The Perils of Focusing On ROI

Over at InsideHigherEd, Library Babel Fish (aka Barbara Fister) posted an interesting 'stream of consciousness' article discussing the perils of assessing return on investment in libraries.

Fister started thinking more about ROI because she was alerted to a new position for a "librarian whose role would be assessment and marketing. The library is seeking a librarian who is 'interested in using the results of library assessment to promote the value of the library to the university as part of our our strategic communications program.' The audience is the higher administrators who probably don't use the library but hold the purse strings."

As Fister notes, there is a conflict of interest when doing assessments. "When we do assessment, are we honestly trying to find out what is going on with our students so that we can figure out what practices improve or inhibit learning? Or are we simply trying to demonstrate a good return on investment?"

In a perfect world, libraries would do assessments to determine the library's value to the students. In other words, we would determine if our collections, instruction, and other student interactions are effective. If not, we would take our findings and try new things to reach our audience. These assessments would not be evidence to argue that the library should not lose funding or shut down. After all, most academics can admit that the library is at the heart of all higher education.

But we find ourselves in a time when administrators are interested on return on investment and assessment to determine if libraries are still needed. The library is often a huge expenditure for a university, and rightly so, and it's a tempting place to tighten the purse strings.

The problem with assessing for market value is that we often lose the opportunity to assess if we are getting it right. Because "[i]f participants thought they were being judged, they would be less inclined to take risks or admit that they see room for improvement." And this stifles the ability to ask honest questions about the effectiveness of the library.

As Fister points out, "[i]t seems [that] there needs to be a line drawn between honestly assessing how well various campus units fulfill their missions and making a case for their very existence to upper administration. When assessment becomes market research - or evidence that we shouldn't be shut down - I think we're losing the opportunity to ask honest questions."


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