Thursday, September 18, 2014

What's Data Got to Do with It?, by Elizabeth Psyck

Source

Let’s get one thing out of the way: While “data” is technically the plural of “datum”, colloquial usage has shifted to make the use of “data” as a singular acceptable. I have a Google frequency map that backs me up on this.

Whether you agree with me or not on the singular/plural use of the word data, it’s hard to argue that data is becoming more important to libraries and librarians. Whether you are collecting and analyzing your own statistics to see whether your library still needs a reference desk, or reading the latest ITHAKA report, it’s almost impossible to avoid. Like many librarians, I don’t come from a data or statistics heavy discipline and learned everything I’m about to share while on the job. Trust me, even if it looks scary right now, you can do it. With these 7 handy tips, you’ll soon be a data superstar! Or at least someone who can look critically at a report full of numbers and ask the right questions about what those numbers might mean.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative
Qualitative research involves descriptions, thoughts, feelings, opinions, and other things that can be observed but not measured. Quantitative research involves numbers and measurements and cold hard facts. Neither type of research is objectively better, but they do impact the questions you can answer and the arguments you can make.

Independent vs. Dependent Variables
Independent variables are the inputs or the things you do that influence (directly or not) the dependent variable/the results/the outcome. (For that to make sense, you also need a theory as to how and why these variables are related.) My personal (possibly unpopular) opinion is that it’s incredibly difficult to frame library work in terms of independent and dependent variables and we should be careful about getting too hung up on those terms, which can imply causation.

Causation vs. Correlation
Closely related to my last point, correlation is not causation. Correlation is when one variable changes consistently with another. Causation is when one variable causes the other to change. It’s really, really hard to argue causation in the real world because people and behaviors are complicated. That means it’s nearly impossible to isolate influencing factors. Did Student A get a better grade than Student B because A met with a librarian? Or is it because B had 3 papers due that week and is only taking this class for a general education requirement and was ok with getting a B-? I’m not saying we shouldn’t ever argue causation, but isolating the impact of the library in order to rule out all other possible factors (which is how you prove causation) is extremely challenging.

Samples Matter
Convenience samples – a research group chosen because they were available and easy to get involved – are bad. Don’t be a bad researcher. Ok, that’s probably a little harsh, but I do think that libraries rely way too much on convenience samples. I understand why, but research involving convenience samples don’t support sweeping arguments that they are often used to make. Example: asking the people in your library whether it’s a welcoming environment tells you whether people who are currently using your library at that time/on that day find it welcoming. It’s a biased sample because many people who don’t find your building welcoming just won’t come in the front door. A random sample in this case would help you find those people who study in a coffee shop or the student center instead of the library.

Age Matters
Data goes stale. Your library’s last large survey on information literacy might have taken place in 2008. That doesn’t seem so long ago to many of us (myself included), but to give you context I was still an undergraduate in 2008. My undergraduate classmates have finished law school and are assistant district attorneys. Old data doesn’t represent current students. Think of data as a snapshot that represents a single moment in a rapidly changing environment.

Anecdata
Humans are storytellers, which means that stories are more meaningful to many of us than numbers. Just because a story feels meaningful, doesn’t mean it actually is. Don’t fall into the trap of anecdata, giving more weight to the stories we tell (patron X writes a letter about how important a service is) than the numbers (only 10 people used the service in the past 6 months). Remember, each anecdote is a single data point.

Be Consistent
Whatever you do – be consistent about the questions to ask and how you interpret results. If you aren’t consistent, your results aren’t comparable.


Elizabeth Psyck is the government documents librarian at Grand Valley State University. If you’re extremely angry about her use of data as a singular, you can reach her at psycke@gvsu.edu or @psyckology. She finds writing biographies in third person weird, but not quite as weird as writing them in first person.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My (Incredibly Awesome) Writing Group


First, before explaining my writing group, I want to give credit where credit is due. The inspiration for how we run things came from a lot of different places, not just one. Part was inspired by a workshop I attended at ALA Annual, "Get Writing! Overcome Procrastination, Remove Roadblocks and Create a Map for Success." Part comes from the book Publish and Flourish by Tara Gray (a book that a previous writing group brought to my attention). Part comes from How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia. And finally, part comes from the weird and wonderful confluence of the three members of the group - me, Michael Perry, and Nicholas Schiller.

