What Are We Measuring, and Does It Matter? Value Has Replaced Size as the Preferred Library Metric, and Value Ultimately Lies in Supporting the Parent Organization's Mission

By Hiller, Steve | Information Outlook, September-October 2012 | Go to article overview

What Are We Measuring, and Does It Matter? Value Has Replaced Size as the Preferred Library Metric, and Value Ultimately Lies in Supporting the Parent Organization's Mission


Hiller, Steve, Information Outlook


"Few libraries exist in a vacuum, accountable only to themselves. There is always a larger context for assessing library quality, that is, what and how well does the library contribute to achieving the overall goals of the parent constituencies." (Sarah Pritchard, "Determining Quality in Academic Libraries," 1996)

What makes a good library? For many years, library "goodness" was defined by size (of the budget, collections, staff, facilities, and so on), access, availability, and efficiency. Today, the focus is on value--that is, "How much good does this library do?"

Libraries need to demonstrate their value to customers and stakeholders. To do so, they must answer the following questions:

* What do we know about our communities to provide services and resources to make them successful?

* How do we measure our contribution(s) to user and organizational success?

* What do our stakeholders need to understand to provide the resources needed for a successful library?

A Little Metrics History

Determining value is difficult. It is much easier to count things, which is why library statistics historically have focused on numbers. As the modern library developed in the 19th century, volumes, annual acquisitions, budgets, and registered users were counted. But problems often arose with the consistency of the counts, and some librarians began to question whether volume counts were a useful means of measuring library quality.

Otis Robinson, a librarian at the University of Rochester, captured the essence of these questions when he observed in 1876, "It is as if excellence were in numbers alone. How many volumes? This is always the question; never [h]ow much and how well do you use what you have?"

Robinson did not propose a method for determining library value, but he understood that counting played little or no role in such a process. "... [The number of books has very little to do with their educational value," he wrote. "Take chemistry, geology, almost any science--ten good new books may be worth more than a whole case twenty-five years old." (Robinson 1876)

James Thayer Gerould, library director at the University of Minnesota and later at Princeton, was among the first to discuss the practical value of comparative library data. In his seminal 1906 article in Library Journal, he noted that progressive librarians ask the following questions:

* Is this method the best?

* Is our practice, in this particular, adapted to secure the most effective administration?

* Are we up to the standard set by similar institutions of our class?

"These questions are of the most fundamental type," he wrote, "and upon the success with which we answer them depends much of the success of our administration." (Gerould 1906)

Gerould thought that collecting statistics in the following categories would prove helpful in administering a library: facilities, collections, finances, staff, salaries, ordering and processing, cataloging, collection use, reference transactions, and departmental libraries. He began collecting and publishing data in 1907 from a select group of academic research libraries, a practice that continued (after his retirement) until 1962, when the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) took over the collection, compilation, analysis, and distribution of statistics for its membership.

Gerould clearly advocated for comparing data between institutions, primarily to discover and compare best practices that could be employed in other libraries. But although he worked with a relatively small, voluntary group of research libraries, Gerould had difficulty coming up with a standard set of consistent data. In the end, he was able to collect information only on collection size/annual acquisitions, staffing, and budgets, and even then there were corrections, missed data, and copious footnotes explaining inconsistencies. …

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