart surgery by outsourcing the library operations to North Arizona University’s (NAU) Cline Library. Admittedly, that’s a rare occurrence, and I can’t say for sure that even the best set of library value data could prevent it from happening. Yet one can’t help but imagine that if Coconino’s librarians had some rock solid assessment data on hand to confirm their value to administrators – be it how the library keeps students retained or helps students to achieve higher GPAs – they’d still have their jobs and be delivering services to their students at their own library (which was largely chopped up and pieced out to other academic units).

And better assessment and demonstration of library value can indeed result in a financial payoff for the institution if awarded government grants and the indirect costs associated with conducting research. Those indirect costs, typically a percentage rate negotiated between the institution and federal government, can make a huge difference in institutional funding for research. Given the size of some grants, just a slight increase – perhaps a percentage point or two – can make a real impact over time. Amy mentions the ARL MINES protocol, which is a process for making a concrete connection between researchers working on grant projects and their use the library resources to conduct that research. Often the contribution of the library is drastically understated, and therefore it is barely reflected in the calculation of the ICR (indirect cost recovery). My own institution is currently conducting a survey similar to MINES so that our “bean counters” (as Barbara likes to refer to them) can more accurately connect the expenditures for library electronic resources to research productivity – and the government’s own bean counters have very rigid rules for calculating increases to the ICR. It can’t be based on anecdotal evidence or simply having researchers state that they use library resources for their research. In this case, asking the users if we provide value doesn’t mean squat. Providing convincing evidence might mean an increase to our ICR of one or two percent –which over time could add up to significant amounts of funding to support research. That is a real payoff, but make no mistake that we have invested considerable time and expense in setting up the survey process.

For many academic librarians, it may be better to, as Amy suggests, focus on the core activities such as collection building and traditional services (reference, instruction, etc.) – and to keep improving on or expanding in those areas. But I like to think that what drives real advancement in our academic libraries is confronting new mysteries that will force us to seek out new answers that could lead to improvements in fundamental library operations. What happens when we fail to seek out new mysteries to explore is that we simply continue to exploit the same existing answers over and over again until we drive them and ourselves into obsolescence (for more on “knowledge funnel” theory read here).

Lately I’ve been advocating that the new mystery for academic librarians should focus on assessment. We need to get much better at answering a simple question that represents this mystery: How can we tell that we are making a difference – and how will we gather the data to quantitatively prove it? From this perspective the question would be neither “How valuable are academic libraries?” or “How are libraries valuable?” but “How are academic libraries making a real difference and how do we prove it?” Perhaps it remains a case of semantics, but any way we approach this new mystery, the road should lead to a better grasp of the value we provide and new ways to communicate it to our communities. Whatever you may think about assessment and the value question, take some time to review the ACRL Value Study. I’ll be at the Library Assessment Conference in DC at the end of October. I’m looking forward to learning more about how academic librarians are approaching the new mystery of assessment, and how we can all do a better job of quantifying and communicating our value proposition.