Wednesday, June 1, 2011

No smiles, no dollars (Library technology thoughts, pt. 5 of 8)

(I have a list of six predictions about what I expect to see happen in academic library technology over the next 5-10 years. This is prediction #4.)

Academic libraries' ability to use technology to mediate satisfying experiences for users will be the single most important factor in maintaining support from their host institutions.

Support for academic libraries can be financial; support can be political; support can be moral. All kinds of support, though, depend on the supporter continuing to believe that the library is doing its job--or, at the very least, that the library is capable of doing its job. And, increasingly, what is the job of the academic library?

To look good in assessment.

Looking good in assessment is not the mission or purpose or vocation or aspiration of the academic library. But it is becoming its job, the thing that pays the bills. In the corporate-influenced university, everything comes down to the bottom line, and the bottom line is reputation or money or both. Universities operate more and more under what Gaye Tuchman calls an accountability regime. (I recommend reading Tuchman's whole book on the topic.) Is your university or college accredited? It is moving in this direction. Does it hire deans and provosts and presidents from among the itinerant class of professional administrators? It is moving in this direction fast.

What administrators want in terms of library assessment results varies from institution to institution. Broadly speaking, though, they want libraries to demonstrably support the assessment goals of the institution as a whole. And the most important of these goals, in terms of money and reputation, usually are:

-1- Student satisfaction.

-2- External funding.

-3- Achievement of student learning outcomes.

Student learning outcomes are mostly a bottom-line concern for accreditation. In the aggregate, parents and students mostly want reassurance about two things: Will college be a personally rewarding experience? Will a decent job be waiting upon graduation? Student learning outcomes certainly can be a proxy for those concerns, but I do not see them becoming a major concern in and of themselves. In any case, my hunch and fear is that achievement of student learning outcomes will have no significant correlation with any library variable within a single institution.

Which leaves student satisfaction and external funding. Most of what I have seen that ties libraries to external funding is faculty singing the praises of their local library in enabling them to win grants and carry out grant-related activities. In other words: faculty satisfaction. Combine student satisfaction with faculty satisfaction, and we get the general category of user satisfaction.

Why do I see user satisfaction as a technology issue, though? Clearly, there are important non-technological aspects of a satisfactory library experience. There are skilled and friendly staff, welcoming and inspirational spaces, and useful print books and journals. However, these aspects are going to become less distinctively relevant to assessment over the next 5-10 years. Skilled and friendly staff who are facilitating, guiding, and teaching the use of networked resources--to say nothing of maintaining those resources--are a networked service. The most incredible academic library space in the world will see little use if it doesn't have wifi. And the biggest sources of external funding, the STEM fields, are moving much faster into electronic resources than the humanities and social sciences.

Further, the collection and analysis of user satisfaction data had better be a technological activity, and the more automated the better. In a zero-sum library job environment, every person-hour spent on assessment will be a person-hour taken away from some other activity. If academic libraries want to receive strong support from their host institutions, part of using technology to mediate satisfying experiences for users will need to be to capture their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with any given interaction, and to respond with positive changes in library systems and resources and services, in an iterative cycle of (sigh) continuous improvement.


  1. Thanks for your post Mark - it correlates with how things are moving here in the New Zealand institutes of technology/polytechnics

  2. Sorry for the very overdue reply, Tom, but thanks for the feedback! I *have* been curious about how USA-centric these trends may be.