Second, if you're having a hard time getting yourself to the keyboard, having to answer to someone else can be a huge help. I've participated in writing groups before, and I recommend it very highly. I'm going to tell you how my current writing group works, but there are lots of other permutations you can explore. I especially recommend looking at the handout available at the "Get Writing!" link above for other suggestions.

Third, here are the rules of our writing group:
  1. We must bring at least 500 words of writing to the group every week. This writing can be almost anything related to our professional lives, such as blog posts, book proposals, or grant narratives. (500 may not seem like a lot, but there have been weeks when it's been almost impossible.)
  2. We set goals from week to week and hold each other responsible. Example of goals: "I'm going to revise the blog post I brought last week;" "I'm going to write an outline of the chapter I have due at the end of next month;" "I'm going to find some outside reviewers to give me feedback."
  3. If we don't bring the 500 words and meet our goals, we suffer the wrath of the disincentives. Yes, you read that correctly: instead of using incentives to encourage writing, we use disincentives to discourage slacking. We have chosen two organizations that we all find abhorrent, and if we mess up we have to donate to one of these places. $5 for a first infraction; $10 for a second; $20 for a third; etc. And yes, we've got rules about one "Get Out of Jail Free" card per year and special dispensations for "acts of God."
Finally, here is how our meetings go:
  1. In case you didn't already know, my writing group doesn't live near each other. Mike is in the Chicago area; Nick is in the Portland, WA area; and I'm in Dover, Delaware. This means we meet via Google Hangouts.
  2. We meet for an hour every week, come hell or high water. (Well, there was that one week we were all so swamped with work that none of us could see straight...)
  3. We stick to this agenda every week (which really does take the whole hour):
  1. Quick check in to see if we’ve met our goals for the last week;
  2. Each person takes turns getting feedback;
    1. 9 minutes for everyone to read & make notes;
    2. 3 minutes each for the other two to give verbal feedback;
  3. Goal setting for the next week and emailing the electronic version of the document to the author.
There's something about this combination that really works for us... so incredibly well that I wanted to share. What do you think? Could this work for you?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Don’t Believe the Myth, You Can Change Library Types, by Maribel Castro

Source

After 14 years, it was time for a change.

Though an accomplished school librarian, I had hit a plateau and needed a whole new set of challenges. The choices for me were to either seek these challenges within the world of school librarianship or to look to a whole other area of the library profession. As it happened, a move to a new city resulting from my husband’s job change served as the perfect opportunity to pursue try something new.

I had always held a deep interest in academic librarianship and polled a number of my academic librarian friends regarding their work. I was excited about the new possibilities and applied for two research and instruction positions in my new home town. My ego took a hit when I received two rejection letters. I had assumed that because I had name recognition as an active member of our state library association that I would magically receive an interview. Since I needed a job, I accepted a position as a high school librarian working with an incredible team, but still held on to my goal.

I continued to eye every academic librarian job that was posted and continued to seek advice of friends who are academic librarians. I periodically updated my resume to highlight my most recent jobs, duties, and titles. I had no idea that it would be three years before I would see the perfect posting for an academic librarian. This time, I took a whole different approach.

Doing an Honest Self-Inventory of Your Skill Set

I began objectively assessing my challenges in applying for this position. My strategy was to emphasize my skill set through my years of instructional experience, my expertise in electronic resources, and my experience as a systems librarian- areas where my academic librarian competitors might be at a disadvantage. I printed the job description and became intensely familiar with it. I placed check marks next to each of the required and preferred job qualifications and listed my skills separately. I stayed honest and did not “inflate” any of my skills.

I also agonized over every single word of my cover letter, particularly since my academic librarian friends informed me that hiring directors and search committees “weed” out applicants based on the cover letter. There are many online resources to help librarians who are in the job market write the perfect cover letter. Additionally, online resources are valuable tools to assist in “selling” yourself, as well as avoiding the tendency to sound prefabricated and indistinguishable from the pack.

