Alex Wheeler: Reflections on LibPMC 2019

I arrived at Aberystwyth at 830 pm on 23rd July and did what I think most people would do in those circumstances: I headed straight for the sea front and enjoyed the view with food from a nearby chippy. Once replete, I then got in a cab and made for my accommodation. I found that I was sharing a flat with the other LibPMC Travel award winners and we all ran into each other over breakfast. Perhaps the most enjoyable and fulfilling aspect of the conference was learning from the experience of Magdaline and Amy.

The first keynote was Professor Simon Tanner’s ‘Balanced Value Impact Model’. For me, the value of this talk was the articulation of a clear framework that articulated 10 areas of impact and the BVI model in five stages. I found the BVI model intellectually satisfying because its stages were carefully intertwined and required reflection at each stage. An additional aspect that I found of use was the modes of digital value. I cut my teeth in the Library sector in a Digital team where I worked with some highly professional and experienced librarians. A cornerstone of this team’s practice was an absolute focus on the experience of users. Therefore, I identified with the articulation of a utility value whilst balancing strategy and values.

I then moved on to the Collections Oral sessions. Of real interest was the Making Sense of Flipping Data. The aspects of this presentation that I found most interesting was the application of performance measurement to a scenario about potential moves from a subscription model to a gold open access model. The session ‘The EzProxy Server – a workbench for the objective analysis of e-resources and their impact’ struck a chord with me for several reasons. Because of my background in Digital Library work, I am intimately familiar with EzProxy and with the collection of statistics such as Counter 5 usage figures. Thus, the potential use of EzProxy data was of great interest to me. As the talk focused on clear objectives such as the use of data to pose service level questions including ‘do we need weekend electronic resources support’ and ‘how can we use this data to identify security breaches’. The use of such tools as EzPaarse was also emphasised within ‘A non-programmers guide to enhancing and making sense of EzProxy logs’. The session ‘Evidence-based collection management as a tool for transitioning to a new library’. The discussion of collection management at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. This talk emphasised how clear performance objectives and policies could inform and guide a project to success.

That afternoon I attended the Space 1 series of talks. The discussion of the use of space in a library context was not something I had ever explored before; however, as a former teacher I was interested in the new perspective on teaching in a library environment. Because of this interest, I was fascinated by the application of statistical techniques to the evaluation of space at both San Diego University and the University of Minnesota. In my personal opinion, it is important to maintain traditional and non-traditional teaching environments to ensure variation in both pedagogy and teaching styles, which was borne out by the statistical analysis within both papers.  A real highlight for me was ‘Planning a new library building’. This talk showed very clearly the potential to run very large scale projects over a long period of time, driven by international benchmarking, user feedback and collection analysis. This particular talk was exciting because it indicated how evidence based decision-making was an integral part of planning, implementing and analysing a large capital project. On a lighter note, I am a fan of technology so was jealous of the Automated Storage & Retrieval System!

I finished day one with Methods 1. To give some background, I am a Subject Librarian in a Science and Engineering Faculty, which has some distance learning programmes.  In one of my conference highlights, ‘But what about us’ sparked off personal reflection about the provision of library resources for distance learning students. I appreciated the candour of this talk such as acknowledging self-selection bias within the Library Student Research Panel. David Marshall’s discussion of Dscout sparked my “techie” interests. This talk, and methods 1 sessions more generally, challenged me to think beyond the confines of the physical library and embrace innovative methods such as apps to measure the impact of a service. I enjoyed the final two sessions of the day:     B(u)y the Book and Are incentives ethical? I have previously worked in collections teams; therefore, discussion and evaluation of acquisitions pattern is a topic of interest. Concerning incentives, I had never considered the ethical debates around offering them for feedback gathering exercises!

Day Two began with the round table discussion about performance measurement. The aspect of this discussion that struck a chord with me was the careful discussion of the potential for perverse incentives, the risks inherent within poor data and the need to focus on impact rather than outputs. I then attended the Skills for Performance Measurement and Assessment. These discussions were interesting for several specific reasons. First, they indicated that the profession is changing in line with the lessons of performance measurement and that American library schools are introducing programmes with an explicit focus upon assessment. I found ‘User-Centric Evaluation of Non-Print Legal Deposit in the United Kingdom’ fascinating on two major levels. First, I considered the intrinsic and extrinsic value of a collection in a digital context, which captivated me. Additionally, the talk’s focus on customer experience and how this affected library layout in the legal deposit libraries made me pause and reflect.

My final session was the KPIs parallel session. For me, the papers had several key points. First, that administrative change in institutions, as a whole, can lead to a library service being obliged to provide data and metrics. A second, and related point, is that any metric require investigation and a careful analysis of whether it is appropriate. Thus, strategic plans and performance indicators must be harmonised at the planning stage to avoid having to re-define performance indicators at a project’s implementation stage. One of my highlights of the whole conference was the talk from Magodongo Mahlangu. His impassioned presentation focused on frameworks for evaluating the effectiveness of University Libraries. His exhortation that we should not simply look for evidence of an impact: we must plan for how we will identify and measure this impact.

The final day of the conference began with Prof. Dr. Förstner’s ‘Data Librarianship’. This keynote was a clear articulation of the challenges facing librarianship as a profession and presented a clear vision of how to meet these challenges. The overall themes of this keynote such as the importance of Librarians competing with google and embedding themselves within the research process were key goals to ensure that the profession copes with the changing environment. The most positive aspect of this talk was that it provided us with guidance about how library professionals can keep our skills up to date. For example, urging all those in attendance to engage with coding by taking Library Carpentry and “play” with technology such as Python code.

My final session was the Culture of Assessment. I enjoyed Damon Jaggars’ exploration of creating an agile and operational framework as a prerequisite of preparing a library for transformational success.  As the son of a management consultant, I have an interest in change management and other such topics. As such, Damon’s identification of a clear framework and his articulation of his institutions use of an agile framework to achieve its wider operational goals was inspiring. The final paper I attended was ‘Implementing an Assessment Program in Response to Stakeholder Need’. I enjoyed Cherie and Christine’s discussion of how they pragmatically implemented an assessment programme in line with an institutional move to responsibility based budgeting.

Of course, a conference does not exist in a vacuum! The discussions I had with colleagues during the drinks in the Old College, at the Gala dinner and the (unofficial) after party was possibly the most enjoyable aspect of the conference. Librarians are a friendly bunch so it was great to make connections with other professionals. As a comparative newcomer to the profession, I was hooked on the free exchange of ideas and the fun that went with it. I would recommend all attendees to have fewer hours sleep and do more socialising!

In summary, here are the key messages that I took from the conference:

  1. I will only collect data if we have an absolute need for it.
  2. A decision about the assessment of Library performance and how performance will be measured is an integral part of the planning process.
  3. Whilst at a conference: speak to everyone and enjoy!
  4. The defining factor that came through the whole conference was its collegiality combined with intellectual rigour. This collective and individual approach was clearly in evidence throughout the conference.



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