Amy Campbell: Reflections on LibPMC 2019

Introduction

Attending the Library Performance Measurement Conference (LibPMC) in Aberystwyth on a Travel Award was a fantastic opportunity and was as fun as it was instructive. I am grateful to the organisers and sponsors for giving me this opportunity and hope that this report demonstrates some of the learning and benefits I gained. I enjoyed meeting my fellow award winners Alex Wheeler and Magdaline Mungai; sharing the similarities and differences between our experiences and institutions.  I feel I have gained knowledge relevant to my job role now and beneficial for steering my career in the future. The emergent conference topics I want to focus on are how the impact of a library service can be quantified and communicated across an organisation and the new skills required by librarians to keep pace with a changing professional and financial landscape.

Impact

The theme of library service impact was evident throughout the presentations at LibPMC, undoubtably due to the precariousness of library services at times of limited finances in both public and university sectors. Underlying this is a tension between the seamless library service that silently makes things happen but risks being invisible with no one knowing its importance, and the ‘loud’ library that perhaps requires a cultural shift in the way librarians operate.

Simon Tanner’s opening keynote advocated reflection on institutional values to help identify the types of impact needed. Scrutiny of values would ensure teams focus on collecting meaningful data and demonstrate service impact that closely aligns to wider institutional aims. This was echoed by speakers throughout the conference including Dafydd Tudur, who discussed how the National Library of Wales had moved beyond measuring outputs and instead was focusing on the changes and impact they were having in the community. For example, identifying empathy as an institutional value resulted in putting transcription volunteers at the centre of projects, which led to better volunteer experience, retention, and project completion.

Empathy, it turns out, is also essential for understanding senior managers, especially those outside the library team. During the panel discussion of library performance measurement, the panel described the need to ‘speak the language’ of organisational leaders and understand their goals, rather than just focussing on our own. Understanding their goals can enable a library service to tailor the way it communicates the impact achieved, ultimately to gain support for the whole service. Some audience members questioned why it always seems to be the responsibility of the library to adopt the language of others with someone asking, “Does a Human Resources department ever do the same?” Others questioned if librarians are simply paranoid about financial threat, with one panel member arguing that no one’s going to “kick the library puppy”.  I would argue that the threat is real and therefore if we don’t become bilingual – speaking the language of both our customers and those that hold the purse strings – we won’t survive.

Selena Killick from the Open University advocated ‘loud librarianship’, including using social media to get the attention of institutional managers. Being bolder by asking customers emotive questions about the impact of the library on their lives was interesting and evoked a librarian-as-politician role. Indeed, Magdalena Paul in her research on the social impact of public libraries in Poland found that older people felt pleasure from using the library; an intangible, but powerful impact on an individual. Yet, although bold questions can generate powerful findings, how might a library advertise these benefits, especially to the general public? The conference was thought-provoking and raised as many questions as it answered.

Future Librarian Skills

This demonstration of thinking both strategically and creatively reflects the diverse skillset librarians require in modern roles. Analytical skills were another expertise being demonstrated throughout the three days. A highlight for me was Eng Aun Cheng from the National University of Singapore who presented his review of journals and databases and solved a problem I had had in my own role. His mention of finding Article Processing Charge (APC) information from Scopus records, has saved me a lot of time sifting through other data sources and demonstrates how it’s not just the analytical skills you need, but also the knowledge of where to look. It also demonstrates why attending conferences is so beneficial.

Prof. Konrad Förstner garnered huge interest by describing Library Carpentry, as organisation teaching librarians data and software skills tailored to their needs. For example, learning how to use Python to automate certain analytical tasks. He also demonstrated this teaching in two workshops during LibPMC which received a great reception. The forthcoming Data Librarian course at TH Köln – University of Applied Sciences also created a buzz of excitement, shortly followed by disappointment when Prof. Förstner explained it would only be taught in German (for now).

Central to his keynote was that librarians are too conservative in their approach and not bold enough to make drastic change, for example, with the move to Open Access publishing.  This raised the question of technical vs. cultural challenges, not just with librarians but academia in general. In a subsequent breakout session, Damon Jaggars from Ohio State University Libraries highlighted some of these library cultural issues, such as management risk intolerance, poor communication and lack of prioritisation. His agile framework aims to harmonise planning and management assessment over rolling time periods, for continuous improvement but with “less talk, more rock”. However, there seemed to be extensive management needed just to keep track of the different activities happening at any one time, which could be problematic for smaller institutions.

The case for risk taking to action real change was central to the arguments of Killick, Förstner and Jaggars. Yet, in this age of budget limitations, risk taking is, risky. For example, there was an emphasis on software and relevant staff training investment. This may not be feasible for all libraries, all the time. Yet, tips to allow librarians to dabble in innovation without significant financial risk were presented. The Hacky Hour, described by Prof. Förstner, encourages staff to bring problems to a certain room at a certain time where colleagues will try and help. This means that staff can try new things with some reassurance their colleagues can help if they get stuck. Although in Förstner’s example these were technical problems, this type of organised support could be done throughout libraries for a variety of reasons. For example, to encourage staff to promote library services (perhaps loudly) on social media, confident staff could have specific time allocated to support less confident staff. This upskilling is essentially free and develops closer working relationships too.

Damon Jaggars’ tip to cease projects that are no longer beneficial, seemed bold in the context of libraries, where we have a habit of routinely doing things even when the rewards are no longer apparent. Although there may be a cost to starting big projects, often things can be started small scale or piloted, then dropped if they don’t work or expanded if successful and if there is the resource to support it. This still requires a different, bolder culture, but could provide the agile and innovative environment libraries need to stay relevant to our customers and valuable to our wider institution. Prof. Förstner also had a relatively simple solution to changing culture: write job adverts that ask for the change your library needs and hire the right people. Ideally, an organisation would take staff with them through change and improvement. Damon Jaggars was asked how to “engage the disengaged” staff member and he suggested that persistence and trust-building were essential, but ultimately you must hold people to account through performance management. This too feels like a different culture, but perhaps representative of the newly competitive Higher Education sector in the UK.

Conclusion

LibPMC was a fascinating three days and difficult to distil in a few hundred words. I was impressed by the truly international nature of the conference and how the broad range of ideas nonetheless coalesced around specific themes. The themes I have picked out here – impact and future librarian skills – are closely linked because arguably the former requires the latter. I’ve learnt that designing services or providing resources that positively impact on customers, requires a skilful librarian. Measuring and sharing this impact requires an analytical librarian who is also an accomplished communicator. Perhaps we don’t need to be expert in every one of these skills, but understanding the professional landscape enables us to build on our strengths without wholly neglecting other abilities. I have also learnt that the right attitude for a librarian is shifting. The invisible provider of information is becoming more of a politician, a recognisable face, an advocate and a communicator. Just like a politician however, ethics, accountability and a good grasp of the facts have a big part to play in ensuring our future, one that we can no longer take for granted. As a direct result of LibPMC, I am now identifying new training and development opportunities for myself. I hope to contribute to a future Library Performance Measurement Conference as a presenter and share my own work for the benefit of others.


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