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How academic liaison librarians can self-assess - and why they should
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How academic liaison librarians can self-assess — and why they should

April 18, 2022 | 9 min read

By Brianne Dosch, Linda Willems

Brianne Dosch shares the highs and lows of her own evaluation project at the University of Tennessee

For decades, experts have been debating the best ways to measure the value and impact of the academic liaison librarian. In a bid to demonstrate the value of her own role, Brianne Dosch, Assistant Professor and Social Sciences Data Librarian at University of Tennessee, Knoxville in the US, has developed and trialed an assessment method. In this article, she shares the steps she took, the key takeaways and lessons learned, and how she plans to build on those experiences.

When I joined my current library as the dedicated liaison to the psychology department, the position had been vacant for seven years.  The first months were mostly spent learning my job, responding to requests from the 48 faculty, 98 graduate students and thousands of undergraduate students, and trying to get an idea of how to engage and support such a long under-served department. However, at around the two-year mark, I realized I had made enough inroads that I could begin to be more strategic in how I understood and anticipated the department’s needs. So, I decided to pursue a survey-based needs-assessment of the faculty and graduate students and use it to inform my future priorities.

Designing the needs assessment

I realized this was not only an opportunity for assessment, but a chance to engage with some of the department’s faculty and graduate students. So, I invited two of the more outspoken faculty members and a graduate student to informally work with me on the project. All three responded positively, and through virtual meetings and emails I gathered and implemented their input on the survey tool, which I had designed to focus on three big questions:

  1. Do you know your librarian and what she offers?

  2. What do you use most, and what would you like to learn more about?

  3. Do you know the services and resources the library offers?

Most of their feedback was around library jargon and helping me to prioritize the services and resources I wanted to gather feedback on.

I also worked with the assessment and collections teams within my library to make sure I hadn’t changed library terminology to the point where the results wouldn’t be helpful outside of my goals. They helped me identify some gaps and get the survey tool to a point where it was deployable.

female librarian

Rolling out the survey and collating the results

After receiving Institutional Review Board approval, I sent out the survey via email at the end of a spring semester and waited for results. Around 18% of the faculty and 8% of the graduate students from the department responded within a week (nine faculty, and eight graduate students), and I was able to use the results to plan my outreach efforts for the summer, fall and beyond.

The biggest takeaways/action points were:

  • 100% of participants didn’t realize they could request materials be purchased for their research and teaching needs by the library

  • But the good news was that 100% knew who I was and remembered seeing material from me (prior to the survey)

  • Most participants preferred my plain email outreach vs the more formal and designed newsletters.

  • Most participants were interested in learning more about scholarly communication support and research data services

  • Overall, participants were happy with the support they received from the library (and their librarian)

None of these results were a big surprise to me - apart from the fact that I had not driven home enough the fact that I could spend money on them! But they were the evidence I needed to justify future outreach and engagement externally, and report and illustrate my impact internally. It was also incredibly motivating to have more than anecdotes and reference statistics to inform where my efforts would be most impactful moving forward.

Questions from the assessment

Questions from the assessment

5 tips for designing your own liaison librarian driven assessment

  1. Don’t be afraid to use assessment as an outreach opportunity I want to learn more about you so I can do more for you as your librarian is a great hook for opening a conversation with someone who may not have a close relationship with the library and is conscious of their time. I learned just as much from my feedback sessions with the graduate student and faculty as I did from the actual survey results.

  2. Watch the jargon There were many moments of feedback that included phrases like “I have no idea what that is” or “why is it called that?”. That helped me reevaluate the variables I was trying to measure and cut out the jargony terms.

  3. If you can, start with existing library-level collections and assessment data Assessment isn’t new, demonstrating the value of the library and its librarians isn’t new. Chances are there are data already available to help you frame what would be most helpful for you to know as a librarian. In my case, it took just one meeting with a collections/assessment librarian and I had ideas for questions to ask, and lists of relevant library resources and services.

  4. Basic questions are still worth asking It can seem much too simple or biased to ask questions like “do you know your librarian?” or “Have you received X type of help from the library or your librarian?,” but being able to confirm assumptions or back up anecdotes with data can be invaluable for demonstrating individual impact and value. For example, instead of saying “I have a sense that I am well known and utilized in my department,” I can now say “in a needs assessment I conducted of my department, 100% of participants knew I was their librarian and had received individual support from me.” Additionally, I assumed it was basic knowledge that I could purchase resources for them as their librarian – it wasn’t. But, because I asked that question, I had an immediate need I could fill.

