Monday, October 11, 2010

Calculating the Value of Service

Cosmos bipinnatus, in morning sun

I was glad to see a recent New Yorker article confirming what I have begun to suspect: It's difficult to calculate the cost-benefits of customer service. I worry about this because I spend a lot of my time assisting people as they try to use the library. I work really hard at this, and I think I do a good job, but I'm not sure I could demonstrate the tangible benefit of what I do.

It's true the library collects reference statistics, and so I have a lot of numbers at my fingertips that reflect the types and volume of problems we handle, but translating those into student success is tough. Should I be counting the number of enthusiastic 'thank-yous' I get every week? Should I try and get the name of every person I help so that I can track their subsequent achievement? (Yikes.)

The fact that librarianship is a a service-oriented profession is a source of pride for many in the field. But the bulk of an academic library's beneficiaries are students, and on a campus they are an ever-shifting population. This means that unless we establish long-standing relationships, it is difficult to call upon them when we need support.

I can understand that people accountable for money don't like messy calculations. However, it's hard to quantify -- never mind take exclusive credit for -- a student who has a wonderful experience when helped by a librarian, who goes on to write a stellar paper, and who stays in school instead of dropping out.

This is almost as difficult as justifying the benefit of a library building and collection. Many people have an intuitive sense that a library is valuable, and that service at the library is also valuable, but I worry about how to demonstrate that value in black and white. The public image of a library is great -- libraries are generally viewed as a social good -- but I'm concerned that in the future we'll have to do more than hide behind that.

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(For further reading, here is a post on a similar topic at greater length, in the context of special collections.)

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