In essence, my self-inventory served as the guide for my cover letter. It provided me with the foundation I needed to stress my qualifications.

Getting “The Call”


After the intense work of looking at my skills through a new lens, I was thrilled to receive an email from a library director requesting a “time to talk” about my candidacy. It happened very fast- I answered the scheduled call that was, indeed, a phone interview. After I hung up, believing I did not do well, I felt it was pretty much over for me. However, as I pulled up to our home, I received the call inviting me to a face-to-face interview. I was still in the game!

While I did not yet have the credentials as an academic librarian, I knew that my mission would be to demonstrate my confidence in my abilities during the job interview. By the time I got to the job interview I had committed the job description to memory. In addition, I had spent countless hours becoming intimately familiar with the university’s library site, its resources and usability. The library website, I determined, was in need of an overhaul.

From my instructional experience, I had a keen sense of how students interacted online when seeking information. I would leverage this skill in the interview. Furthermore, I planned to constructively utilize my perspective as an “outsider” to delicately critique areas of need. For example, the job description specified duties pertaining to electronic resources, but what improvements would I recommend?

When asked by the library director toward the end of my interview if I had any questions, I asked, “Are you happy with your online interface and presence?” The exchange between us for the next hour clearly indicated to both parties we were the right fit for each other.

It’s Been a Year!

Just last week, my library director mentioned to me that I had simply “jumped into the deep end of the pool” when I started my job, now over a year ago. It was a challenging first year to say the least. I conducted 82 research classes, migrated our library site and guides to LibGuides CMS, learned to code to a much more sophisticated level, and took over the duties of managing our electronic resources within the first term. Becoming a subject specialist, understanding tenure, publishing, university committees & politics, outreach, are next on my plate, but I was right! I knew I could do this job and I’m so thankful to my library director for taking the leap with me.


Maribel Castro is the Electronic Resources & Instruction Librarian at Lubbock Christian University Library. She tweets @eatdrinkbooks.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Planning to Plan 2: Middle States Draft Standards




Please read the first part of this two part series for background about the Middle States Draft Standards and why I'm writing about them. Seriously, I'll wait while you get caught up if you haven't yet read last week's post. 

You ready to move on? Cool. Now, onto the remaining standards.

Standard V: Educational Effectiveness Assessment

I cannot recommend Nicholas Schiller's piece about value and values and assessment (published on this blog) highly enough. When you read my comments on this standard, please know that I have his ideas in mind. 

I could easily copy and paste everything from this standard into this post since it's pretty much all pertinent. However, I'm going to highlight a few choice phrases to concentrate on the pieces that are most relevant to libraries and librarians in higher ed.

From the standard itself: "Assessment of student learning and achievement demonstrates... appropriate expectations for institutions of higher education."

From criteria: 1. "clearly stated educational goals;" 2a. "define meaningful curricular goals with defensible standards for evaluating whether students are achieving those goals;" 2c. "support and sustain assessment of student achievement and communicate the results of this assessment to stakeholders;" and 3. "consideration and use of assessment results for the improvement of educational effectiveness... consistent with the institution’s mission."

As I read through the draft CHE standards, I kept thinking about the ACRL Standards for Libraries in Higher Education and the assessment plan I've written about in the past. I also thought a lot about the draft Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education, another topic that's been discussed on LtaYL. The phrase "defensible standards" in 2a is the tie to these other documents, but it's still problematic for me. I, for the most part, agree with the Standards for Libraries in Higher Education, but I have serious misgivings about certain parts of the draft Framework. This means that those of us who are involved with instruction at my current library are going to have to have a conversation on this topic. See the above linked post (written by Jacob Berg) about the draft Framework for background, but I'm not entirely convinced that every part of the Framework is defensible.

Regardless of the source of the "defensible" aspect, it is clear that this standard and these criteria have bearing on all campus units that are involved with the educational efforts of the institutions. It's about using both internal (school mission) and external (relevant professional organization) markers to assess and evaluate. It's also about making changes based on those assessments. 