  5. Prioritize what would help you as a liaison librarian Librarian-driven assessment should serve you first as a librarian, and contribute to the mission and vision of your library and institution along the way, not the other way around. In this assessment, I measured communication preferences and library awareness over impact on research success. For me, research success is something I want to measure the library’s impact on, but first I needed to know how I was doing in my communication of library resources and services.

Why should librarians get involved in assessment?

Studies have identified several factors that make the work we do so resistant to accurate measurement and assessment. For example:

  • There are differences across disciplines and institutions (Kranich et al., 2020).

  • The role of the librarian is changing in the digital world (Kranich et al., 2020).

  • Librarians often struggle to find the time to conduct their own assessment (Yates & Thiessen, 2017)

While these studies identify many of the challenges we face, the problem is that few go on to suggest ways we can improve the situation.  To try to avoid discipline-specific complications, some studies end up overly broad (Ippoliti, 2017). Others are conducted by information scientists who might be familiar with current library trends, but don’t always have the input from current practicing librarians that would make their findings practical to implement (Johnson, 2020).

As a result, we tend to rely on measures like gate counts, circulation, citations and reference transactions to demonstrate our value (Wegmann et al., 2021). While valuable, these sources can lack the nuance needed to truly capture our value and impact (Fleming-May & Mays, 2021; Tenopir, 2010). That is why we need librarian-driven, and librarian-designed assessment that not only impactfully measures and demonstrates our value, but gives us the data to improve and inform our roles.

constructive feedback

The 3 major lessons I learned

  1. Assessment isn’t a fix all for illustrating the impact of liaison librarians Liaison librarians have a large number of informal and unplanned interactions with library users across demographics, which are hard to plan an assessment around. Yet, those informal interactions, the anecdotes, they matter just as much as anything formal. Assessment and reporting can complement and amplify what liaison librarians are already doing that are difficult to capture in a survey or report.

  2. Communicate with your library colleagues about what you’re doing Any type of external communication from the library can impact liaison librarians. Be clear about the scope and the intended impact of your assessment with your colleagues. This will enable them to get involved, provide feedback, support collaboration, and allay any worries you are assessing anything beyond your own impact as a liaison librarian.

  3. Don’t make it broader than you want it to be When it comes to survey studies in librarianship, it is often tempting (and, in some cases, even advisable) to widen the scope to make it applicable to a larger audience. I would love for my assessment to inform broader and future assessment efforts, but I needed something I could use in my reporting and my performance as a librarian, so that is where I started. In fact, I could have started earlier, if I hadn’t tried to encompass broader ideas and goals.

Next steps…

One of my goals now is to find a way to make this an annual (or biennial) assessment to track progress and impact. This most likely means shortening the survey and adjusting the scope, while ensuring that needs and impact are still being measured and met. I want to create a format that supports comparison with existing assessment results, while supporting the addition of new questions.I would also like to design an assessment for undergraduate student needs. Outreach and support can look different for undergraduate students, and needs can change by different graduate classes.

Finally, I would like to collaborate more with my liaison librarian colleagues, who have been measuring and demonstrating their impact as liaison librarians for years. It is my hope to take my early career approach to liaison librarian-driven assessment and improve and combine it with what is already being done.

References

Fleming-May, R. A., & Mays, R. (2021). Fundamentals of planning and assessment for libraries. ALA Neal-Schuman.

Ippoliti, C. (2017). Extreme Makeover: A Blueprint for Redefining the Role of the Liaison Librarian in the Academic Library. International Information & Library Review49(4), 304–309. https://doi.org/10.1080/10572317.2017.1383743

Kranich, N., Lotts, M., Nielsen, J., & Ward, J. H. (2020). Moving from Collecting to Connecting: Articulating, Assessing, and Communicating the Work of Liaison Librarians. Portal: Libraries and the Academy20(2), 285–304. https://doi.org/10.1353/pla.2020.0015

Tenopir, C. (2010). Measuring the Value of the Academic Library: Return on Investment and Other Value Measures. The Serials Librarian58(1–4), 39–48. https://doi.org/10.1080/03615261003623005

Wegmann, M., LaDuke, A., Lear, M., & Henry Casesa, R. (2021). Assessing the Role of a Children’s Collection in an Academic Library: A Case Study of Collaborative Collection Management. Collection Management46(3–4), 257–272. https://doi.org/10.1080/01462679.2021.1887035

Yates, E., & Thiessen, J. (2017). “I think this is a great program”: Using qualitative and quantitative data to assess a personal librarian program. Ontario Library Association Super Conference. http://dr.library.brocku.ca/handle/10464/12970

Contributors

Portrait photo of Brianne Dosch

BD

Brianne Dosch

Portrait photo of Linda Willems

LW

Linda Willems

Freelance writer and owner

Blue Lime Communications