Thinking about the “Why”

The image is the word Why.

Like everyone everywhere in libraries, I’ve been reflecting on how to pivot what I do as an academic librarian during a pandemic. In particular, I’ve been pondering about how we think about, conduct, and share our research and assessment efforts, when everything feels askew.

Why do we “do” assessment? Sometimes the research-related stuff we do is in response to an administrative request, which we assume will lead to service or process improvements. Sometimes we learn something, through interactions with users or colleagues, that causes us to wonder if the thing we’re observing is just a result of an anomaly or something more universal. We talk to colleagues at other institutions; we search the professional literature. Next thing you know we discover a gap in what we understand or in the profession understands to be “true.” 

I’m probably not the only librarian that rarely starts out with a research idea that will revolutionize the profession or higher education. It’s just curiosity, or a need to solve a problem, or perhaps an inner request to interact with or respond to a change or initiative on campus.  I’m also likely not alone in this experience: you bump up to an internal or organizational barrier (or for example in the case of a global pandemic, disruptions in process and priorities) in pursuit of your research question. 

Lately I’ve been asking myself: What are the reasons to do assessment? What are the reasons NOT to do assessment?

Why “do” assessment?

There are lots of valid reasons to investigate, to gather, and to share information as part of an assessment effort, many of which are obvious to us in libraries. Some reasons that might resonate include:

  • Assessment data informs decisions.

  • We need to advocate for resources; those allocating resources require data.

  • Assessment is required, for compliance reasons, for accreditation reasons, etc.

  • Assessment activities allow us to check our assumptions. Sometimes things are really broken, but users have created work-arounds.

  • Regular assessment can help us apply course corrections, in response to changes.

  • Reflection on our efforts is a meaningful, and professional, thing we do. Showing a gap in the professional literature or in professional conversations through our local efforts could help others dealing with the same question or solution.

  • Assessment activities allow for campus partnerships and collaborations. New assessment efforts could lead to beneficial change for our scholars, and could positively impact the academic and personal success of our students.

  • Any assessment activity could enhance one’s professional development. Spending some time on a small research project could lead to a variety of research skills that could be used on the next research project.

Why avoid assessment?

Evaluation and assessment activities are challenging and sometimes messy; there are very good reasons to not engage in assessment, such as: 

  • Staff skills, staff time, and other resources, like funding, are limited. 

  • There isn’t a plan to make meaning of the data (or act on the data, etc.). If we have data already that we haven’t analyzed or acted upon, why would we gather more?

  • The assessment culture values accountability, which can lead to punitive actions. For example, what if we find out that the library doesn’t have an impact on student success? Fear of punishment can be a real concern in library assessment efforts.

  • This isn’t the right time for assessment. Valid reasons that impact the timing could be sociological, political, historical, ethical, etc. And related to this point: Assessment “evidence” might be harmful to those we’re assessing. These days, I think about trauma-informed practice when I think about my assessment efforts. For example, I didn’t survey student employees about their library work environment when we shut down the libraries in 2020 as a response to the pandemic.

I think my pondering and reflecting about library assessment over the last year has yielded some fruitful results. If nothing else, I’ll be applying the practice of asking “why am I doing this?” (and perhaps the related question of “should I do this?”) when embarking on an assessment activity or project in the future.


Note: I found some inspiration from the following.

Astin, Alexander W. (1991). Assessment for excellence: The philosophy and practice of assessment and evaluation in higher education. New York: American Council on Education, Macmillan Publishing Co.

Oakleaf, M. (2017). Academic Library Value: The Impact Starter Kit. Chicago: ALA Editions.

LLAMA Assessment Hot Topics Discussion Group discussions.