Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Making an Efficient Process Out of Something That Is Not

One of the great things about community colleges is that they give people a second chance. Community colleges offer opportunities for people who did not succeed previously -- for whatever reason. This is a valuable, important, and rightfully celebrated service. But when translated into an operation, it is not terribly efficient when it comes to enrollment, retention, and graduation. Efficiency would mean using past performance as an indicator of motivation and likelihood of future achievement, and then investing resources into those students, to help them continue to be successful.

So in order to be true to a major institutional goal, community colleges cannot always be efficient. Community colleges must -- must! -- treat all comers as if they exhibit an equal level of potential. Community colleges must be blind to past screw-ups. They must not stop helping students when they fail. Unfortunately, this can seem frustratingly sloppy from an administrative perspective. Community colleges provide a service that is noble but inefficient, and the inefficiency is intrinsic. While certain details can be tweaked and improved, they should not be altered radically at their core, at the risk of abandoning the underlying mission.

Ultimately a library collection is also inefficient. Over the years, a library collects resources that unfortunately go unused, despite the best judgements of highly-degreed professionals. Sometimes the library purchases something and nobody looks at it immediately, but after time it becomes highly sought-after. Or not. There are techniques that can limit how often this happens, such as patron-driven acquisitions, but even a collection based exclusively on stated curriculum goals might not see 100% usage. We are stuck with some intrinsic inefficiency, and from an administrative perspective this should not be regarded as something wrong with the library. (Unless we're going to characterize all inefficient processes as problems. Which is irrational, right?)

A community college library is certainly no research library, nor am I advocating becoming a book museum, but part of our mission is still to maintain materials relevant to our patrons.We can teach information literacy until we turn blue, but what are we recommending if the library doesn't have what students need?

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