Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Thinking about the value of libraries

This news story caught my attention recently: D.C. to cut 34 school librarians as they are a poor investment.  The news post is a brief summary of the story in the Washington Post and includes this statement from the DC Public Schools Chancellor:
“We have invested in full-time librarians for the last three or four years and we haven't seen the kind of payoff we'd like.”  While noting that she is not disparaging librarians she said, "We have pulled away from programs where we haven't received a return on our investment.” 
The article implies that the ROI would be measured as improved test scores.  Similar cuts in other prominent school districts were also mentioned, including the LA district cutting school nurses.  This last point made me think about the potential value of such services that are more or less indirectly involved in education.

While there have been studies that have demonstrated direct correlations of quality libraries (measured by number of books per student) or quality librarians (measured by direct student-contact activities) and student achievement, the DC Chancellor did not see this association in her district.  Was the association too oblique or indirect? Was the data not available?  Did she even look at any data that was available?  Were the librarians given a decent chance (enough hours, enough resources, enough time with students)?

This requirement of demonstrated value and "return on investment" is quite familiar to libraries of all types and levels.  Unfortunately, librarians have been behind the curve on understanding this and coming up with useful tools of demonstrating their value.  Conversely, administrators and purse-string-holders are also behind the curve of recognizing that value should be demonstrated in more ways than money or test scores.  They are using similar reasons to justify elimination of what had been standard support services such as school nursing, speech therapy, and counseling.

(On a side note, I find it terribly hypocritical that those who uphold the value of classroom teachers and who justify the cutting of such services by stating they need to add more teachers in the classroom are, in fact, merely shifting the responsibility for these services onto the already heavy load that teachers must bear.  Not only must they teach a more rigid curriculum, but they are bearing more responsibility for ensuring children take their medications (oh, that's right - that's there responsibility for the school admin assistants), helping the depressed child deal with the disrupted family, teach a child to cope with stuttering, and teach all the children how to find and evaluate information or find a good book.  Some help they are giving teachers.)

Given that the powers-that-be are not changing their approach, that they have demonstrated their will to eliminate what cannot be demonstrated as valuable, and that this trend is decades old and shows no sign of receding, I believe we must accept and move on.  As the ACRL has been advocating through the Value of Academic Libraries project, librarians need research to quantify the value that we have known all along that libraries provide.   The blog has some good ideas on the kinds of questions that need to be, and could be, answered, including:

  • How does use of print and digital collections correlate with course pass/fail rates, grades, or GPA?
  • What is the monetary value of providing the resources students use to learn course content and complete assignments over alternative sources?
  • Is there an association between grant funding success and access to library resources, particularly those used in the grant application?
This is a challenge to librarians and library administration.  But I don't think it is one that is insurmountable.  Nor do I believe the challenge can be ignored or considered contemptuously.  Recall Ranganathan's Fifth Law of Library Science - The Library is a Growing Organism.  I believe that libraries are not doomed, as long as they continue to evolve.  An organism that fails to grow or evolve fails to live.  Personally and professionally, I am excited to accept this challenge and prove the worthiness of the library and librarians (including myself) to the the most skeptical.

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