Plenary I: Library Performance Measures That Matter

I’m going to warn you right now that no matter of notetaking would do justice to the speech given by Chancellor John Lombardi (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) at the first plenary of the conference. His speech was highly entertaining even while he asked hard questions that we, as library personnel, may not want to hear, or have answers for. I’ve told more than one person that I would pay good money for a video of that session. Unfortunately, no one has taken me up on that so my limited notes will have to do.

Chancellor LombardiChancellor Lombardi posed several questions that he, as a university administrator, needs to consider when it comes to making decisions about which departments / collegs at his institution get which slices of the limited money pie. He questioned the value of the user satisfaction surveys since they only tell him “how much people love you”; they don’t give him an indication of why the library deserves more money than any other department coming to him with hands out.

What do the stats mean? Are they good for a research library? How does one know if there isn’t a clear definition of what a research library is supposed to be? By basing funding on user satisfaction surveys, one is doing things simply because it responds to student and faculty enthusiasm, and is that what we’re trying to measure when we do library assessment?

At UMass-Amherst, he has a 26-story library and in 3-5 years there is going to be the need to renovate. He’s going to come to a $50 million “moment of truth”. Why should he commit that much money to a facility that may be better served as a 26-story study hall with books stored in off-site storage? What is the strategic future of the library? Will we be doing the same things we’re doing now in 25 years? Or will our services be folded into the institutional teaching and learning centers (or will those be taken over by the libraries)?

Libraries have a history of being the center of the university. It is the center of research and maintains the historical record of the institution. That focus, however, has eroded over the years. Years ago, if one needed a book on interlibrary loan, it involved a trek to the library and discussion with a librarian to request the material in question. These days it’s a mere matter of getting online and ordering the book oneself. Is library space going to become rare book space?

As an organization promoting assessment in libraries, we need to be aware of the competitive environment that exists at universities today. How are our user groups responding to satisfaction surveys from other departments on campus who want the same money we want? What will our “competitors” use with the assessment data we generate? In what way is the LIBRARY a competitive advantage for the university? What are we doing to make the libraries essential? Why should the library get $50 million instead of that money going towards a new recreation center being clamored for by students?

In order to survive, we need to keep in mind that the power structure of the university lives and dies on the shoulders of the faculty. Where is the research value in the library? We have the responsibility to define the purpose of the research library and to define the metrics that give indications of success in that role.

– Steph Wright

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