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Impact, Openness and Libraries

Posted by Brian Kelly on 3 Dec 2010

Measuring Impact” is the theme of the December 2010 issue of CILIP’s Library and Information Update magazine.  In an editorial piece entitled “Capturing Numeric Data to Makes an Evidence Based Approach” Elspeth Hyams provides a shocking revelation: school libraries have very little impact. Or at least that’s how how a review commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is being spun.  The reality, as described in an article by Javier Stanziola published in CILIP Update is that “studies of library impact are hard to find” – a quite different story. The article, “Numbers and Pictures: Capturing the Impact of Public Libraries“, suggests that “the sector is not playing the Prove Your Impact game well“.  I agree, and this criticism can be applied to the higher education sector too.

Elspeth feels that future longitudinal research will depend on data collection by frontline services (and knowing what data to collect).  The editorial concludes “So whether we like it or not, we would be wise to learn the ways of social scientists and the language of policy making“.

The importance of gathering data in order to demonstrate impact and value underpinned a session I ran recently on ““Sixty Minutes To Save Libraries”: Gathering Evidence to Demonstrate Library Services’ Impact and Value“.  As described in a post on “Gathering and Using Evidence of the Value of Libraries” which reviewed the session we did identify relevant sources of data which are collated annually from information provided by academic libraries by SCONUL which could be used to demonstrate value and impact and, if aggregated, could raise the profile and value of the academic library sector.

As described on the SCONUL Web site:

SCONUL has been collecting and publishing statistics from university libraries for over twelve years, with the aim of providing sound information on which policy decisions can be based.

Further information is provided which informs readers that “All UK HE libraries are invited to complete the SCONUL Statistical Questionnaire, which forms the foundation of all SCONUL’s statistical reports and services. The questionnaire details library resources, usage, income and expenditure for any academic year.

However, as was discussed at the session, the SCONUL data is not publicly available. It seems that the SCONUL Annual Library Statistics is published yearly – and copies cost £80.

And here we have a problem.  As I write this post a SCONUL 2010 conference is taking place and via the #scounl10 hashtag I see Twitterers at the event are summarising the key aspects of the various talks:

SCONUL can help us promote the value of libraries to wider world/senior people (see tweet)

We need to be a more self-confident community – blow our own trumpet e.g. about our track record with shared services (see tweet)

Again I agree.  But the closed nature of the statistics is a barrier to blowing one’s own trumpet and promoting the value of libraries.

Perhaps more importantly in today’s climes, the closed nature of the report and the underlying data (which is closed by its price, closed by being available only to member organisations and closed by being available in PDF format) is how perceptions of secrecy goes against  expectations that public sector organisation should be open and transparent.

And whilst one might expect certain public sector organisations to have a tendency to be closed and protective (the Ministry of Defence, perhaps) one might expect libraries, with their characteristics of trust and openness, to see the advantages in being open as a underlying philosophy, as well as being appropriate in today’s political environment.

A few days ago I attended the Online Information 2010 conference. I particularly enjoyed the talk on “The Good (and Bad) News About Open Data”  by Chris Taggart of, “a prototype/proof-of-concept for opening up local authority data … [where] everything is open data, free for reuse by all (including commercially)“.

In Chris’s presentation he described the potential benefits which openness can provide and listed concerns which are frequently mentioned and responses to such concerns.  Rather than trying to apply Chris’s approaches in the content of academic library data which is collated by SCONUL I will simply link to Chris’s presentation which is available on Slideshare and embedded below.

So if the following arguments are being used to maintain the status quo, remember that increasing numbers of councils have already found their own ways of addressing such concerns:

  • People & organisations see it as a threat (and it is if you are wedded to the status quo, or an intermediary that doesn’t add anything)
  • The data is messy e.g. tied up in PDFs, Word documents, or arbitrary web pages
  • The data is bad
  • The data is complex
  • The data is proprietary
  • The data contains personal info
  • The data will expose incompetence
  • The tools are poor and data literacy in the community is low

I began this post by citing the sub-heading to an article published in CILIP Update: “the sector is not playing the Prove Your Impact game well“. Are academic libraries playing the game well? Can they change? Or will SCONUL be regarded as an intermediary which is wedded to the status quo?  Or might the change be driven by a bottom up approach?  After all since the individual institutions are collating the information prior to submitting it to SCONUL could the raw data be published by the individual institutions?

5 Responses to “Impact, Openness and Libraries”

  1. msarahwickham said

    The Freedom of Information Act 2000 both provides a right of access to information held by public authorities (including individual HEIs, but not including Sconul) as well as requiring authorities to publish information pro-actively through their publication scheme.

    A request for the raw data could be made under the Act to each institution. A requester could then analyse the data for dissemination as a service to the wider community. It would be likely to be provided in a variety of formats which might make the data manipulation & analysis a bit of a pain. However at least the raw stuff should be available.

    Having had a brief look at the question I can’t see any other information I would expect institutions may wish to withold – other than the budgetary if for the current financial year where occasionally an argument may be made for witholding (although exemptions all subject to the public interest test).

    Sarah (for the avoidance of doubt, posting very much in my personal capacity…)

  2. Tom Roper said

    And the situation in public libraries is no better, with the CIPFA data, collected at public expense by library staff throughout the country, sitting behind a paywall.

  3. […] Surely if you believe that public sector organisations, in particular, should be open and transparent in areas which don’t conflict with data protection issues then should beliefs shouldn’t change if a new government is elected? And such openness shouldn’t just relate to institutional data related to the student experience – as I’ve suggested in recent posts it should also apply to the data about the contents of institutional repositories and the services provided by academic libraries. […]

  4. […] as being imposed only by the commercial sector.  Back in December 2010 in a post entitled ”Impact, Openness and Libraries” I described […]

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