March 17, 2018

Assessing the Ambivalent Liaison | Peer to Peer Review

SpackmanThe drumbeat of assessment has become the cadence of higher education. In libraries, as with any organization, the managerial drive for metrics is reflexive. How do we know if we’re winning? How can we prove it to the boss?

Nothing is as comforting as an upward slanting trend line. But librarians have learned that data can be double-edged. For instance, how do we convince our stakeholders that declining circulation and reference numbers don’t tell the full story of libraries today? Nevertheless, and no matter the pain they may bring us, we preserve our longitudinal statistics as fervently as anything in special collections.

Lately, the liaison label has become a term of art in academic libraries. But measuring liaison activity is a lot more complicated than doing a gate count, especially when it comes to the relationships we nurture with faculty. A liaison librarian’s success can’t be judged by the number of faculty members who have accepted his invites on LinkedIn. Still, we’re told by our administrators, by our peers, and by our consciences that we live in a quantify-or-die world, so we find ourselves counting such things anyway.

Customer Relationship Management

Are we reinventing the wheel? If we’re serious about this, why not use a customer relationship management (CRM) tool? That’s how companies manage and measure their interactions with clients and customers.

With a CRM I could create a record for that newly hired faculty member. I could update it after I first make contact with her by introducing myself at a luncheon. I could update it again after I drop by her office to learn more about her research interests. And again when she calls to ask me about an obscure dataset. And once more after I’ve acquired the dataset and secured her invitation to demonstrate it for her students in class. If my library director is curious, she can use the CRM to check how my liaison efforts are progressing. And if I leave for a position at another library, my replacement can review all of this in the CRM and pick up where I left off.

By any other name

I’m a business librarian—excuse me—a library liaison to a business school. I may not be a native, but I have an MBA and I speak the language. I love numbers, and I envy the clarity of an income statement’s bottom line. In research and practice I try to apply models from the business world to libraries. So the insistence of some academic librarians that we serve “patrons” or “users” but not “customers,” or that we “promote” the library but not “market” or “advertise” it has always left me nonplussed.

In contemplating the application of CRM to library liaison activities, I want to smile and nod. It’s so obvious. We can just call it LRM (liaison relationship management) to satisfy the library purists. In fact, I’m surprised someone like Springshare hasn’t already done this. LibLRM! (I’ll expect a royalty check, thank you.) Heck, why not just go straight to SAP or

In this day and age there’s no reason why library administrators shouldn’t know which of their institution’s faculty have been contacted in the past month, what their needs are, which of them require special care, and, while we’re at it, which librarians have converted the most prospects into customers—excuse me—which librarians have helped the most faculty engage more deeply with the library.

Think how useful this would be in revealing underserved disciplines or distributing the liaison workload. It could even identify faculty willing to provide testimonials about the library’s central place in the scholarly process. And, of course, it would help in demonstrating the library’s value to administrators and in assessing the performance of liaison librarians.

It’s not an entirely new idea. By this point, some of you have already Googled it and found a few examples, presentations, and journal articles. Oh, all right: some of you may have found these using your library’s enterprise discovery thingamajig instead. But I bet the Googlers found them faster. And don’t worry. Google (or the analytics your library’s website uses—or the NSA for that matter) isn’t collecting any data on you that a good CRM wouldn’t. In fact, it’s probably collecting less.

Trying too hard?

Despite the upside, there’s part of me that squirms at the thought of CRM in libraries—the same way I’ve seen colleagues squirm whenever I’ve suggested that libraries need a clear value proposition, or that the enervation of the library brand merely reflects our perpetual identity crisis.

Perhaps my discomfort just means I’ve been a librarian long enough that I now carry indignation like a membership card. (Or at least long enough that I can throw a tongue-mostly-in-cheek tantrum like this one.) But I know there’s a record for me out there in a number of library vendors’ CRMs. And while there are many vendors I consider friends, and many more I enjoy doing business with, there are others I unconsciously file under “ignore,” “not urgent,” or, worst of all, “pushy.” And I wonder if CRM, and the hunger for assessment it represents, might not transform me in the minds of my faculty from “my librarian” or “my colleague” into “the library’s sales rep.”

Andy Spackman is Business and Economics Librarian at Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, where he also teaches management communications. He can be reached at

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  1. A CRM for library customers is a great idea, Andy, and certainly could lead to better assessment feedback than the standard, boring usage counts that don’t tell any inspiring stories. Also good for liaison *accountability* — which can be hard to measure too. –Steve

  2. Jonathan Miller says:

    Have you seen my article on evaluating liaison librarians? “A Method for Evaluating Library Liaison Activities in Small Academic Libraries”

    • Andy Spackman says:

      I like your emphasis on the formative nature of such assessment. It takes a delicate hand to maintain that in practice.

  3. Great idea! At my university, this is being done with donors already, and is an extremely valuable resource. In addition to the uses Andy mentioned, this database would be helpful when liaisons leave or assignments change.