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Assessing the (Enduring) Value of Libraries
September 17, 2010 - 4:30am

It has been so long since I posted here, you may think the Babel Fish has gone fishing. In fact, it's just the usual craziness of the semester's start squared. In addition to teaching a first term seminar, serving as department chair, and going AWOL for a few days to attend a family wedding, I've been busy meeting with classes in political science, religion, and gender studies, showing students some of the tools of research. Every librarian involved in this kind of instruction has the occasional crisis of faith. Are the students really getting anything out of this? Is anything going on behind those glassy stares? We rarely see the work students do, so it's hard to know what the end result is, to know If they are able to put any of what we're teaching to work in practice. In short, it's hard to know if we're making a difference. That's why we make a regular practice of talking with students and faculty about their experiences and frustations and occasionally collect and examine student work; we need to know what works and what's not going so well.

A new report just came out from the Association of College and Research Libraries. Syracuse University researcher Megan Oakleaf reviewed how libraries have assessed their worth and suggested the kinds of data we could collect that would help academic libraries demonstrate their value in terms that might satisfy those who need evidence that libraries are pulling their weight. Elsewhere I've expressed some reservations about applying a "return on investment" model to libraries that focuses on ways in which libraries contribute to the bottom line, but I have no issue with the idea that it's helpful to have data on the ways the library contributes to improved student learning and whether its priorities are aligned with those of the institution it serves.

That said, I hope for more than that. Libraries - in aggregate, as a network of cultural institutions - do more than keep students enrolled so they can keep paying tuition, enhance faculty productivity as they proceed toward tenure and promotion, or contribute to bringing in grant dollars. The library, in the abstract, is greater than any one university just as the disciplines or the professoriate as a whole are more than the institutions that house them and pay their salaries.

In an Inside Higher Ed story about this study, a couple of commentators applauded the study's emphasis on making sure the library's worth is assessed in terms of broader institutional goals. Roger Schonfeld of Ithaka said "it clearly frames the purpose and value of the academic library in the context of the parent organization," offering in contrast the Darien Statements, a lyrically abstract and high-minded set of ideas about the purpose and nature of libraries. He apparently takes issue with the part of the document that suggests that library values should trump local control of a library's mission. In that connection (though it's hard to say whether he was speaking of the Darien Statement) Paul Courant of the University of Michigan said "“If [people] think the university library is more important than the university, they are wrong,"


What the Darien Statement says is that library values - such as the preservation of knowledge and the protection of intellectual freedom - are bigger than any one library or any single community's local needs. The part of the statement in question asserts that "individual libraries serve the mission of their parent institution or governing body, but the purpose of the Library overrides that mission when the two come into conflict."

I don't see that as an arrogant statement of self-worth. I think it's an article of rather touching faith that library values matter and need to be defended when local concerns try to undermine them. It's more common for public and school libraries to face challenges to the idea that libraries should provide access to unpopular ideas or to materials that seem foreign or threatening to a community. Academic libraries face the fewest challenges to materials, a small fraction of what school and public libraries deal with. But I'm dismayed that academic libraries are so parochial that they forget there is a bigger picture. I'm frustrated that libraries are reluctant to put resources into making knowledge open access,because helping make information available to all is somehow seen to be in conflict with the immediate needs of the local community. When academic librarians focus so exclusively on meeting immediate local needs that we end up with collections we can't share and knowledge we can't preserve, when we devolve into being a mere purchasing agent for disposable information, we've given up our larger cultural purpose. And that's not good for any of us.

It may be that this ACRL report is a wake-up call to libraries that are so detached from their context that they don't care whether students learn or faculty research needs are met. I don't know many librarians who are that complacent, though I'm sure there must be some. But I'm more worried about another kind of myopia. If we focus so exclusively on how we contribute to the bottom line of a single institution, we may lose sight of the fact that libraries are cultural institutions that have something to contribute to society beyond our campuses and beyond this fiscal year. Somehow "return on investment" sounds like the kind of managerial thinking that shortchanges the future. And that worries me.


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