November 17, 2017

What Academic Libraries Contribute to Productivity | From the Bell Tower

Want to know how to become the most sought after author and speaker in the world of academic librarianship? Just figure out a foolproof metric/formula for calculating any academic library’s return on investment to the higher education institute.

It would probably help if it always showed the library is an incredibly valuable asset to the parent institution. Admittedly the odds of this happening to anyone are fairly slim, though that has not stopped some researchers from working on ways to quantify the academic library’s contributions to the bottom line. Hopefully we can learn something valuable from the research. After all, in tough times who doesn’t want to visibly demonstrate the added-value return the library delivers. I’ve previously written about the need to demonstrate how the academic library contributes to student retention (Library Issues, V.25, N.5, Sept. 2008).

But what can we say, quantitatively, about the libraries contribution to institutional productivity? First we need to know a bit more about what that means.

Highly productive higher education

Some experts claim there is no way to measure productivity in higher education. It’s not as if colleges and universities are producing widgets, and we can identify the optimal widget production number at the lowest cost per widget. One faculty member can only teach so many students before dysfunction sets in, and we can’t necessarily teach faster or more efficiently, though some might suggest methods to do so exist.

A recently released national study suggests that one way to measure productivity is to calculate state spending per degree. Florida, the most productive state for higher education, spends $29,075 in state funds per degree conferred. Arkansas, the least productive state, spends $86,009 per degree. So the report suggests that Florida’s higher education is more productive, churning out degrees so that the most students are graduated for the least money.

Is it just a matter of money?

Clearly this sort of metric for measuring academic productivity is wide open to criticism. What if, for instance, the colleges and universities in Florida are able to make due with less state funding than the institutions in Arkansas owing to larger endowments that help fund education? They would certainly spend less state money per diploma.

It’s quite possible that the students in Arkansas, owing to a struggling secondary education system, need more remedial courses and additional time to complete their degrees. A higher education institution’s productivity is impacted by any number of variables that are difficult to measure. While the author of the report, Patrick Kelly, acknowledged that it has flaws, he claimed it is important for the higher education industry to develop ways of demonstrating accountability. Productivity measures are one way to do this—and it gives a state like Florida ammunition to take to state legislators when battling for appropriations.

How the library can help

It’s difficult to say if these sorts of productivity measures will catch on or not, but if they did it may actually work in the favor of the academic library. Anecdotally, I believe it is possible to make a case that academic libraries contribute to increased institutional productivity.

Consider the vast numbers of hours wasted by students doing non-productive research; librarians help them achieve greater research productivity. Instead of losing time aimlessly searching free Internet sites, students would have extra hours to commit to analysis, writing, and learning. This all contributes to better student efficiency, persistence to graduation and degree completion within four years.

Even something as simple as highly efficient and fast interlibrary loan networks, Rapid ILL for example, put needed articles into the hands of researchers more quickly so they can complete their projects more efficiently. But actually demonstrating our efficiency and contributions to productivity is another challenge altogether. I doubt most academic libraries could even quantify their cost per transaction for simple things such as a reference question or interlibrary loan let alone something more complex such as an instruction session or a one-on-one research consultation.

Call it “The Value of Academic Libraries” project

I can already hear the critics claiming that establishing productivity measures for academic libraries is just one more example of how turning higher education into businesses will drag down the quality of education. They might be right. But it’s clear that out-of-control, spiraling tuition costs are unsustainable.

Public higher education institutions are under the gun to achieve greater accountability, and even private institutions are feeling that pressure. So I was interested to hear of a new initiative just getting underway at the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL). It seems ACRL sees the writing on the wall. I’m not sure this initiative has an official name, but this project is centered on empirically demonstrating the value of academic libraries. If ACRL is successful in establishing more quantitative methods that academic librarians can use to measure and demonstrate how they advance institutional priorities, contribute to student retention and persistence to graduation, and support faculty research success, then that would be a tremendous help to academic librarians everywhere.

I hope the ACRL members participating in this project keep the emerging productivity measures in mind as they do their work. If academic administrators and legislators begin to treat metrics such as state funding per degree as the gospel, our profession had better be prepared with some nifty library expenditures per degree formulas that can show just how effectively we contribute to high institutional productivity—however it might be measured.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.