An example of this can be seen in our information literacy program. Since the college has a new core curriculum, we are trying a new approach to information literacy instruction. We piloted our new approach last semester and are going further with it this semester. We're assessing this time. With the one session I've run already, the professor created an assignment based on my suggestions (yes, you read that right - love him for being so open). The best part is that he's going to let me see copies of the finished assignments, with the student's personal information removed, so I can judge the efficacy of the info lit lessons. The librarians here will look at the results and make decisions about how to tweak, or not tweak, these sessions in the future.

Standard VI: Planning, Resources, and Institutional Improvement

This standard and its criteria are still about assessment, but more on the side of connecting budget to the results of assessment and planning. Are our financial decisions being made to support the goals of the institution, and can we prove it?

While much of this standard is at least tangentially related to the library, there are three in particular that are highly related: 1. "institutional objectives, both institution-wide and for individual units, that are clearly stated, assessed appropriately, linked to mission and goal achievement, reflect conclusions drawn from assessment results, and are used for planning and resource allocation;" 2. "clearly documented and communicated planning and improvement processes that provide for constituent participation, and incorporate the use of assessment results;" and 9. "periodic assessment of the effectiveness of planning, resource allocation, institutional renewal processes, and availability of resources."

Again, not only are you assessing and planning in line with the goals and desired outcomes, but are you putting your money where your mouth is? 

To remind you, we recently wrote a new mission statement: "The Robert H. Parker Library at Wesley College supports the academic and research success of our students, faculty, and staff, in the true liberal arts tradition." It's that last phrase, "true liberal arts tradition," that I keep in mind when I create purchase orders for things like board games and write check requests for vendors like the therapy dog organization. "Liberal arts" is more than job training. It's about the joy of learning, and about learning for learning's sake. Further, "success" takes more than just hitting the books again and again. I can even tie my argument for getting a graduate assistant in my department's budget to our mission statement, too. And that's what Middle States wants to see.

This standard also made me feel like a bit of a slacker since I haven't gotten the library committee together in over a year, but that's a horse/post of a different color.

Standard VII: Governance, Leadership, and Administration

While it's clear that this is mostly about the board of trustees (although some schools have a board of regents) and upper administration, part of the standard and one of the criteria still jumped out at me as relevant to the library. From the standard, "The institution is governed and administered in a manner that allows it to realize its stated mission and goals in a way that effectively benefits the institution, its students, and the other constituencies it serves." And the first criteria: "a clearly articulated and transparent governance structure that outlines roles, responsibilities, and accountability for decision making by each constituency, including governing body, administration, faculty, staff and students."

As an administrator, even if I am middle management at this school, I need to keep our mission and goals in mind in an obvious way. I also need to articulate how I am doing this to our constituencies. Further, I (and the rest of my staff) need to be part of the decision making process on a campus-wide basis. We are working to get librarians and library staff better integrated into committees beyond our walls, and have had some success. There's still a way to go, but that I can document our progress is important.

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And that's the whole point of accreditation/reaccreditation. Yes, do the things, but also be able to prove that you do the things. We met last week to talk about this draft document. Talk revolved more around how to tie this document to our existing assessment plan than anything else, but we also spent a bit of time discussing how to have this inform our strategic planning process. Our vision statement is next up, but as we articulate our vision of the future for this library, we will keep this draft document in mind. Our vision will be of an institution that proudly lives up to both internal and external expectations of what a college library should be.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Just For Fun: To Boldly Go

Star Trek. Star Trek, Star Trek, Star Trek. How could I have skipped writing about you, my first fandom, for more than 3 years of monthly fun posts? I'll never know. But here's my chance to make it up to you, Star Trek.

The main reason I'm a little ashamed that I've never written about Star Trek? I've been a fan of this show so long that I can't remember a time when Star Trek wasn't a part of my life. As a child... my parents... loved... to watch reruns... of the original series. (My best effort to put Shatnerian acting methods into print representation.) I rejoiced loud and long when The Next Generation was produced. I've watched every episode of DS9 and Voyager and seen all the movies. I have comic books and novels based in the Trek universe. No, I haven't yet watched Enterprise, but other than that I'm a pretty obsessive fan.

