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By Caroline Muglia, Collection Assessment Librarian at University of Southern California Libraries
Raise your hand if you’ve been involved in building a program? Maybe you augmented a service that existed in your library. Maybe you formalized a set of workflows and voila!, it turned into a program.
Maybe you had an idea, iterated many times over, got buy-in from stakeholders, secured money, raised awareness, closed your eyes, counted down from ten, and made it happen.
All of us know that building anything takes work.
Building a collection assessment program in a library setting is not easy. We all wish it were like those cooking shows where the ingredients lay unused on a marble countertop until the host spins around and pulls the finished product out of the oven. Alas, when the cameras are watching, building a program takes a lot of effort, planning, and strategy.
Since early 2015, I have been building a collection assessment program at University of Southern California (USC) Libraries. A newer sub-field in librarianship, collection assessment ensures a strong and relevant collection for users. Collection assessment programs focus on collection, analysis, and dissemination of collection statistics, return on investment of collections and other resources, and contributes to making smart budget decisions based on usage, cost, and perceived need (among many other things!). In the end, it’s about building capacity. Either we do it, or we don’t.
There are a few ways to engage in collection assessment, and I’ve opted for collaboration. For the record, I don’t know a single collection assessment librarian who operates in isolation. But some of us embrace collaboration more than others. I made this decision because my job is the first of its kind at the Libraries and I am the only one performing it. More importantly, engaging with colleagues on small tasks and bigger projects leads to buy-in, sustainability, and assessment literacy across the libraries.
I collaborate with colleagues at USC Libraries, colleagues with similar job titles in other libraries, and sometimes, I engage in projects with people in other fields entirely. Rewarding, mind-expanding, and fruitful--yes! But, also, hard.
Driving my daily work are three guiding principles: make it easy, make it relevant, and make it interesting.
Let me explain:
In order for successful collaboration to occur and, equally important, to deliver on my job tasks and build capacity for the program, I rely on my colleagues to participate in collection assessment needs. This is the core work of a collection assessment librarian, so it’s important that I’m not the only one invested in these metrics. Building a program requires a lot of advocates, so I use any chance to cultivate a fan.
Some examples to make it easy:
- Include pertinent information only. There’s no need to throw the kitchen sink at my colleagues. Just because I want to peek behind the curtain to see every number doesn’t mean they need it to make a decision. Pare down information to manageable projects that can be accomplished in a designated period of time before moving to the next one.
- Provide entry points. I rarely email a spreadsheet or show a database to colleagues without a short narrative of what they are looking at and what decisions need to be made. The goal is to empower colleagues not overwhelm them.
In short, the goal of collection assessment is to move from a confusing and sometimes contradictory situation (Figure 1) to one that makes sense and offers entry points for users of the data - librarians, library staff, and administrators (Figure 2).
Librarians wear many hats and our time is valuable. That makes it difficult to justify allotting space in a workday schedule to a project that doesn’t seem relevant to my central job description.
When I am collaborating with colleagues on collection assessment projects, I try to make the goals, outcomes, and take-aways of the project as much about them as possible.
This means either integrating into their work or responsibilities, or introducing new skills that can be used in other aspects of their work. Collaboration in this form requires a lot of listening.
Early on, I went on a listening campaign that allowed me time to engage in casual conversation that revealed both my colleagues’ views on collection assessment (not always positive) as well as the need for assessment in their work (spoiler: it’s very much needed).
Listening helped me tailor projects to colleagues’ needs, interests, and skill set. I knew their needs because I listened to them!
Listening also allowed me to set priorities from the start. I could quickly understand what was in scope and what was out of scope for them (figures 3, 4). Figures 3 and 4 both images of the Alamo taken from slightly different perspectives. When the building is in the frame, there’s no mistaking it for anything other than the historic Alamo. When the building is set in its larger context of the middle of downtown San Antonio, the building is much harder to identify and does not resemble the iconic image from the earlier frame.
Project development isn’t too different. I care about what’s represented in both of these images: the building and its context. But, most of my colleagues may only find interest in what’s in scope, the building itself. They don’t have time to care about the other stuff. At least for right now. Relevance shifts depending on the project or the mission of the library. What is irrelevant now may come into focus as a point of need later on.
