March 17, 2018

Assessing Assessment | Not Dead Yet

I went to the 2012 Library Assessment Conference (sponsored by ARL, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington) last week, and was disappointed by it. I had gone to the 2010 conference in Baltimore and that was a game-changing experience for me – excellent speakers, incredible enthusiasm, wonderful learning and networking opportunities. This year… not so much.

Of course, Hurricane Sandy was threatening throughout, and that may have (no pun intended) put a damper on the proceedings, but the only part I really enjoyed was the poster sessions, where I got to talk to a lot of different people about assessment projects they, and we, have worked on, and where we were all able to share tips and stories.

This year’s venue didn’t allow for a whole lot of interacting informally with other participants; many of the meetings were held in the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, which, although it is a lovely, beautifully restored 1930s theater, was not the ideal place to eat the meals scheduled there or talk easily with other participants. But I did retain the program and will follow up one-on-one with folks who’re doing interesting things (and there are many!) over the next few months.

I may be being unfair, though, because I was comparing this conference to the CLIR Workshops on Participatory Design in Academic Libraries led by Nancy Fried Foster, three of which I’ve participated in and about which I have written enthusiastically in other places (Place 1, Place 2, Place 3). If you’re interested in participatory design, you should take a look at the CLIR report, Participatory Design in Academic Libraries: Methods, Findings, and Implementations with introduction by Nancy Fried Foster, which is freely available for downloading at the title link.

There are two big reasons I am so enthusiastic about the CLIR workshops, about Nancy Fried Foster, and about the assessment work that the folks at the University of Rochester have been doing (here’s just one example of that):

  1. What they do and the way they do it WORKS, and
  2. They do their assessment based on their institution, their environment, and their student, faculty, and researcher populations, not according to an artificial rubric developed by an exterior entity based on… heaven knows what, but not based on their particular researchers’ behaviors and needs.

The folks from the University of Rochester libraries emphasize that their studies are of their students, their faculty, and their users, and that, for others’ studies to be as successful as those of UR, others need to study their own user populations, not take away UR’s findings as gospel. I find this refreshingly frank, and remarkably realistic. Rather than jumping on a bandwagon to determine “core competencies for assessment” or a multiple-years’-long assessment research agenda for librarians, I like the idea of actually spending time and effort assessing what my own institution’s users need, and then working to make it happen as much as possible. That seems to me to be user-centered, rather than librarian-centered. And it’s a strategy that just about every library in the world can use effectively.

Case in point: take a look at this marvelous blog post, “Our Mantra: Simplify and Focus,” by Troy A. Swanson, department chair and teaching & learning librarian at Moraine Valley Community College, at the ACRL Value of Academic Libraries’ blog. I have to highlight a couple things Mr. Swanson says here; this comes just after he’s noted that his library had previously undertaken “massive [assessment] projects” that collected tons of data that they struggled to interpret, and that ultimately “never really changed much:

“In an effort to survive, we trashed our all-encompassing assessment plan. We just stopped. We recognized that piles of data were not moving us forward.”

He continues:

“Not too long after, I was fortunate enough to be invited to ACRL’s Summit on the Value of Academic Libraries. This was a great opportunity to be a part of an important conversation at an opportune time for our library. The conversations between librarians, research officers, and administrators were great, but the conversations that I found to be most valuable were the conversations with the accrediting agencies.” [my bold and italics]

and then he writes:

“The accrediting agencies clearly stated that it is more important for libraries to show effectiveness in serving their immediate users than for libraries to demonstrate an impossible-to-create statistic about how libraries contribute to retention, success, or job attainment. For me, it was refreshing to hear that we did not need to document and assess all aspects of our services, and, even more liberating, we could tell our stories in ways that made the most sense to us and to the populations we serve.”

Kinda like the way the University of Rochester and Nancy Fried Foster have done, huh? Okay, I’ll stop now, after thanking Mr. Swanson for his excellent blog post and thoughts about realistic, meaningful library assessment, and thanking UR and Nancy Fried Foster, once again, for making it possible for the rest of us to make assessment real. And if you have some useful tips on assessment to share, I’d love to hear them. Just please don’t send me a rubric.

Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.

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  1. The link to the Our Mantra article doesn’t work and instead asks you to log into Outlook. I was able to easily find a link to the article, so probably just changing the code should fix the problem. Interesting piece, I’m a new school-librarian and assessment of myself and what I’m trying to do is always on my mind.

    • Sorry about that, Kate! and thanks to Josh for fixing it!
      And thanks, too, Kate, for reading and letting us know about the bad link.

  2. Fixed now, thanks Kate.

    Josh Hadro, executive editor, LJ