There's just something about Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future, even when it's interpreted by others, that captures and enchants me. It's a place I'd like "to boldly go" myself, even if that split infinitive gets on my nerve every time.

In no particular order, here are some of my thoughts about this most important of fandoms:

I don't care how popular it is to make fun of him, I like Neelix. 


I love the bromance between him and Tuvok. I love Neelix's "I've seen some bad shit and decided to let it push me to be even more positive about life and people" attitude. The weird recipes always make me smile. I even love his fashion sense, or lack thereof.

"All ways are Janeways."



Janeway is my captain. It's not just because she's a woman, but that doesn't hurt. She's strong and smart and quick to act and really cares about her crew. She's not afraid to admit her mistakes, but she's also not afraid to try new things. She is the ultimate example of "making the best of a bad situation," and she does it with style and grace. (By the way, thanks again to Anna for giving me one of my favorite catchphrases.)

DS9 


Janeway might be my captain, but DS9 is my show. The Federation might have gotten it all figured out, but not everyone is going to be so enlightened, and this series highlights the conflicts between a civilization that is post-all-the-bad-things and civilizations who are still more concerned with commerce and conquest. There are still plenty of homily-ish episodes in DS9, but I love the realness of this show.

Homilies


Speaking of homilies and life lessons and social commentary, how about that first interracial kiss up there? DS9 had a lesbian kiss. Star Trek did not shy away from important issues, ever.

Just Plain Fun



In between handling important social issues - heck, sometimes even in the middle of those shows - Star Trek always manages to make me laugh. Whether it was Reginald Barclay's caricature of Will Riker on the holodeck, or the way Morn is always portrayed as being a blabbermouth but never actually says a word on screen, or even Neelix's habit of making Tuvok the butt of many jokes... I love it.

And that's what it comes down to. I love Star Trek. How about you?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Planning to Plan: Middle States Draft Standards


You may or may not know that the Middle States Commission on Higher Education is about to issue new standards for accreditation. The draft is available and voting will happen this month. As coincidence would have it, we are also getting ready to write a new strategic plan for the library. Rather than base our strategic plan on the current standards, I'm use the draft standards, even though they won't take effect for a while. I know our next accreditation will fall under the new standards, so this is a strategic planning version of cutting to the chase.

Yes, I read the whole document. It's not long and I wanted to see where the library falls in relation to other units on campus. You might want to invest the time yourself, but if you just want the library pertinent bits, you've come to the right place. I know there are plenty of people who read this blog who don't work in higher ed, or if they do work at academic libraries they don't necessarily work in the geographic areas where colleges and universities answer to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (from their website: "Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, including distance education and correspondence education programs offered at those institutions."). However, if you are in that small group, you definitely should care.

(In the interests of not overwhelming you, I'm going to break this into two different parts. Standards I-IV this week and V-VII next week.)

Standard I: Mission and Goals

Criteria 1, d: The school has "clearly defined mission and goals that guide faculty, administration, staff, and governing structures in making decisions related to planning, resource allocation, program and curricular development, and the definition of institutional and educational outcomes."

This means that the library's mission and goals have to be informed by and be a reflection of the parent institution's mission and goals. We need to be able to prove that we make our decisions in accordance with the same. You can't just point to the end product; you've got to document all the planning and decision making in a way that shows how you are working in accordance with and in support of the schools where we are. An example of this is how my library's new mission statement reflects the aims of the institution, and the process we followed to create the new mission.

Standard II: Ethic and Integrity

The standard itself is important: "Ethics and integrity are central, indispensable, and defining hallmarks of effective higher education institutions. In all activities, whether internal or external, an institution must be faithful to its mission, honor its contracts and commitments, adhere to its policies, and represent itself truthfully." The first criteria is especially pertinent to the library: "a commitment to academic freedom, intellectual freedom, freedom of expression, and respect for intellectual property rights."

Do we treat our students ethically? Sure, most of the criteria deal with money handling and transparency about costs, but there is a theme of doing right by students and other constituents. One thing I can do is point to our training procedures about privacy and library records. I can also talk about the intersection of information literacy instruction and IP and intellectual freedom. Finally, I'm spearheading an effort to revamp our copyright and intellectual property policy. But again, it's not just about doing the things. It's about being able to prove the things.

