How can we be strategic together? Kat Bell

How can we be strategic together? That’s the question I am left with after attending the 12th International Conference on Performance Measurement in Libraries. The theme of the conference was Communicating value and leadership: from strategic to micro assessment. I saw presentations about strategic planning, creating shared standards, and metrics.

I attended two presentations that reminded me of work that is happening within U.S. communities. Nancy Bell’s presentation, Towards an Evidence Based Culture for Documentary Heritage Collections, discussed how her research on U.K. cultural heritage institutions revealed opportunities for libraries, archives, and museums to work together to develop skills related to assessment and advocacy. Her research reminded me of the Coalition to Advance Learning in Archives, Libraries and Museums (LAM Coalition) here in the U.S. Could capacity be increased by connecting Nancy’s research in the U.K. with the LAM Coalition? Nancy reminded me that the value of cultural heritage collections goes way beyond just academic research value, which can be overlooked within an academic library where students, faculty, and researchers are the primary user-base.

Jennifer Peasley’s One small step: Developing a framework for assessing Australian higher education libraries presented priorities and metrics the Council of Australian University Librarians recommend libraries implement in order to align to the strategic directions of their parent institutions. The framework was developed for a diverse group of academic libraries, as Australia only has 39 colleges and universities, and each one is different in shape and size. Similarly, the Association for College and Research Libraries (ACRL), a division of the American Library Association, released the Standards for Libraries in Higher Education in 2011 as a guide for diverse academic libraries to work strategically within their own institutions and together as a field. ACRL is currently wrapping up a 2017 revision of the standards.

Athenaeum21 collaborated with three institutions in three countries to scope out a library assessment dashboard, exploring how to deploy dashboard technologies to institutions globally in order to streamline collection of key performance indicators internally and collaboratively. Athenaeum21’s research in this and other projects also helped them learn more about library assessment programs within academic libraries, which was the primary focus of Christine Marsden and Megan Hurst’s presentation.

Roswitha Poll discussed how the new ISO standard for statistics and performance evaluation would help national libraries capture data on impact of library use for specific user groups, which could increase meaningful metrics being tracked by individual libraries and create comparative data across institutions. All these projects excite me at the prospect for more collaboration and support. However, strategic planning and metrics gathering can be quite complex at the local level.

Do you struggle with metrics at your library? I do. Every day. I participated in Starr Hoffman’s Creating a Data Inventory: Managing the What, Who, When, How, and Why of Data workshop. I feel like I need a data inventory to help me manage the library metrics I gather from year to year, and Starr’s workshop has given me confidence to jump right in. But at what point will we start questioning the metrics we collect, and what purpose do these metrics serve?

A couple of speakers also provided these soundbites, and just in case these were said in the confidence of the conference, I’m not providing attribution. One speaker said, “My entire life has been ruined by charts and statistics.” Another speaker referenced “death by strategic planning.” I’ll admit, I can empathize with both perspectives. Lisa Horowitz warned that metrics often become a pothole in which we can get stuck. We focus on trying to find the perfect metric, instead of focusing on the overall plan or outcome. Colleen Cook also warned us of when “good stats go bad.” Over time, a metric can end up being used for something it was not initially designed for.

Damon Jaggers shared how he has implemented an iterative and agile planning process at The Ohio State University Libraries, with the support and guidance from consultant DeEtta Jones. He recognized how the traditional 5 to 10 year plan was no longer viable if his library wanted to remain responsive to constant change. He also wanted to break the “psychology of task completion” he experienced with static strategic plans.

This brings me back to my initial question – how can we be strategic together? I am extremely fortunate and privileged to have been able to attend three different library assessment conferences this year:

Library Assessment Conference is the primary U.S. conference for library assessment and has been held biennially since 2006.
Evidence Based Library and Information Practice Conference was held in Philadelphia for its 9th biennial conference (EBLIP9), but is an international conference that originated in the U.K. in 2001 and has traveled to Australia, Canada, and Sweden.
International Conference on Performance Measurement in Libraries, formerly known as the Northumbria Conference, began in the U.K. in 1995 and has held biennial conferences primarily in the U.K., the exception being the years the conference was held in tandem with IFLA.
I love going to conferences and making connections to others in the field. However, I don’t have enough professional development or personal money to attend each of these conferences every time they roll around. John Wiggins, co-chair of the EBLIP9 Local Organizing Committee, noted how, using a method of audience members raising hands, we do not see as much of a difference between assessment and evidence-based practice as the field did ten years ago. However, I experienced meeting people at each conference that I would not have encountered had I not attended all three.

I also observed who I’m not meeting at these conferences, which is especially fresh in my mind after LibPMC – librarians from small academic libraries, special libraries, and public libraries. I should clarify that there were representatives from these areas at all the conferences I attended, but there was not a critical mass. I primarily heard from librarians at large research universities, many of them members of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). At LibPMC, the research dataset often seemed skewed to this group of academic libraries. I feel I could learn a lot from the activities of smaller institutions, but I’m not seeing them at these conferences, and I don’t think that it’s because libraries at smaller, private liberal arts colleges aren’t doing assessment activities.

LibPMC, you are old and white. Though I’ve never received a scholarship to attend a conference before, let alone one to help increase the diversity of the attendees, I felt pretty different from most everyone around me. The other conferences I have attended, all of them, not just the assessment-related conferences, have seemed much more diverse. Especially at a small international conference held in Great Britain, the birthplace of colonialism, couldn’t we try harder to diversify the room? Who gets to be primary author? Who has money to attend? What’s happening within the organizational structures of our field that prevent a larger number of people of color from wanting to join or being able to thrive this community?

On the first day of the conference, CILIP published its Equalities and Diversity Action Plan in response to a 2015 study that showed 97% of the UK library and information workforce self-identifies as white. Then on August 30th, Ithaka S+R and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation released a joint report surveying academic library employee diversity, another survey and dataset limited to ARL libraries (a low response rate led to the decision to only analyze data from ARLs despite having information from other academic libraries). The majority of the library directors that responded to the survey perceived that their library was equitable, and 19% perceived no barriers to increasing diversity within their libraries. The survey also reports that 89% of library leadership and administration are white.

How can we be strategic together if we’re not actively examining ourselves, our silos, and how we are marginalizing current and future colleagues? We cannot be strategic together if we are not actively seeking out and listening to those who are marginalized. LibPMC, thank you so much for supporting Ebony, Luca, and me to attend. I hope you can offer more scholarships next time around.