Every two years the Library Assessment Conference (LAC) brings together practitioners and researchers to discuss effective, sustainable, and practical approaches to library assessment. The conference and its program offerings provide an opportunity to take stock of how the library assessment field is evolving. As we eagerly wait for the 2018 conference in December, we share today what we are most closely tracking.

The assessment movement continues to grow

The library assessment community has grown considerably since the first LAC and the size and scope of this year’s conference suggests that this trajectory continues. Looking back on our reflections following the 2016 conference in conjunction with this year’s program, it is staggering to see how the community has become increasingly sophisticated in its methodological and strategic aims. Research from Sarah Murphy focusing on characterizing the library assessment community will be helpful for further understanding of how the field is evolving.

Beyond the conference’s method for organizing the sessions, it is clear from the abstracts that library assessment now involves at least four major (sometimes overlapping) goals:

  • Determine the needs of important communities, including underrepresented groups and non-users
  • Shape the design and improvement of specific collections, spaces, services, and tools
  • Inform broader strategic directions within the library, across libraries, and for library collaborations
  • Articulate the value of the library in relation to and/or towards contributing to university-wide goals

A variety of research methods are being used to achieve these aims (meta-analysis, surveys, bibliometrics, participatory design, multi-methods, etc.) and no one method appears to have the upper-hand. User experience has some representation at the conference, but it feels more like a cousin whose relationship is at least one degree removed. In the U.K. there is a whole conference dedicated to UX librarianship, which has a very different organizing logic compared with LAC, and we wonder if there is space for a similar effort to emerge in the U.S. either as a separate event or perhaps a focus track within LAC.

Organizational assessment comes to prominence

Over the years, the LAC has consistently featured externally-facing research on current, potential, and non-users of the library including on student and faculty perspectives, practices, and needs as well as library resources, services, and spaces. However, this year’s program has brought to the forefront a number of sessions on organizational issues as well, indicating a potential focused area of growth within the assessment community. These sessions include (but are not limited to) those on:

This work demonstrates that assessment professionals are being called upon for both their methodological expertise as well as their ability to think strategically about their libraries as organizations with complex structures and dynamics. If the library assessment field continues to grow as it has over the past number of years, it will not be surprising if those in this field are looked to even more often as leaders on these organizational issues.

Where are we going? And, are we there yet? The promise and perils of big data and analytics techniques

There was some interest in student privacy at the 2016 conference but this year’s program reflects that the assessment community is grappling with issues of big data, learning analytics, privacy, and ethics on much larger scale. While a few projects at the 2018 conference focus on the use and analysis of big data (e.g. Jin Xiu Guo and Gordon Xu; Emily Guhde and Brian Keith) and learning analytics (e.g. Selena Killick, Richard Nurse, and Helen Clough), there are perhaps an equal number that focus instead on the implications of and perspectives on these initiatives. These projects include studies focused on:

It will be interesting to see over the next few years if the community shifts towards engaging more with learning analytics and/or examining the potential risks and uncertainties associated with doing so.

Competing paradigms: embracing assessment versus pushing back

LAC continues to be primarily oriented towards improving the methods and outcomes of assessment, which reflects its underlying assumption that assessment is a worthwhile pursuit. It is refreshing, however, that this year’s conference is also making some space to challenge and complicate the narratives around the concept of assessment and the role of assessment in librarianship. For example, Lisa Hinchliffe, Krystal Wyatt-Baxter, and Cameron Tuai will examine how assessment metrics can potentially be used to promote social justice work in the library. Ebony Magnus will explore how the power structures created through assessment activities create tension and Jeremy Buhler will discuss how re-orienting assessment towards inquiry can serve as a redress towards that.

It will be interesting to see how these themes play out once the conference is underway and we look forward to hearing others’ perspectives as well. What are you most interested in catching at the conference? What areas of focus do you see on the horizon for library assessment more broadly?

At the conference, we will be presenting findings from two recent research studies – one on the research practices of Indigenous Studies scholars and the other on how community college students define success. There will also be a session on the Ithaka S+R local surveys where 10 librarians representing six universities will share on how they have used the survey results to drive change on their campuses. For those attending the conference in just a few weeks, we look forward to seeing you in Houston!