Standard III: Design and Delivery of the Student Learning Experience

This is where you will find the bulk of what is pertinent to the library on a college or university campus.

Criteria 2 calls for "student learning experiences that are designed, delivered, and assessed by faculty (full-time or part-time) and/or other appropriate professionals who are: a. rigorous and effective in teaching, assessment of student learning, scholarly inquiry, and service, as appropriate to the institution’s mission, goals, and policies; b. qualified for the positions they hold and the work they do; c. sufficient in number; d. provided with and utilize sufficient opportunities, resources, and support for professional growth and innovation; e. reviewed regularly and equitably based on written, disseminated, clear, and fair criteria, expectations, policies, and procedures."

We must assess our education efforts. We must. It's important to assess for the right reasons, but how we need to see if what we are doing to teach information literacy and other skills is working. it's important not to do these things in a vacuum. Talk to faculty and other stakeholders. Ask things like, "How well did your students use the resources? Were there any problems? What could we do differently in future sessions?" Further, we need to have the assessments inform how we move forward.

Criteria 4 points out the need for "sufficient learning opportunities and resources to support both the institution’s programs of study and students’ academic progress." 

This isn't just about libraries, but it does still relate. One issue here is that sufficiency is a flexible term, but there are best practices and research practices you can use to judge. Are we able to support the info lit needs of the institution? Are we providing enough opportunities for students to learn the skills? Are we open sufficient hours?

Criteria 5, a and 5, b are also important. 5 is about the general education program, and a. states that it's important an institution "offers a sufficient scope to draw students into new areas of intellectual experience, expanding their cultural and global awareness and cultural sensitivity, and preparing them to make well-reasoned judgments outside as well as within their academic field." 

There are a lot of ways this can apply to the library, but the thing that occurred to me first is to look at what kind of resources the library provides that support the curriculum. When I first showed up here, we had some gaps in our database coverage. I've managed to address most of them, and I can document the process I used to make those decisions.

5, b is dead center for libraries: the institution "offers a curriculum designed so that students acquire and demonstrate essential skills including at least oral and written communication, scientific and quantitative reasoning, critical analysis and reasoning, technological competency, and information literacy. Consistent with mission, the general education program also includes the study of values, ethics, and diverse perspectives. (Emphasis mine.)

Information literacy must be part of the general education efforts of an institution. Full stop. (I love this.)

Finally, criteria 8 requires "periodic assessment of the effectiveness of programs providing student learning 
opportunities."

Yes, it's a bit redundant. To me that just tells me how important assessment is to CHE.

Standard IV: Support of the Student Experience

This standard gets at recruitment and retention and graduation rates. I've written before how we are all in this business, from the admissions folk to the professors to the cleaning staff to the library. People a lot smarter than I am have produced clear evidence of how the library contributes to these efforts. So criteria 6, which calls for "periodic assessment of the effectiveness of programs supporting the student experience," means the library, too.

I've been talking to admissions people about tracking how often prospective students and their families ask about the library, and what kinds of questions they ask. I've also changed the library related questions on the exiting seniors survey to parse out how well the library supported their efforts while they were here.

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I'll write about the other half of the criteria next week, but so far I like the new standards. How about you?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Values and Value, by Nicholas Schiller

Source

I’m an idealist and my values drive a lot of my decision making. I want to share a little about my core library values and what happens when professional pressures start to compromise them.

It will probably help if I frame all of this in a story. A few years ago, I was at a local library instruction conference listening to a respected colleague present on a new program assessment effort she was leading. She encountered resistance from tenured colleagues who were slow to engage with assessment efforts that lacked clear incentives. I was newly tenured then and I had an epiphany: at some point I’d become one of these tenured barriers to new ideas. I’d stopped idealizing a “culture of assessment” and begun responding to it critically or even cynically.

