UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

The Need for an Evidence-based Approach to Demonstrating Value

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 28 December 2011

When I read the Editor’s View column in the current issue of IWR (Information World Review, Nov/Dec 2011) the words seemed familiar. The column began “Evaluating the shortlist for the IWR Information Professional of the Year Award, one of the judges noted that at a time when the library profession was suffering from the economic turmoil there was a need for an evidence-based approach to demonstrating the value for libraries“.

Checking my email it seems that these were the words I used when I voted for Ian Anstice as this year’s IWR Information Professional of the Year. As described in the announcement about the award published in IWR “The judges – all previous winners- gave Anstice, a branch manager of a public library in Cheshire, the honour for his work in documenting the changes taking place across the public library sector as a whole“. Ian Anstice was quoted as saying “In a time of cuts to library services and being aware that knowledge is power, I was surprised to see there was no publicly available site to show what was going in each authority. I started the blog [at www.publiclibrariesnews.com] in October 2010. This includes all news articles on public library cuts, doing a map of the cuts, and producing a tally of cuts and proposals by authority.

But what does “evidence-gathering” entail? There is a real danger that selective evidence-gathering is used in order to justify a particular position. This is an approach which has been discredited when governments in the UK and US sought evidence to demonstrate Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Quite clearly we expect a higher level of integrity from the library sector!

A great example of an honest and open approach to the current challenges facing the library sector can be seen in Aaron Tay’s recent post which asked “Is librarianship in crisis and should we be talking about it?” Aaron, a librarian at National University of Singapore, is a prolific blogger on his Musings About Librarianship blog. In his post Aaron described how:

Librarians are worriers, and one thing we like to worry a lot about is the future of libraries.

Veronica Arellano however thinks that we should stop writing about it. Why? She gives several reasons in “A Crisis of Our Own Making” but concludes with

“Writing about the ‘crisis’ in libraries tries to elicit change out of fear, rather than a desire to better serve our communities. By continuing to write our own obituaries, we are dissuading enthusiastic, forward-minded young scholars, technologists, and community leaders from entering the profession by painting ourselves as stuck in the past and obsolete.”

Really?  Should discussions of the implications of the perfect storm caused by the combination of the cuts being faced across many public sector organisations, the technical revolution caused initially by the first generation of the Web and subsequently by the popularity of Web 2.0 and the Social Web together with the changing expectations in the user community be ignored?

Aaron feels that “thinking that everything is fine, and business as usual, always choosing the options with the least risk (when there is no such option in fact) will suffice is equally perhaps a recipe for disaster” and this is a view which I would support.

Aaron’s post asks how one should advise potential newcomers to the profession:

Imagine a young potential librarian-to-be contacts you and asks you for advice on whether he should enter the profession. What picture of librarianship should you paint? I believe it would be irresponsible not to at least mention the challenges and potential stumbling blocks that libraries are facing in the future, so they will know what they will be up against.

and concludes by encouraging a response which is honest about the changing context to the library profession:

For the record, I don’t think libraries are definitely doomed to extinction, but there is much to be done and the library world needs passionate and energetic librarians to fight for the future of libraries and the last thing we need is for recruits to come in because they think libraries are a soft option or because the job outlook is stable.

We do need to continue to gather evidence of the value of services, and not just library services. But we need to understand that the evidence will not necessarily justify a continuation of established approaches to providing services. And if evidence is found which supports the view that libraries will be extinct by 2020 (PDF format) then the implications need to be openly and widely discussed. I’m pleased that Aaron is helping to encourage such a debate. And in light of Aaron’s post I’d like to slightly modify the reason why I supported Ian Anstice’s well-deserved award:

At a time when the library profession is suffering from the economic turmoil there is a need for an evidence-based approach to demonstrating the value for libraries and for open debate on the interpretation of such evidence and the implications of policy decisions based on such interpretations.


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10 Responses to “The Need for an Evidence-based Approach to Demonstrating Value”

  1. Aaron Tay said

    Thanks for the mention Brian. It was really tough to write that post though.

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  9. Brian, thanks for continuing this conversation!

    I’m no ostrich, and I agree that librarians need to talk about challenges facing the profession. What I can’t get behind are the gloom and doom crisis makers that replace constructive discussions with a formulaic prediction of the demise of libraries. It’s almost like a template at this point:

    In [enter time period here] libraries will be [obsolete/dead/dying/gone] because of [enter new technology here].

    I think that if half of the articles and blog posts that signal the death of the library were replaced by profiles of libraries and librarians meeting and often thriving in the face of significant challenges (budgetary, technological, or other) we might begin to inspire real positive change within the profession and possibly even gain the much-needed support of advocates outside of libraries.

    Not too many people other than librarians are writing about librarians these days, and when so much of our writing is so negatively biased toward our own profession, how can we expect others to feel positively about it?

  10. Hi Veronica
    Thanks for the comment. However I feel the default position is that librarians need to be able to demonstrate their value in a changing environment. We can see how other professions are acknowledging the need to change. For example a report on the #CETIS12 OPEN MIC SESSION described how:

    eLearning used to be a niche activity, but many of the tools and approaches have now become mainstream in institutions beyond learning. Learning technologists should be digital literacy champions, dealing with social media and online practice, project management and other tools. Can we kill off the idea of an “eLearning” expert? Are these people now something else?

    In today’s environment, library skills are becoming mainstream – we can now search for resources online and we will know about the challenges of managing large numbers of resources if we take plenty of photos on our digital cameras (and this will also make us aware of the importance of metadata).

    It can be argued that librarians will have a role to play in supporting people who don’t have such skills or access to technologies – in which case there will be an continued, but diminished need for librarians. I think the library sector does need to both rethink its role and be prepared to provide evidence of its value. Simply marketing one’s achievements is no longer sufficient, I feel.

    I should also say that the higher education sector needs to be able to demonstrate its value and to be able to respond to questions which use your template: “In xx years time higher education institutions in their current will form will cease to exist because of the ease of access to learning resource, the ubiquity of technologies which support learning and the costs of accessing traditional forms of higher education.

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