Around the same time I noticed that a number of academic libraries were posting for new (or newish) “assessment librarians,” I went to a cool lecture by Dr. Eliza Dresang about a project teaming LIS researchers with children’s librarians to investigate impact of early literacy programming.
After the lecture, a local children’s librarian extraordinaire and I began a conversation – still ongoing – about assessment & impact research in public libraries. I’m a firm believer that in order to a) provide the best possible service to the community, and b) justify funding, libraries ought to be doing assessment beyond mere program evaluation.
Unfortunately, library school “research methods” courses seem generally weak, and there is limited professional development on research methods for professional librarians. Even excellent library programs often result in needlessly-biased evaluation reports that could have provided more valid evidence if only the methods have been stronger. Even senior librarians in public libraries confuse evaluation with assessment with research (yes there is ample grey area in there, but the terms are not synonymous), and fall into the trap of trying to demonstrate impact & value by counting things/measuring productivity.*
Adding to the challenge, few public libraries are intimately connected with professional academic researchers, and few librarians have the time to learn how to conduct unbiased program evaluations, let alone develop high-quality impact assessment skills.
In my mind, large public library systems should consider taking a page out of academic libraries’ new book and hiring internal research staff to demonstrate value and investigate impact. What’s more, government bodies that oversee libraries (e.g., the BC Public Libraries Services Branch) should be hiring staff to a) support library-based assessment & research, and b) coordinate, liaise with & conduct research on the value and impact of public library services.
I know that asking more more staff seems expensive, and there have been a couple of years of belt-tightening in a row at this point, but some of the best things the library sector could do to improve our ability to advocate for funding are to
- provide evidence of impact and
- ensure that services are relevant to the community
*To those nodding along with my concerns but unsure of how to move beyond these common problems, I recommend Markless & Streatfield’s Evaluating the Impact of Your Library, published by CILIP’s Facet Press. It does a great job of walking one through that process of mid-level assessment between basic program eval/library stats and full-fledged long-term impact research.