November 8, 2012

Academic Libraries, Information Literacy, and the Value of Our Values

ACRL has embarked on the important, even urgent, initiative to support academic libraries in articulating and demonstrating their value to their institutions at a time in which higher education in general finds itself constantly defending its value. Accountability at numerous levels, from our federal government to our university boards of trustees, is the clarion call of the day. Assessment, accountability, and value have been inexorably linked over the past several decades. Assessing the impact of [information literacy instruction, freshman seminars, general education, fill in the blank] on student learning and achievement is both a means of being accountable to our stakeholders (parents, policy makers, tax payers, etc.) but also demonstrating our value (Why should we continue to exist?). For many academic librarians, specifically those invested in information literacy (IL) instruction programs; the assessment movement has been beneficial insofar as it has meant that IL has become central to many college and university assessment efforts. It has been very satisfying to have our work validated as core to the undergraduate curriculum. However, like many aspects of the curriculum, the value of IL instruction programs is in question, as are the many other services, contents, and processes of the academic library. Assessing the value (financial, impact, or otherwise) of these services, use of contents, and efficiency of processes becomes our means of proving (being accountable) our relevancy in higher education. For instruction librarians this has meant a move from simply recording how many students we’ve reached (whether through classroom instruction, online tutorials, research appointments) to developing IL learning outcomes that are assessed at the course level as well as the institutional level. While we appreciate the growing adoption of IL learning outcomes in core curricula, it is worrisome that it may be simply to satisfy external pressure (i.e. accrediting agencies). Because ultimately the pressure from both external and internal stakeholders is framed in economic terms—return on investment. As educators, the value of assessment should be because it informs our practice (and praxis).

Published in 2010 the Value of Academic Libraries: A Comprehensive Research Review and Report prepared by Megan Oakleaf claims that academic library stakeholders “tend to focus on two” particular ways of defining value: financial and impact value (p. 22). The report takes as a given that academic librarians will need to prove that we manage our financial resources well and somehow bring money into our institutions (p. 22). However the report also recognizes that the more meaningful piece for librarians may be in demonstrating “impact value:” “This position posits that academic library value is not primarily a financial concept; rather the value of information is its contribution to making improvements in users (Wilson, Stenson and Oppenheim 2000, 3-4)” (p. 24). Nonetheless impact value as described in the report still pivots on a conception of value as an economic construct of sorts, a return on investment embodied by an improvement in the user. The term “improvement” suggests that information has increased the value of the individual. Information, as object and commodity, and teaching and learning may indeed increase the market value of the individual, but for many information literacy instruction librarians the value of teaching is not measureable in economic terms but is instead that which “transforms”. In other words the transformative value is that which develops critical consciousness, a broadening of one’s worldview in order to appreciate the multiplicity of perspectives and the complexity of any given issue or situation. Transformation may alter but not necessarily improve or increase impact value (i.e. retention, graduation rates, career success, GPA, etc.).

A recent follow-up to the 2010 report, Connect, Collaborate, and Communicate: A Report from the Value of Academic Libraries Summit (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2012) does attend to some transformative values, for example “academic intimacy” (p. 12), yet seems to ignore these in their “Actions for the profession” items. In the spirit of action item 3.3, “to “Build a community of practice to engage and sustain professional dialogue about library value,” we’d like to consider the integration of our understanding of library value with our professional values.

Some of the foundational Core Values of librarianship (American Library Association, 2004) include free access to information, democracy as it hinges on an informed citizenry and the First Amendment’s mandate to free expression, the public good, and social responsibility. Is the concept of value as articulated in the ACRL value reports antithetical to these core values expressed by ALA?

In a recent post from In the Library With a Lead Pipe, Emily Ford asks us to consider the “why” of what we do as an intervention in what she sees as failed attempts to demonstrate our value. Ford recommends that the library community develop a philosophy of librarianship. She suggests that engaging with philosophy will enable the library community to move from practice to praxis—professional practice informed by theory, or a philosophical framework. Perhaps we need only look to our Core Values to articulate a philosophy of librarianship.

Barbara Fister emphasizes the importance of Ford’s recommendations (Fister, 2012, August 28) and also shares thoughts on value and values in a recent post (2012, September 19), stating that:

“We librarians seem anxious to prove our value these days, but what we really should articulate more clearly and loudly is our values. When we focus on defending our existence to our administrators, we end up…with a focus far too narrow, too parochial, too myopic to ensure that our values inform what libraries should be.”

We’d like to see this conversation grow on the apparent disconnect between articulating our value with our values, especially in relation to information literacy instruction. We have submitted for consideration a proposal for an ACRL Instruction Section Current Issue Discussion Group at ALA Annual with the hope that other instruction librarians are also concerned about the apparent disconnect between our value and our values. However, it is likely that the proposal is too philosophical to be accepted, so we’d love to get your feedback here, at the Library Juice Blog, or via personal email.

Can we articulate our Core Values while also demonstrating our value in economic terms? Do we risk losing our value as defenders/providers of equity of access, free speech, intellectual freedom, and the public good if we concede to the narrative of crisis fueling the value initiative? How do we fit our Core Values into our information literacy learning outcomes? Is it possible to re-orient the conversation in order to re-value conceptions of value?

Lua Gregory & Shana Higgins

References:

American Library Association. (2004). Core values of librarianship. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/offices/oif/statementspols/corevaluesstatement/corevalues.

Association of College and Research Libraries. (2012). Connect, collaborate, and communicate: A report from the value of academic libraries summits. Prepared by Karen Brown and Kara J. Malenfant. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.

Fister, B. (2012, August 28). The self-centered library: A paradox. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/self-centered-library-paradox.