To make it relevant:
- Show, tell, and teach. Sometimes teaching a colleague how to facilitate user testing or run a report will help her become more invested in the process. To other colleagues, show and tell may work better. Depending on the project, decision need, or interest level of a colleague, I blend show, tell, and teach.
- Learn about your colleagues’ daily tasks or goals. Engage with colleagues to learn about their needs or goals. Because collection assessment is a cooperative activity, knowing your colleagues is incredibly helpful in pushing forward with the mission of the program.
- Pay particular attention to what is in scope and then expand it. When I ensure that my colleagues get involved in projects or tasks that are relevant to their work and interests, it strengthens the partnerships between us and makes it much easier for others to see everybody’s hard work. Since scope changes all the time, I make sure to document all projects and provide open data where possible. This allows my curious colleagues to expand their scope if desired. This also puts on display the program’s growth that can be positioned to funding sources or for further investment from administration.
Of course, sometimes our projects are lop-sided and sway in one direction or the other. But, the program does not succeed without active engagement. Programs require buy-in, even programs that benefit the institution. On my way to building a better program, my colleagues’ investment shows interest, sustainability, and potential for growth.
The key to building a strong Collection Assessment program is to make involvement something that people want to do, that appeals to the kind of work they’re doing already.
I’d love to suggest the old trick to get people interested: buy them food and offer them fun things. If that’s a sustainable method for your institution, try it out! But, I don’t have an endless supply of petty cash (or any cash, really). For those of you living that reality, you may try to make the work engaging and worthwhile.
Recently, a colleague asked me a question to which I did not know the answer. In fact, I didn’t know how to find the answer. As the Japanese Studies librarian, she wanted to know if USC maintains the most comprehensive collection of pre-16th century Japanese materials.
Curious, I set out to learn a bit more about the Japanese collections of peer institutions, how they measured “comprehensiveness,” and what we could learn about our own collection. I am still working on this small project with my colleague, who approached me with a collection assessment-like question and worked with me to investigate the details.
Without a collection assessment program, this project would not have a home (and may not have gotten off the ground). Small projects, data sets generated by and about the library, and even people have found a home in the program.
At USC, this speaks to the way in which collection assessment was performed before my position was created (localized assessment, de-centralized, and small-scale all come to mind). USC is not alone in that strategy. Before collection assessment was considered a full-time position, librarians spent what time they could evaluating collections in their purview for purposes of budgeting, space allotment, and user needs.
My collection assessment program welcomes in strays in order to build the infrastructure and deepen the value to the libraries. Still, in order to continue growth and excitement around the program, the work needs to be interesting.
Some examples to make it interesting:
- Make it constant and iterative. Collection assessment is a cycle. Collections, budgets, and usage are ever changing, so assessment and evaluation needs to occur constantly. Iteration of tools, techniques, methodologies, and even data points can provide an opportunity to learn something new and keep you on your toes! Iteration can also inform growth, a necessary component to program building.
- Promote stewardship. When my colleagues take ownership of collection assessment projects, I glow with joy. A proud mama shoving off another kid toward independence. The goal of building a collection assessment program is not to situate oneself as the only person who can perform the job. Rather, it’s about spreading the skills so that each librarian feels comfortable with some level of standardized assessment literacy. It’s about modeling the correct way to perform assessment and delivering those skills back to the librarians. Promoting stewardship of assessment projects can empower colleagues to “own” the outcome and free up some time for you to consider higher-level strategy for the program.
- Anchor the work to mission and value. If I’m doing it correctly, all the projects in which I engage can be tied back to the mission of the program (build capacity of collection assessment) and illustrate the value of collection assessment in the libraries. This is effective for two reasons: first, sticking to the mission. Give me a room of collection assessment librarians and I’ll show you a room of people who get asked lots of questions that stray considerably from their central job description. Second, showing growth is really exciting. When goals are met, challenges are overcome, and deliverables are acted on, then the mission of the program is moving forward. Making the work transparent further invests my colleagues in the program, and keeps the process interesting.
Collection assessment is interdisciplinary. Building a program should capitalize on that connectedness. Showing value to administrators, colleagues, and even users are important elements in building capacity for a collection assessment program.
Caroline Muglia is the Collection Assessment Librarian at University of Southern California Libraries. Before moving to Los Angeles, Caroline lived in Washington, D.C. where she worked first for the Library of Congress, and later for an education technology firm. She received her MLIS from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where she focused not on assessment, but on digital archives. Email her: email@example.com