“I’m here to give you the mean news” — alignment over assessment

This summer I attended the RBMS preconference (that is, the Rare Books and Manuscripts section of ACRL, and the preconference is held before ALA Annual each year. If you don’t know what ACRL and ALA are, maybe you are reading the wrong blog?).

The conference was very good, but one talk, given by Sarah Pritchard (university librarian at Northwestern University) has resonated with me, even months later.

Sarah started by saying she was there to give us the “mean news”: It’s not about us (libraries); it’s about the institution (university). Thinking politically (and practically) it’s essential that the library appeal to the mission of the larger institution. Even though “assessment” is very trendy right now, what’s even more important is “alignment.” Some of my take-aways:

  • Pay attention not just to the stated mission of an organization, but also to what parts of mission are window dressing. For example, lots of universities say they support civic and community engagement. But has the campus established programs and made and real investments in these areas?
  • Align collections and services with core research and teaching areas. This requires asking some tough questions. If there are no courses in a special collections area – even for one year – can you justify continued purchases in that area?
  • Be sensitive to enormous pressures felt by top administrators: how are libraries helping the institution be more competitive, attract better students, get more grant funds, help faculty do better research and publish more? Can we engage with faculty research beyond materials procurement? Help with publishing, research, managing data? There are opportunities here to demonstrate value.
  • “Stop talking about the library as the heart of the campus, start talking about the librarians” — it’s less about collections, and more about services.
  • This message of alignment over assessment implies (I think correctly) that libraries need to act strategically and design customized services to support campus goals, which will necessarily differ. What may be wildly impactful on one campus, may not be on another. This is not to say that we cannot usefully take ideas and models from one another — I think we can. But we need to do so strategically and with a recognition that there are key differences. And periodically look up to see what strategy is most appropriate in a given setting.

    These ideas were echoed in some of the reporting out from last month’s ARL membership meeting. In the closing session, John V. Lombardi, president of Louisiana State University told librarians (in reference to digitization and technology), “Instead of rushing in and participating in a game where you don’t have the muscle, you want to stand back” and wait for the right moment.

    The article continues:

    Ever blunt, Mr. Lombardi used humor to make his point. When people ask him for money, he said, his first question is, What will that project do to make the university more competitive? “If you can’t persuade me that the work you’re doing is going to make us more famous, we’re not going to be interested in investing in you,” he said. “Is that wise and profound and good? No. It’s stupid. But that’s the way it is.”

    His concluding comment: “The football team is allowed to run a deficit of $3- to $7-million. And you’re not.”