Main content

"A Compass for the Libraries": How the Penn Libraries is Building Assessment into its Mission

Posted on

What does it mean to be a successful academic library in 2021? This is the question that energizes the members of the Libraries’ Impact and Assessment team more than any other. “We help the Libraries answer very simple questions with very complex answers,” explains Andy Sarno, Strategic Planning Officer. “All of those seemingly very basic questions require a lot of raw data, and a lot of analysis, and a lot of [collaboration] with people across the library.”

Led by Joe Zucca, Associate University Librarian for Impact Assessment and Organizational Analysis, the members of the Impact and Assessment team possess a Swiss army knife of skills that make them uniquely suited to this investigation. Their varied backgrounds give them unique insights into the needs of both library staff and library users. Sarno has a background in business and public health, and has spent the last ten years collecting and collating data about the Libraries to share with important accrediting and professional organizations. His fellow data analysis expert is used to handling very complex data indeed; Karin Gilje, the Libraries’ Bollinger Fellow in Data Science, is a particle physicist. “I’m new to libraries, but I’m not new to the library because I love libraries,” she laughs. User Experience Researcher/Designer Katherine Ahnberg and Digital Projects Manager Anna Levine both have library backgrounds, and they bring their knowledge about the needs of library researchers and student users to bear on the pressing questions revealed by the data the team collects.

Clair Johnson is the newest member of the team, and her role as Head of Library Research is unique among academic libraries. She came to the Penn Libraries from the Wharton School and has worked with a number of universities to develop new ways to collect, analyse, and report institutional data. She says her job is “about synthesizing trends that are happening beyond the libraries and developing tools, structures, and programming that will help us address those trends.” This means both gathering data about how academic libraries and their patrons are operating today, as well as teaching staff of the Penn Libraries how to gather and share data about their own work. Less than six months after taking on the role, she has already begun to put her expertise to work, offering workshops for Libraries staff on how to develop surveys that can help all of us meaningfully answer those seemingly simple questions about what we do.

Meanwhile, Ahnberg’s role as user experience researcher is to investigate what those who use the Libraries’ resources need most and to advocate for those needs. That requires talking to people across the Libraries and the University to find out both what happens when a patron interacts with the Libraries and what they expect to happen, always paying close attention to everyday user experiences. “I see myself as the lorax for the trees,” says Ahnberg. Whether she’s working on the launch of the Seat Reservation System the Libraries developed earlier this year or figuring out the best way to explain in-person services to patrons as we begin to return to campus, her job is to constantly examine what systems, designs, and specifications work best for the library users who most need our resources. 

Johnson, Ahnberg, Sarno, Levine, and Gilje all do different kinds of assessment work. But as the team notes, the term assessment can sometimes get a bad rap. The word can have a corporate or emotionless ring to it, one that brings to mind job performance or leads people to imagine distant administrators making large-scale decisions based on unfeeling data. But the work of the Impact and Assessment team goes well beyond surface-level analysis; they want to see the Penn Libraries from all angles so that it can continue to be the best version of itself. “We're really taking the time to get a better understanding of who our users are and how they wish to interact with us,” says Levine. Zucca adds, “[Assessment] is a compass for the library...At the end of the day, decisions are made by leaders based on their instinct, their experience, and their informed judgments. Our mission is to help inform their judgments.”

This approach to assessment has become particularly significant as the Libraries (and the University) shift from the mostly-remote experience developed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and back towards in-person instruction and interaction. This is where the data collection and analysis expertise that Gilje and Sarno bring to the team has become particularly valuable. In the spring of 2020, as we all grappled with a multitude of unknown unknowns, the Impact and Assessment team understood innately that in order to find out how to best serve patrons during an uncertain and stressful time, they needed to start collecting data. Gilje and Sarno set up a dashboard for tracking remote-oriented services like website use, sessions in the Libraries’ online learning platform, and downloads of digital materials. As the Libraries reopened or launched new services, the team added those to the dashboard.

Now, the team is interested to see how people’s needs and behaviors change as we go back to “normal.” Have we all gotten used to the plethora of digital resources we came to rely on during the pandemic? Or will we all be eager to leave our screens behind? These are the kinds of questions the dashboard can help the team answer going forward. 

The world sits at a crossroads, and many of us wonder what lies ahead. What impacts will COVID continue to have on our lives? What will it really feel like to teach classes or do research in person? How have our personal, professional, and institutional priorities changed or stayed the same after the last earth-shattering 17 months? For the Penn Libraries, assessment can help us see the way forward. “You can't get better at something while you're doing it,” says Johnson. “Assessment is that opportunity to stop and reflect on what's being done and to be intentional about what we're going to do going forward.”

We may not yet have all the answers to those big, existential questions about the present and future of libraries, but by integrating thoughtful assessment of our users' needs into everything we do, we can help pave the way and become a better institution.