I’m an information literacy librarian and a teacher because I value student learning. I’m emotionally engaged in my work; I imagine most instruction librarians are. When I’m doing my best work, I’m helping students unlock their curiosity and guiding them to master skills and methods for critical thinking. I’m making an important difference and this feels good. We should remember that our work has long-term social value. This is why I love what I do. On an individual level, my values are still rooted in reflective practice (from Char Booth’s Reflective Teaching, Effecting Learning: Instructional Literacy for Library Educators “Reflective practice: Instructor development strategies that observe and consider one’s own teaching effectiveness with the goal of improving the learner experience”), but on an organizational level I’d stopped believing in “the culture of assessment.”

This culture has been putting a lot of pressure on academic libraries being asked to demonstrate the value of libraries. Specifically, libraries are being pushed to provide systematic assessment of the impact of their programs. Demonstrating value involves assessment. Assessment involves setting program goals, listing leaning outcomes that demonstrate these goals, and then measuring how well we achieve these outcomes. Using this process we can know with greater certainly whether we are succeeding at what we set out to do and whether what we doing is having a positive impact on library users. This is an unequivocally a good thing and a necessary part of reflective practice. It keeps us honest and helps steer our decisions with data. Assessment, however, is a loaded term with multiple meanings, some of which contradict each other. I want to be clear that I’m referring to “College Outcomes Assessment” which the ERIC Thesaurus describes as:
Formal or informal appraisal or judgment of two- or four-year college programs or students in relation to institutional or public expectations of achievement or development--often but not always measured against specific objectives.
College outcomes assessment is a necessary part of reflective practice, but it is not, by itself, sufficient to achieve reflective practice.  However, the definition above makes it easy to confuse outcomes assessment with reflective practice. This can be dangerous. Reflective practice is aligned with my core values, but merely “demonstrating value” is not. When it describes “College Outcomes Assessment,” the ERIC Thesaurus includes both assessment of programs and assessment of students. My assertion here is that assessment of student learning and the assessment of institutional effectiveness (program assessment) are significantly different efforts. Or, to paraphrase what a respected former colleague once told me: “There is the assessment you do to become a better teacher and there’s the assessment you do because the administration makes you.” My concern is that assessment of student learning appeals to the core values of instruction librarians and this appeal is being leveraged to entice us to engage in the kinds of assessment that don’t align with our core values. It can feel like a classic bait-and-switch con.

Good libraries assess because, when done correctly, assessment fosters student learning. However, when done incorrectly, assessment becomes a symbol for serious problems and issues in American higher education. Assessment can be a weapon used by administration to seize power from faculty. Assessment can be a Trojan horse for market values replacing the values of the public good and social justice. We love our work and we love student learning, but when this love and these values are co-opted to serve the neoliberal goals of demonstrating institutional effectiveness or to apply a market value to academic library services, it feels like betrayal. As an idealistic librarian, when I feel my values betrayed the quality of my work and my ability to help foster student learning diminishes.

So, how do we respond? To steal a simile, we should be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. We should know that the motivating agendas behind faculty and administration approaches to assessment are deeply rooted but rarely communicated openly. Assessment is political and its language is encrypted. We have to assess both to be true to our values and to survive in the current higher education environment. What we can do is to make sure that the value that we are demonstrating lines up with our values. We can be engaged, creative, and tireless in measuring student learning, social justice, and critical thinking. We can be more passive or somewhat-less-than- engaged, creative, and tireless when asked to measure return on investment, to value easy-to-quantify goals more highly than opaque goals, or to trade in our core values for the values of the marketplace.

My challenge in coming to grips with the pressure to assess has been to find a middle ground. I’m looking for a space between the idealistic librarian who is lured by the siren’s song of “the culture of assessment” into becoming a tool for the neoliberal takeover of higher education and the cynical librarian who can’t see past the pain of his betrayed values to engage in critical and reflective practice. The serpent and dove approach is helping me to do this. It reminds me of why I love my job while also encouraging me to put my experience and understanding of how the institution works (even when these workings are opaque to outsiders) to work for my core idealism and values.


Nicholas Schiller is the systems & instruction librarian at Washington State University Vancouver. He blogs at Information. Games. He tweets about capybaras, geeky things, running, and libraries at @nnschiller.