InfoIssues: October 2006 | Mansfield Library | The University of Montana-Missoula

The University of Montana Libraries—Missoula

A publication of the faculty of the Mansfield Library at the University of Montana

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Issue of the Month: October 2006

Assessment in Libraries

Kate Zoellner, Assistant Professor
Education Librarian and Assessment Coordinator

Like other academic departments within institutions of higher education, libraries are facing pressure from accrediting associations and funding sources, among others, to demonstrate results and effectively allocate resources. Assessment methods used in academic libraries continue to evolve in response to this culture of assessment and accountability.

Assessment in academic libraries can be defined as an ongoing process aimed at understanding, articulating and improving library services. Historically, libraries evaluated their work by collecting statistics: how many items were checked out, how many new items were added to the collection, how many people asked questions at the reference desk, etc. During the past twenty years, libraries have shifted their focus from the collection of statistics as an end, towards systematic evaluation practices that indicate planning and design, contextualize the data collected, and include and involve library users (Shi and Levy, 2005, p. 267). Below are select examples of this refocusing.

The call to plan for assessment is evident in standards developed for libraries by the national Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL). Their Standards for Libraries in Higher Education recommend libraries develop a mission statement and goals in line with those of their parent institution, and state that “assessment of the quality and effectiveness of the library should be linked closely” with these goals and mission (2004). Therefore, assessment should be designed around the activities libraries provide in line with their mission. These services often include: collections and access, library instruction, physical facility and website, and reference services.

Collection evaluation is one example of how libraries are contextualizing the data they collect. Libraries assess the collections they develop to ensure materials are meeting the research needs of university members, contain journals required by program accreditation standards, and are readily accessible when users need them. These assessments inform budgeting and acquisition decisions. To answer these questions, libraries may not only review the nature of items (subjects, formats, publication dates) and their use (circulation and renewal, article database searches); they may also compare the materials in their collections with those of peer institutions and, in the case of journals, against the impact factor of other journals within a particular discipline. Newly developed collection review products expedite this contextualization process. These products include Ulrich’s Serials Analysis System and Thompson’s Journal Citation Reports for journals and OCLC’s WorldCat Collection Analysis for monographs. It is difficult to capture how well collections are meeting the university community’s research needs. One of the ways libraries approach this question is by tracking how many items (and of what type) are requested via interlibrary loan to capture items not in the collection needed by researchers. Libraries also utilize customer feedback forms and surveys to find out how library users feel the collections are meeting their needs. The data with which collections are assessed go beyond numerical values when statistics are placed in context and qualitative methods are used to enhance collection evaluation.

A survey on service quality sponsored by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and administered by participating libraries, LibQUAL+™, captures library user’s perceptions of library services against their minimum expectations and desired service levels. The survey asks participants to rate how well the print and electronic resources libraries own and subscribe to meet their research needs, among other information access, physical library and service questions. Surveys, like LibQUAL+™, are a prime example of how the assessment process in libraries has come to listen to users. According to the LibQUAL+™ Policies and Procedures Manual, by involving library users’ perspectives in assessment, the users will benefit because libraries “can develop services that better meet [their] users’ expectations by comparing [their] library’s data with that of peer institutions and examining the practices of those libraries that are evaluated highly by their users” (2006, pp. 11-12). In tandem with the survey method, libraries may continue to collect statistics on how many people use the building and at what hours, to determine if the library is providing adequate service hours. They may also tally the number and type of reference questions asked at the reference desk, to determine how many people request assistance and what type of assistance is needed, to inform staffing decisions and training needs.

Another user-focused assessment effort libraries are undertaking is that of library instruction. Libraries evaluate these services so that they can articulate the impact of library instruction on student learning, research skills, and lifelong learning. Libraries also aim to describe the reach of their instruction services to determine if targeted outreach is necessary. Libraries may compile data on the amount of instruction they provide, the number of students they teach, and the departments to which the instruction is provided. Libraries may also develop and utilize pre- and post- library instruction surveys or tests to compare students’ research and resource knowledge prior to library instruction with their knowledge after the instruction. Another method of assessment libraries may employ is paper and bibliography analysis, analyzing students’ citations (e.g., Are the sources from scholarly resources? Do they reveal students’ ability to effectively and ethically use information?). Other assessment instruments that libraries may use are tests, such as Project SAILS (Standardized Assessment of Information Literacy Skills), based on the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, and the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) Literacy Assessment developed by ETS (Educational Testing Service) to measure cognitive and technical skills. These tests aim to assess students’ information literacy skills and show the outcomes of library instruction.

Academic libraries are increasingly making statistics collection a part of planned, systematic, and contextualized practices that include and involve library users. External forces drive some assessment; however, academic libraries have some freedom in designing, developing and implementing assessment methods. In other words, libraries currently do not have to “teach to the test.” Assessment in academic libraries will continue to be an ongoing systematic process aimed at understanding, articulating, and improving library services outlined in the library’s mission statement and goals. Changes in accreditation requirements, state funding for public education, and technology will continue to influence the role of libraries, and assessment requirements placed on them, into the future.

To learn more about assessment in libraries, try these references and resources:

Agee, J. (September 2005). Collection evaluation: A foundation for collection development, Collection Building, 24, 92-95.

Assessment Issues, Instruction Session, Association of College & Research Libraries.

Covey, D. T. (January 2002). Usage and usability assessment: Library practices and concerns, Digital Library Federation and Council on Library and Information Resources. Retrieved September 22, 2006, from

Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, Association of College & Research Libraries.

LibQUAL+™ Policies and Procedures Manual, Association of Research Libraries.

Lindauer, B. G. (November 1998). Defining and measuring the library’s impact on campuswide outcomes, College & Research Libraries, 59, 546-570.

New Measures Initiatives, Association of Research Libraries.

Shi, X. & Levy, S. (May 2005). A theory-guided approach to library services assessment, College & Research Libraries, 66, 266-277.

Standards for Libraries in Higher Education, Association of College & Research Libraries.

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