Competency N: evaluate programs and services based on measurable criteria
It’s good for libraries to offer a variety of programs and services to the public, but how can we determine if it is worth the time, effort, and financial resources to continue them? This is where evaluation is crucial, otherwise libraries may find themselves short on resources, preventing them from offering other more needed services. The assessments also could show that the programs are needed but aren’t marketed effectively enough.
Assessments should be measurable. While we may get the sense that a library service isn’t quite working, it’s useful to have statistics in order decide what should be done with the service. For example, it wouldn’t make sense to axe a service if the assessment shows that a portion of it could be improved, nor would it be prudent to tweak a program if the library should simply cut its losses and put the resources toward something else.
Typically, something is measurable if it can be quantified. Quantifiable statistics such as the number of attendees, gate counts, reference transactions, database usage, and inter-library loan requests all are good ways to assess the popularity of programs and services. By comparing it to past numbers, it can show the long-range performance or usefulness, another way to determine whether to continue or cut a program.
This isn’t to discount qualitative assessments. Surveys are valuable because it gathers more specific information about patrons’ perceptions of programs and services that aren’t otherwise reflected in numerical data. For example, a survey of parents may reveal that they want to attend the lap-sit story time, but that they prefer Wednesday evenings instead of Saturday mornings. In this case, not only does the assessment show that the lap-sit program is not effective on Saturday mornings, but it also reveals better times to schedule the program.
I didn’t realize just how much assessment librarians did until I first started volunteering at a small public library in high school, and helped to gather statistics about the summer reading program. After comparing the statistics to previous years, I was amazed at just how much the population growth near the library increased the numbers. The increase in participants in the summer reading program meant that the library had to modify what they gave out as prizes for program finishers. Initially, they gave out trophies or medals to all finishers, but had to increase the finish threshold and decrease the quality of the medals in order to continue to afford to recognize the finishers.
Other, larger, public libraries where I worked kept more statistics. Some statistics were kept daily and on-going, such as keeping track of gate counts, while others were done only one week out of the year, and then extrapolated to create a year’s worth of statistics. Daily tracking of some statistics can present logistical challenges in a busy library. It would become all to easy to forget to count circulation or reference transactions on a tally sheet during a busy Saturday afternoon; as it was, during the statistics week, sometimes I or a coworker would lose track of exactly how many of what kind of transactions we did by the time we finally had a chance to make hash marks. On the other hand, having only one week of statistics means that it is entirely possible to under-count the number of library users, and that could cause us to suffer more budget cuts than another, busier, library.
Academic libraries provide a direct contrast to the busy nature of public libraries. In the academic libraries where I’ve worked, statistics have been gathered on a daily basis simply because there are fewer people using reference or circulation services. Instruction classes also tend to be offered for a finite period of time around the beginning of the semester, instead of on an ongoing basis. Because of the lower number of classes and services, made it a much more reasonable prospect to have someone enter the data into a database. This sort of data helps to justify the staff time to keep the library open later into the night, and helps librarians determine how late the reference desk should be open. One library used to have 24 hour access and a reference desk that was open late into the night, but that was cut back because 24 hour access was duplicated at another campus library, and very few people used the reference desk after 5pm.
In all libraries, and because of the high cost of database subscriptions, both qualitative and quantitative assessments of the use of databases helps the librarians to determine which ones to cut. I had the fortune to sit in on one of these discussions at one academic library, and heard the deliberation process. One database, even though it had a fairly low usage rate, was used faithfully by the same group of people in a science department and had data not easily found elsewhere, which meant that it was saved at the cost of a more popular database.
I evaluated the quality of face-to-face and virtual reference services at selected libraries, comparing it to performance guidelines put forth by the Reference and User Services Association. The analysis looks at several aspects of reference services, from the layout of the library, to signage, and to librarians’ openness, friendliness, and communication.
Learning tools are an important component of libraries’ programs and services, and therefore it is important to examine and evaluate the usability of various tools. In one paper, I looked at three sets of tools: standalone websites, asynchronous and synchronous communication that could help with improving library services or instructional programs.
Finally, it’s also important to incorporate evaluation into any program or service’s plan. Evaluation is built into one instructional plan, which was designed to teach students about Google searching. The overview of the evaluation is detailed under “Goals Analysis” on the second page, while the actual evaluation questions are throughout the plan. This allows for on-the-go determination about the effectiveness of the plan as well as a final evaluation at the end.
Assessments of programs and services helps libraries to more efficiently allocate its resources of staff and money, especially during a time when many libraries face budget cuts or at best, a stagnant budget that doesn’t match the cost of inflation. Evaluations help to justify the existence of programs and services in order to benefit the most people. Without regular and appropriate assessments, libraries can easily find themselves unable to afford to offer more services.
Last edited on October 20, 2012