Introduction – Lee Jaffe

I recently became the (interim) Assistant to the University Librarian, with responsibility for developing an assessment program as one of my roles. I’m new to assessment, at least since the far-off days of library school. Back then there was a lot of buzz about Brenda Dervin and I still find myself influenced by her approaches to understanding users’ needs and where libraries fit.

In the intervening decades I’ve mostly worked in the field of library technology and used Dervin’s perspective of users as problem-solvers as a conceptual model for developing and managing services. I find that perspective still very influential as I think about how to discover out what our library can do (better) to serve users’ needs. Just as I believed that technology was simply a tool, I don’t think of libraries as the be-all-and-end-all of our users’ lives but that we supply only a piece — perhaps a critical or very large piece — they need in order to complete a larger task.

Coincidently (or maybe not), I tend to be very suspicious of surveys. Most I encounter are poorly designed, even insulting in their ignorance of their users (me). I rarely get further than a few questions into any survey before tossing it in the trash. Sometimes I complete surveys only to get to the “Other Comments:” section so I can critique the problems with their data collection tool. Therefore, I’m not inclined to use surveys for my own purposes, figuring that I’m probably not immune from making the same mistakes others have made. Where possible I’d like to find other, perhaps more creative, approaches to answering the library’s assessment needs.

I like the story of the pollsters assigned to measure the audience for the first broadcast of the miniseries “Roots”. Traditional polling tools were showing a disappointing share and they suspected folks had some reason for not admitting they were watching. As a counter to the direct approach, the pollsters instead measured the drop in water pressure during a commercial break on the theory that it indicated the number of “Roots” viewers who’d been waiting to go the toilet.

In a way, libraries have the opposite problem. People think they are supposed to like libraries and it keeps them from telling us why they don’t use our services when we think they should. I want to find the equivalent of hearing a million toilets flushing as means of getting past the facade of the good library and finding out what they really think.

If you think you’ve cracked that particular mystery, I’d be very glad to hear about it.

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