Our Mantra: Simplify and Focus

Guest post by Troy A. Swanson,  Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

Over the years, my library has built its share of monuments to the assessment gods, because we felt that this was the best avenue to demonstrating our value. In doing this, we participated in major assessment grants (such as the Information Literacy for the 21st Century Learner IMLS grant http://www.nilrc.org/IMLS/default.asp). We have conducted tests and surveys. Our greatest monument consisted of an all-encompassing plan that attempted to connect information literacy to all of our library services. Our theory was that information literacy is central to our mission so we should assess all services in information literacy terms.

Of course, these massive projects never really changed much. We collected tons of data including surveys, usage statistics, and staff member reports. If we did it, we documented it. There was a tsunami of information. “Continuous improvement” is one of our college’s values, and we knew that collecting data and evaluating our services was important if we were to change. However, we soon recognized that collecting data didn’t necessarily mean that we were improving our services. We had piles of data that we just couldn’t handle. We could collect it, but we struggled to interpret and make changes.

In an effort to survive, we trashed our all-encompassing assessment plan. We just stopped. We recognized that piles of data were not moving us forward. Not too long after, I was fortunate enough to be invited to ACRL’s Summit on the Value of Academic Libraries. This was a great opportunity to be a part of an important conversation at an opportune time for our library. The conversations between librarians, research officers, and administrators were great, but the conversations that I found to be most valuable were the conversations with the accrediting agencies.

The accrediting agencies clearly stated that it is more important for libraries to show effectiveness in serving their immediate users than for libraries to demonstrate an impossible-to-create statistic about how libraries contribute to retention, success, or job attainment. For me, it was refreshing to hear that we did not need to document and assess all aspects of our services, and, even more liberating, we could tell our stories in ways that made the most sense to us and to the populations we serve.

Our library has rethought our assessment efforts to focus on information literacy. We do review usage data such as gatecounts, checkouts, and online searches, but we are collecting only data that we feel that we need. In terms of information literacy assessment, we have simplified our efforts to focus on qualitative input that we can utilize for actual improvement. We have moved to do the following:

  •  Survey faculty members who utilize library instruction
  • Librarian peer observations to identify best practices
  • Student minute paper & goal survey to capture student needs and student suggestions for improvements (distributed by each instructional librarian to specific classes).

We are seeking direct input that can lead to immediate improvements, and each of these items has helped us do that. Our faculty have a choice whether to bring their classes in to work with a librarian, so hearing directly from them is very important. When librarians observe each other, we break out of our bubbles and build a tacit understanding between librarians.

Of course, nothing is more important than direct input from students, which is why we are hoping the final bullet on the list is the seed for our long term assessment strategy. We are emphasizing that each librarian conduct some form of regular assessment (feedback) from the classes they teach. We are starting with a very simple survey following selected classes. We are asking each librarian to analyze their own data and report interesting findings back to all of the instruction librarians. Our goal is to start building a culture of assessment and improvement. We hope our conversations will move us forward and that librarians will collaborate on assessment approaches.

My library’s assessment journey has covered a great deal of ground over the years. Right now, our mantra is simplify and focus.


Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.


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