Why is evidence of impact an issue for libraries (and information services)?


Image source: flickr cc pic by W J (Bill) Harrison

Picture a group of scholars working in the Library of Alexandria in about 50 BC. Now assume that they have been ferried forward in time and deposited in your library today. Will they identify their surroundings as a library? More specifically, will the scholars recognize the printed publications at the heart of your library as equivalent in some way to their scrolls? If so, it seems likely that they will know their surroundings as a library. But what happens if we ship them forward another 30 years and touch them down again? Will your library still be there? Will it be recognizable as a library? Will information technology and the demand for different kinds of interaction between library staff, users and the service have transformed the library beyond recognition?

Even the most sensitive crystal ball is unlikely to offer a clear picture of libraries 30 years hence because of the accelerating rate of change. However, if we can start to gauge the changes in the impact of various services, this will give us an indication of where things are going and help in managing the changes needed to get there.

We don’t have to look 30 years ahead to make a case for looking at impact. One common feature of all types of libraries is that there is too much to do and too little time. ‘Traditional’ performance indicators are important for enabling you to tell whether aspects of a service are working efficiently. However, when a new initiative or project is undertaken, this is usually achieved by prising precious time away from other operational activities. If this is the case, it is doubly important to know whether the innovation is working and how. More specifically, are you using this precious time well? How can your innovation be made to work better? Are there lessons from your current initiatives or projects that have implications for how you deliver the rest of the service? Do you need to know more about them? Asking these sorts of questions should move you towards gathering impact evidence that will tell you whether you are working along the right lines or whether you should be doing different things in different ways.

What are the big factors to be taken into account when evaluating the impact of innovations and the effects of accelerating organizational change? The most immediately obvious and pervasive influence is the accelerating expansion in information and communications technologies. These advances are raising a plethora of questions about library services provision, all of which demand impact evidence if sensible answers are to be adopted. These changes include:

  • the impact of ICT
  • the pressure to evaluate impact
  • a growing focus on performance management and accountability in public institutions
  • the value for money ethos
  • rediscovering information
  • towards evidence-based library and information work.

ImageThis is an extract from the first chapter of Evaluating the Impact of Your Library, 2nd edition by Sharon Markless and David Streatfield.  You can read the rest of the chapter, including a review of the changes listed above and the questions they raise, here, for free.

Find out more information, browse the table of contents and purchase Evaluating the Impact of Your Library, 2nd edition, here.


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