How do we show the value of our library work?

NB: This blog post is based in part on a conversation on Twitter that I had last week with Mattie Taormina, Amy Hildreth Chen, LucretiaB, and Melanie J. Meyers that ranged from reference librarianship in special collections to UX (user experience) as a way of revamping how we provide services to my fears that our skills and services are easily erased if UX is not handled well and transparently.

While writing, I kind of went elsewhere with it. :shrug: So this is a bit of a rumination, really, as I work towards more specifics in my own area like annual reporting and next year’s goals.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about through our university’s recently completed program prioritization process and the consistent flow of budget cuts we’ve had in recent years is how the Libraries (and, of course, my department) demonstrates our value(s), particularly in terms of Student Career Success.

We are a tuition-driven university. Pragmatism is very much a thing here. Most of our students are here to meet a specific qualification to get particular jobs (accountancy, nursing, teaching, etc.) at a price point that they can just barely afford. The humanities can very easily feel like a luxury. Rare books more so.

How do I tie seeing the Ellesmere Chaucer Facsimile or touching a cuneiform tablet or handling historical children’s books or pulp magazines directly to Student Career Success?

The libraries are beginning to assess ourselves for the first time in earnest.

These are the things I am used to counting:

  • How many visitors to the department each year?
  • How many books are requested for use?
  • How many items were scanned for patrons?
  • How many class visits (# visits, total number of students and instruction hours)
  • How many books/manuscripts did I add to the collection?
  • How many reference questions did I answer?

Lots of numbers. Tracked through local spreadsheets and hashmarks on sheets of paper and physical call slips.

I don’t think these numbers communicate all of our value. None of these metrics tell me how well we provide these services, just how often.

I can point to having acquired a book or a collection, but how does it impact our students, in particular? Especially given that the impact may not appear until 5 years from now when the right student or group comes along? When it does, it has a huge impact. But not before then.

I’m thinking about how to assess things like the impact of class visits to RBSC. I can point to numbers of classes going up or down, but that fluctuates based on things that are out of my control, such as which typical repeat visitor professors are on sabbatical, or being named to work-intensive committees, which cuts back on my availability.

I contribute to the students’ experience here at NIU. I contribute to faculty research and teaching agendas. I contribute, in some small way, to the prestige and depth of NIU’s research capabilities.  I have class visits across multiple departments, at every level from freshman comp to graduate courses, mostly in the humanities.

How do I demonstrate that providing these services has value?

This is a particularly salient question at a pragmatically driven institution. It’s difficult to point directly to my work in the context of graduating x number of accountancy or nursing students.

Is there a way to demonstrate value for a class visit to special collections that may suspiciously resemble fun or frivolity or unnecessary luxury at first glance? 

How do I encourage students (many of whom are first-generation college students, as I was)  working full-time, and in school nearly full-time, and often parenting to boot to understand that these relatively expensive things, this space, this time has value and relevance to their education, too?

How do I tell the story of our value?

More importantly, how do I construct a survey that might convey this understanding of value when it occurs to higher-level administration? 

How do I demonstrate the value in particular of the folks who make our materials accessible day in and day out? I at least have the major advantage of being in a relatively public position. I work directly with teaching faculty and other units on campus. Many of my colleagues, both faculty and staff, do not have this luxury.

This… bothers me.

Raise your hand if your library’s Technical Services functions exist in nonpublic spaces, invisibly. :raises hand:

Every library has a finite amount of stuff that can be gathered, based upon the magical combination of budget and space and staffing (or lack thereof). Once you hit a finite wall of stuff and space in which to store it, the only things that can be improved are services that provide access to the stuff already in hand.

Services are typically provided by staff. Of which there are fewer and fewer (retirements + budget cuts = no replacement of positions), with much of their work invisible.

Most of our faculty and staff have no idea how the materials get from gift/purchase to on the shelf/accessible. It may as well be magic.

How do we make our staff-based services as valuable as the stuff we wrangle? 




About Lynne M. Thomas

Lynne M. Thomas is a nine time Hugo Award winning editor and podcaster. In her day job, she is Head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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