Academic Libraries: Defining (and Communicating) Your Value

illustration of an article

Amid calls for accountability, a new report from the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) offers recommendations for academic libraries on how to define their value to the institution and how to adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing environment. Among the recommendations: defining outcomes, putting assessment management systems in place, and defining and strengthening the library’s contribution to student success.

In light of the report, we turned to Paul Gandel, professor of information studies at Syracuse University, and Gene Spencer, principal of Gene Spencer Consulting, for additional advice on how academic libraries can define and communicate their value.

Being Seen as the Solution

“People have to see you as a solution they need. No amount of awareness or promotion is going to make you relevant. Your vision for how the library can contribute to the institutional mission is what makes you relevant.”
Paul Gandel, Syracuse U

The ACRL report lists multiple ways in which libraries can measure and define their value, including:

  • Library impact on students’ academic success, persistence, and retention
  • Library impact on student job success
  • Library impact on student learning
  • Library impact on faculty research productivity
  • Library impact on increasing grant revenue through assistance with faculty grant proposals

All of these measures presuppose that academic library leaders create a vision for how their organization can help the institution achieve a critical outcome. Libraries are no longer merely archives for preserving information and resources; increasingly, institutional leaders are calling on library leaders to document and envision how their organizations can contribute directly to the institution’s strategic objectives. Creating such a vision entails identifying:

  • Where your faculty or students have unmet needs (e.g., with improving information fluency or with research productivity)
  • How the core competencies of your staff can help meet those needs (or what competencies you need to hire or train for in order to meet the needs)
  • Your vision and a plan for meeting the needs
  • Specific performance indicators to evaluate progress (e.g., we will help faculty secure X number of grants in the next two years, or we will help reduce by X number of hours the time it takes faculty to prepare an online course)

It’s Not Just About Adding a Cafe

Gandel warns against simply adding attractive features to your library space as a strategy to get more users in the door. “There’s nothing wrong with coffee houses and bean bag chairs,” Gandel remarks, “but your staff didn’t go to library school to learn how to run a coffee shop. I think, to some degree, libraries trying to be ‘with it’ and stay relevant may have lost sight of some of their core values, core competencies, and core vision. It’s great to use coffee houses and a pleasing environment to get users back into the library, but we need to be very clear about what our librarians are here for and what they can contribute. A cup of coffee is not a key library service.”

What librarians or information specialists do better than anyone else, Gandel reminds us, is identifying information and translating it into knowledge. “That’s what we’ve always done,” Gandel remarks. “We just need to learn how to do it in this century.” The key question then is how to leverage that strength to help your institution do teaching and research better. Once you have identified a specific need (whether it’s increasing students’ academic success by improving their information literacy, or decreasing the time it takes to conduct faculty research), ask the questions that may require re-envisioning the way you allocate and use your staff and resources:

  • What is the role of the library space in helping achieve that goal?
  • What is the role of the library’s resources in helping achieve that goal?
  • What is the specific role of the librarian in helping achieve that goal?
  • What is the specific role of the organization in helping achieve that goal?

Scenario A: A Liberal Arts Library

For example, suppose your undergraduate library features a highly automated learning commons, and students rarely approach the reference librarian’s desk. “We have a history of setting up wonderful services and waiting for people to come to us,” Gene Spencer comments. “And we’re finding that service desks aren’t getting the volume of questions they used to, because students have easier methods of seeking information and an overconfidence (‘I can just Google Search’). They are depriving themselves of the opportunity to leverage the expertise of the reference librarian who can help them to refine their research questions and dig deeper.”

In this situation, staffing those reference desks at all hours may not be the best use of your resources. If your vision is one in which the library plays an active role in cultivating information fluency and research skills in your students so as to improve their academic achievement and persistence, then you may want to embed those staff in first-year classes, or have them support and collaborate with faculty who are teaching undergraduate research courses. You may also want to extend your reference services outside of the library. Gene Spencer suggests a few examples of how to do this:

  • Give students in online courses access (by chat or email) to a librarian through the LMS
  • Identify popular student study spaces, and in the weeks preceding midterms or finals, put up a notice that the reference librarian will set up a workstation there and will be available from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesdays (“suppose there’s a lobby area in the engineering building that students use during the evenings for group study with easy access to the labs — why not make your services available there?”)
  • You could establish a presence in the dining hall — if you notice that students stay late after dinner because the hall is a convenient place to meet to discuss collaborative projects; “you could plant your staff there on Sunday evenings, when those students who have postponed their work find themselves in a pinch”

(In an additional example from this week’s news, Drexel University has just rolled out a program that assigns each incoming freshman to a “personal librarian,” who contacts students prior to the start of the first term and provides support for them throughout the first term.)

“Be creative,” Spencer advises. “How can you insert your staff into students’ study environments in a way that has the greatest impact?” Spencer suggest interviewing students about their study spaces and habits, as well as working with both student assistants and your more recently graduated MLS librarians to gather ideas about how best to connect with your students.

Scenario B: A Graduate Research Library

When Paul Gandel was dean of libraries at the University of Rhode Island, his vision involved contributing actively to the research and scholarship mission of the institution by applying the librarians’ research expertise to the project of increasing faculty research productivity. As a pilot project, Gandel selected a staff member with an MLS degree and a background in pharmacy, and then assigned her to the pharmacy department to work closely with the department’s faculty research teams. The pilot led to a boost in grants and the establishment of a full-time position fully funded by the pharmacy department.

The questions Gandel asked were:

  • What are the skills that could make research teams more effective?
  • Can the library bring those competencies to the teams?

For example, at Syracuse University, Gandel found that many research teams needed someone who could sort through the huge amounts of information available and help the researcher identify what data is most critical and then make sense of it. “The most effective teams have this person in place,” Gandel notes, “they just don’t call them information professionals or librarians. We found that there was an opportunity to formalize the role and bring to it the person who would be most effective.”

“In hard economic times, if libraries can in fact help research teams to be more productive and effective in generating grants, that’s a real value proposition. You can then say, ‘Support the library because we add value; we help bring in more research dollars.’ Be clear on what you will help faculty and administrators achieve.”
Paul Gandel, Syracuse U