Value and Impact

The imperatives for change and the uncertain future role of the Library in a research-led University naturally lead to consideration of demonstrable value.   Is there evidence to show that the Library’s resources and services add clear value to research outcomes ?

National multi-library statistics (1) naturally concentrate on those aspects of provision and use which can be collected systematically.  They provide indicators of input and output – costs, demand, and scale of use, but not the application of that use. Current measures of outputs are functional and include easily quantifiable such as inter-library loans, loans, e-accesses (variable definitions), and enquiries.  Overall, even though perhaps inadvertently, these data imply that size and use equal value.  However, as Oakleaf (2) states “use is only meaningful if attached to institutional outcomes”.

Most senior administrators and academics will recognise the symbolic value of the Library in a learning and research environment.  Personal and anecdotal examples of important contributions made by the Library are not lacking, but they rarely indicate the essential integration of library services into the academic framework, system, and processes, especially in the area of research.  Universities or researchers can only occasionally observe that “we achieved this and part of that achievement was attributable to the library”.

Some libraries have actively researched the potential for developing their contribution to research support. Many carry out internal investigations to clarify use and value, although these tend to be localised and have not yielded adequate definitions of activity and related metrics.  It is here that the library’s strategic value needs most illumination.  The paradox may be that that the more library services are integrated with academic activity the more difficult it will become to determine a direct relationship.

The setting for an exercise to determine value should ideally be the institutional and discipline-led strategies regarding research.  Once the library has identified measures of success which are significant to the institution it needs to consider in what ways it can help their achievement and to state those ways clearly as part of its mission. This may help to clarify the link between library input and its effect on research.

How can we help to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of research?

Suppose research activity is measured by publication output, grant proposals, grants obtained, conference output, textbooks, awards, patents, consultancy/advisory work.

Is it feasible to link library-related activity to these outputs?  Some studies have found links between researcher behaviour and the library contribution.  For example time spent reading (or its surrogate) may influence effective grant preparation, consultancy, current awareness, the generation of new ideas, improve research results and alter the focus of research.

Attempts to forge these links require keen sense of pragmatism.  Studies have linked citations to grant income generation.  They have found that e-resources can help researchers to be more productive and facilitate the integration of resources into proposals, articles and reports.  But, it should be noted, the system-generated e-use data are not robust nor do they, in isolation, indicate the value of the use.

Similarly library expenditure has been indirectly linked to RAE outcomes but this may simply show that the “best” institutions (those with more money) have the best RAE outcomes and not that there is a causal link between library resources and services and research outcomes.

Oakleaf (2) suggests that a systematic approach to data collection is needed, one which links a selected range of data elements, representing specific library research support activities, to pre-defined research outcomes.  This last should be available in institutional or Faculty records.

A report to HEFCE on the FECs of UK National Research Libraries (3) noted the paucity of data for services which could be attributable to research support.  It notes that dealing with enquiries, access to e-materials, user support of various types, use of group study rooms, and retrieval of material as useful data in this respect.  Some university libraries are developing services targeted at researchers.  These and the more traditional services need careful definition and a clear sense of how they will benefit the researcher.  This supposition then needs tracing through to outcomes.

As digital content grows, many researchers are not aware of the library’s contribution to the acquisition, organisation, location and access to these resources. Their supporting role is hidden.  Can research support libraries afford to allow this perception to remain? During the decade from 1999 to 2009 there was a vigorous growth of institutional income from research grants and contracts income.  Has the library contributed to this in any way?

Qualitative information garnered through surveys (4) or focus groups can be heartening.  For example “They (liaison librarians) provide an invaluable service which facilitates much research, and prevents duplication of experimentation”.  But this kind of anecdotal information needs transmuting into hard evidence if it is to have institutional impact.  A report by the Research Information Network and Research Libraries UK (5) provides a map which links library characteristics to end benefits.  This is a useful schema.  However the library input needs to be more specific and linked directly to quantifiable outcomes.  As institutional prestige and reputation may beassessed via “league tables”, library data would need to be comparable between institutions.

To some extent this would mean embarking on a journey during which researchers and academic staff, in general, are enabled to develop a fuller appreciation of the expertise and skills which can fuel library research support.  At the same time librarians need to develop a realistic assessment of where their contribution will be most valued and why.

Some lack of awareness was shown by a recent survey (4), which contributed to a regional study of the impact of academic liaison librarians.  This showed that the librarians failed to recognise the importance to academics of giving copyright advice, putting content in the institutional repository, and finding an impact factor for a journal. They overestimated the importance of doing a literature search and teaching.  The same study showed a difference between what librarians offer (and presumably think what is needed) and how researchers behave.  The library-related activities which researchers said that they had most often undertaken during the last twelve months were: read an e-journal, used MetaLib, and used a library database.  All of these were independent and unmediated.  Were librarians aware of the nature and scale of this activity?

It is possible that there is a gap between what librarians think they can usefully offer and how researchers actually use library services.  In his hard-hitting article Anderson (6) states “Value that is not valued is not valuable”.   We acquire resources and offer services which we believe to be  valuable but researchers choose  whether or not to spend  time on our offerings based on the value that they expect to gain from doing so”.[1]

  1. SCONUL.  (2011)  Annual Library Statistics.  London: SCONUL.
  2. Association of College and Research Libraries.  (2010)  The Value of Academic Libraries: A Comprehensive  Review and Report.  Researched by Megan Oakleaf.  Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.
  1. CHEMS Consulting. July 2010. TRAC-based review of the National Research Libraries.  A report for HEFCE. (Unpublished).
  2. Cooke, L. et al. (2011) Evaluating the Impact of Academic Liaison Librarians on Their User Community: A Review and Case Study.   New Review of Academic Librarianship.  17 (1), 5-30.
  3. Key Perspectives Limited. (2007)   Researchers’ Use of Academic Libraries and their Services:  A Report commissioned by RIN and CURL.  London:RIN/CURL.
  4. Anderson, R.  (2011)  The Crisis in Research Librarianship.  The Journal of Academic Librarianship.  37 (4), 289-290.

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