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Radical Change in Library Assessment Called for by Elliott Shore at Northumbria Conference

Elliott Shore, photo by Jon Erickson

Elliott Shore, ARL executive director, delivered a clarion call in the opening keynote address at the 10th Northumbria International Conference on Performance Measurement in Libraries and Information Services, held in late July in York, England. Shore’s presentation, titled “The Role of the Library in the Transformative Higher Education Environment: Or Fitting Our Measures to Our Goals,” challenged the library assessment community to radically change the measures it collects and uses. He proposed that libraries shift their assessment focus from description to prediction, from inputs to outputs, from quantity to quality.

Shore’s presentation was partly inspired by the ongoing listening tour of ARL member libraries that he embarked upon when he was introduced to the membership as the incoming executive director last October. On that tour he has heard much concern about the utility of current library statistics—what they measure and how they evaluate the library. He has heard from ARL member library staff that the statistics that ARL provides do not capture information the libraries need. Shore’s experience as a historian gives him a valuable perspective on this problem. He observed:

There was a time when the research library had a monopoly on research—if you wanted to do research, you had to use the library, literally, physically. We lost that monopoly over the last 20 years but our historical-legacy thinking and practice have not come to terms with this loss. In fitting our measures to our goals, we need to realize this fundamental truth if we want to have a fighting chance and not focus on the library solely, but the world of information in which we now live.

On his listening tour, Shore has also heard suggestions for new, more useful types of measures. People have asked, could there be a cost-avoidance index? Could there be a collaboration index? Could there be an enterprise-fit index? Innovative libraries are not being rewarded for saving money, collaborating with peers, and fostering cultures that advance higher education. These qualities need to be captured somehow in the measures used to evaluate libraries.

Shore used his keynote to issue a call to the library assessment community. He challenged that group  (including ARL) to “step back, look around, and think about the ways in which the world has so profoundly changed. And visualize the future.” He sees the need to think about higher education as a unified whole and how libraries contribute to its success. Shore emphasized the urgency of this call, noting:

The work that you all do is key to the success of the enterprise in which higher education is engaged. If we don’t continue to turn things around, and much more quickly than we have, I fear we may all be looking back in the next few years wishing we had moved more quickly away from our past practice towards embracing what matters.

Please send comments and questions to Elliott Shore at elliott@arl.org.

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is a nonprofit organization of 125 research libraries in the US and Canada. Its mission is to influence the changing environment of scholarly communication and the public policies that affect research libraries and the diverse communities they serve. ARL pursues this mission by advancing the goals of its member research libraries, providing leadership in public and information policy to the scholarly and higher education communities, fostering the exchange of ideas and expertise, facilitating the emergence of new roles for research libraries, and shaping a future environment that leverages its interests with those of allied organizations. ARL is on the web at http://www.arl.org/.