Advice from the Trenches: You’re Not Alone

“FOCUS” by Iain Farrell CC BY-ND 2.0

Assessment projects can be intimidating and overwhelming. I have these same thoughts each time I begin a new project. I wonder if my data collection tools will be effective in answering my questions. I worry that I may not be able to adhere to the timelines or that I will not learn anything new or useful. Yes, these are common concerns, but we cannot allow them to stifle our ability to move forward and begin a new project.

Danuta Nitecki, Dean of Libraries at Drexel University Libraries, provides some excellent advice on assessment evaluations in the research methods book that I co-authored with Marie Radford (Connaway & Radford, 2016). It helps me to reflect on this advice even with years of experience in assessment and I hope it is useful to you as well.

  1. “Techniques to conduct an effective assessment evaluation are learnable.”
  2. Always start with a problem – the question/s.
  3. “…consult the literature, participate in Webinars, attend conferences, and learn what is already knowns about the evaluation problem.
  4. Take the plunge and just do an assessment evaluation and learn from the experience – the next one will be easier and better.
  5. Make the assessment evaluation a part of your job, not more work.
  6. Plan the process…and share your results.”

I’m going to drill down on the hardest part of an assessment project, which is developing the questions. One of the biggest pitfalls is coming up with broad questions – questions that are difficult or impossible to answer. The questions must be specific and pertain to the unknown aspects of your programs, collections, users and potential users that you do not know.

The first step in developing your questions is to identify what you already know.

  • Think about all the data that the library collects on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.
  • Think about your daily work and activities in the library and your interactions and observations of the people who use the physical and virtual library, the resources, the offerings, programs, and events.
  • Document what you have learned from the data you collected and from the interactions and observations you have had with individuals using the library.

Once you have documented what you know, you will be able to identify the gaps in your knowledge. Now is when you will be able to develop a problem statement and then specific questions to use for your assessment project. Keep it simple. Develop the questions so they can be scoped into a manageable project.

Continue to chip away at the unanswered questions to create a more detailed picture of the library. Why? Because assessment is systematic and cyclical. It does not end but is a constant exercise that should become a part of our daily activities. Assessment is a way of putting the library into the life of the user. And, always remember, “rust never sleeps – not for rockers, not for libraries.”

If you’re interested in learning more about library assessment, please join me Tuesday, August 14 for Digging into Assessment Data: Tips, Tricks, and Tools of the Trade, and Wednesday, October 3 for Take Action: Using and Presenting Research Findings to Make Your Case. These webinars are part of a special series, Evaluating and Sharing Your Library’s Impact, about assessment that brings together research and practice and provides useful, actionable data to promote and demonstrate the critical role your library plays in your community. Register now for both or for the one that interests you. All sessions are being recorded, if you’re not able to attend. There’s also a Learner Guide available with activities to complete to help you get the most out of the webinar experience. The Learner Guide is valuable for those working together as a team to explore a library’s assessment needs. One cohort of learners working through the series and related exercises is comprised of members of the OCLC Research Library Partnership, and they have been gathering for virtual conversations in the OCLC RLP Library Assessment Interest Group.