Fister, B. (2012, September 19). What libraries should be: A values proposition. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/what-libraries-should-be-values-proposition.

Ford, E. (2012, August 8). What we do and why we do it? In the Library With a Lead Pipe. Retrieved from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2012/what-do-we-do-and-why-do-we-do-it/.

Oakleaf, M. (2010). The value of academic libraries: A comprehensive research review and report. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.

Wilson, R. M. S., Stenson, J., & Oppenheim, C. (2000). Valuation of information assets. Loughborough: Loughborough University.

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5 Comments »

  1. Thank you thank you for expanding this discussion. I, too, have the same questions that you pose: “Can we articulate our Core Values while also demonstrating our value in economic terms?”

    I do not have an answer to this or other questions, but I see it as a process. In my mind we have to take appropriate steps. If we can articulate to ourselves as individuals what is are our philosophies and how do we engage in praxis, can we then expand these conversation to our co-workers, our colleagues, and our national associations? If we are successful with internal conversations (within the profession), then can we make successful connections from praxis to any kind of measurable or quantifiable value?

    To me, building a reflective praxis is a cornerstone for our ability to then translate it into demonstrable and quantifiable value. The problem remains, that with all of this value demonstration, we may forget to have values, as Barbara Fister discussed.

    I’m still at the stage where I’m working to translate my philosophy, love, into praxis. It is difficult work. But gratifying.

    Next time I plan for a class I’m going to see how I can translate my love into learning outcomes…

    Comment by Emily Ford — November 10, 2012 @ 10:19 am

  2. Thanks, Emily! I think I’m in a similar place as you. I’m trying to figure out how the pieces fit together–professional values as framework for a philosophy of practice and how that translates into praxis.

    I worry about trying to translate teaching and learning into quantifiable measures. I think most disciplinary faculty in higher education worry about this. Especially worrisome is that in trying to fit our work into quantifiable measurements we will completely de-value transformative learning such as realizing that newspapers may be factual but the facts are framed differently depending on the perspective of the publication or having a classroom epiphany in which you realize that your classmate’s conception of “freedom” is almost the opposite of your own. We can easily measure the acquisition of a language or the rules of accounting or the ability to cite properly in APA style, but how do we measure the more philosophical moments of learning?

    It’s worth going back to Lown’s and Davis’s piece on ROI and libraries. They quote Angela Eikenberry: “Because of their inherent value, it is extremely important for nonprofit organizations to focus on their organizational missions…They are more than just tools for achieving the most efficient and effective mode of service delivery; they are also important vehicles for creating and maintaining a strong civil society.”

    With so many of us thinking about value and values we can’t possibly lose sight of the things that matter most about libraries and learning. Right?

    Comment by Shana Higgins — November 12, 2012 @ 11:52 am

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  4. Great post! Glad that you are engaging and exploring this issue.

    I would like to note that the following passage does not match the intent of the VAL Report, at least to my mind:

    “Nonetheless impact value as described in the report still pivots on a conception of value as an economic construct of sorts, a return on investment embodied by an improvement in the user. The term “improvement” suggests that information has increased the value of the individual. Information, as object and commodity, and teaching and learning may indeed increase the market value of the individual, but for many information literacy instruction librarians the value of teaching is not measureable in economic terms but is instead that which “transforms”.”

    For my part, I don’t believe that the report focuses on economic value in the way that you mean. Certainly, that construct is explored, as the goal of the report is to be comprehensive and that is certainly one way of expressing library value, particularly in special and public libraries.

    Having said that, the focus on user impact is not primarily an economic one. Impact is described in terms of at least 10 dimensions in the report, and the one best matched with transformative learning is the concept of learning outcomes. Learning outcomes must be observable, measurable, or judgable to be assessed, but that does not mean that they are necessarily economic or even quantitative in nature. Certainly, many surrogates of learning currently in use are quantitative as you note, but they are not the only measures of learning, and often not the best.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents. So pleased that you’re continuing the conversation!

    Comment by Megan Oakleaf — November 30, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

  5. Megan, thank you so much for your response! We trust that the intent of the VAL Report was not to focus solely on the financial or economic aspects of value. And we also recognize that when we speak of value it is difficult to get away from economic concepts, except that there is this other meaning (although still based on the idea of exchange or comparison) relating to the principles by which we live and work (our philosophy of practice, or our praxis).

    Within the Research Agenda section of the VAL Report we certainly see areas where the value of academic libraries could be measured in a non-economic sense, for instance in Student Success, Student Learning, and Student Experience. We agree that student learning outcomes are a place where we can link the academic library to transformative learning. But we hope to see some alternative surrogates for library impact that relate to quality of life issues beyond salary, job placement, and career opportunities. What about community engagement, commitment to creating just and equitable communities, and activism? It’s unfortunate that, as mentioned in the report “Academic library contributions to society have not been widely identified or researched” (p. 56). However, our professional Core Values seem to be a good place to begin that research process and also bring to the forefront the valuations of impact articulated in those Core Values: free access to information, democracy as it hinges on an informed citizenry and the First Amendment’s mandate to free expression, the public good, and social responsibility.

    The VAL Report concludes,

    According to Hisle, academic librarians need to “spend as much time thinking about our future as we spend remembering our past…and… work toward our vision of the future…knowing our results will be rooted in the values of our profession” (2005, 14) (p. 140).

    It is imperative that we, librarians/library professionals, keep the values of our profession at the forefront rather than the background of our initiatives to demonstrate our value. For us this means being active agents in changing the discourse of value into one of values. Much more difficult to measure but so much more meaningful.

    Shana & Lua

    Comment by Shana Higgins — December 4, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

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