The Value of Libraries

As tighter belts lead to closer scrutiny, an academic library group tries to help academic libraries articulate why they are valuable.
September 14, 2010

Is your campus library valuable?

Prove it.

At a time when tightening belts have prompted colleges to put various programs and practices under the economic microscope, this is a challenge more and more librarians have been facing. And they would do well to learn how to answer it, says a report released today by the Association of College and Research Libraries.

The report, titled “The Value of Academic Libraries,” is a hefty round-up of various ways that libraries have, so far, figured how to demonstrate the value of their services. While it is more of a literature review than a how-to guide, the ACRL hopes the report will serve as a useful point of reference for libraries that might soon need to justify — and perhaps reevaluate — the value of certain services relative to the mission of their parent institution, says Megan Oakleaf, an assistant professor of information studies at Syracuse University, who wrote the report.

“Community college, college, and university librarians no longer can rely on their stakeholders’ belief in their importance,” Oakleaf writes. “Rather, they must demonstrate their value.” Further, she writes, they must be able to express that value in a way that can be “clearly communicated to stakeholders” such as students, parents, administrators, and — particularly in the case of public institutions — government officials and taxpayers.

The report, Oakleaf noted in an interview, is not about learning to spin. It does not imply that the campus library is an albatross that must contrive to justify its existence. On the contrary, the library is certainly valuable, Oakleaf says. It’s just that measuring that value and presenting it to outsiders in a tangible way are not necessarily intuitive skills.

The report is heavy on citations, and much of it points outward. It refers to various papers, some decades old, that discuss how library services intersect with things like retention and graduation rates, teaching, learning, research, accreditation, and other pieces of the overall mission of the college. Based on the aggregate findings of that literature, Oakleaf makes general recommendations for libraries that have not yet learned how to articulate the value of their services. “It would be helpful to know that students who have participated in three or more library instructional episodes over the course of their college career have a significantly higher G.P.A.,” she writes. “Or it would be helpful to know that faculty who work with a librarian to prepare their tenure or promotion package have a 25 percent higher pass rate.” Putting mechanisms in place to gather these data should be high on the agenda of the academic librarian, she says.

One of the report’s more salient themes is its emphasis on assessing the value of the library relative to the goals of the college, rather than treating the library as an institution apart, says Roger Schonfeld, managing director of Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit that supports innovation in higher ed. “The great strength of this work is that it clearly frames the purpose and value of the academic library in the context of the parent organization,” says Schonfeld, noting that this view is not universally held. He points to a manifesto authored by several attendees of a conference last year at the Darien Library in Connecticut, which states that the library’s primary purpose is to “preserve the integrity of civilization,” and 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.”

Paul Courant, dean of libraries at the University of Michigan and a top researcher of library economics, says the ACRL report did well to affirm the library’s subservience to the mission — and budgetary pressures — of its parent institution. “If [people] think the university library is more important than the university, they are wrong,” says Courant — adding, notably, that he speaks from the perspective of a former provost and chief budget officer at the university.

Courant says the report — which he has skimmed — does not appear to prescribe or portend any fundamental changes to the way libraries go about their business, since he, like Oakleaf, believes that libraries are not currently failing to produce value, only that many are not armed with the data and vocabulary to articulate their value — and that as a reference for learning to do so, the ACRL report will probably prove “useful.”

He does, however, “concur vigorously” with Oakleaf’s conclusion that in learning how to show how they are valuable, libraries will probably learn how to become more valuable.

“When academic librarians learn about their impact on users, they increase their value by proactively delivering improved services and resources—to students completing their academic work; to faculty preparing publications and proposals; to administrators needing evidence to make decisions,” the author writes. “Indeed, the demonstration of value is not about looking valuable; it’s about being valuable.”


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