September 8, 2009
Musings on the ABA Questionnaire
It is that time of year when 1Ls flood the elevators and academic law librarians turn their eyes to the ABA Annual Questionnaire - an item on the "to do" list that never seems to be without controversy. This year I was happy to see that the ABA is not requiring libraries to report on title or volume counts. This was not unexpected, but you never know. We still count volumes, microfiche, etc. at my institution. In addition to the benefits noted below, it gives me a weird sense of pleasure to see some sort of numerical value for the dollars I am entrusted to spend wisely. Even after I told the respective librarians who have been responsible for keeping these statistics that the ABA was not asking for these numbers anymore, they gave them to me anyway, accompanied with a conspiratorial wink and the advice: You might need it for the Dean! Which is, of course, true. Afterall, librarians started "counting" so their sultans, kings, etc., could brag about the size of their collection to each other, and presumed that the Librarian collected with an eye toward quality.
Title/volume counts served as a common assessment tool for libraries at a global level for decades, and still remain a viable assessment tool if used properly. In fact, the newly adopted fourth edition of ISO standard 2789 on library statistics still includes this type of data as it did in 1974, when the standard was first adopted. The problem with the ABA questions that considered title/volume counts is that they were extremely superficial. A quantative analysis should include subject reports and acquisition rates that match the core collection (whatever that is) and the school's curriculum. They should then be cross referenced to the median and mean age of the collection. This is library school 101, but the ABA did not get it, or perhaps did not care. The ABA only wanted to know the number of items that a library purchased and our acquisition rate en masse.
That en masse number is, more or less, meaningless and demonstrates a lack of care or understanding about librarianship by the accrediting body for law schools. I am, therefore, happy not to feed that lack of understanding with a meaningless number; however, I would probably argue for a more thoughtful approach to quantitative analysis that help show how the library contributes and responds to the intellectual life of the school. Does this sound familiar? Try ABA Standard 601(a) - though counting titles is only part of the equation.
So with the ABA dropping the title/volume count from the questionnaire, I was curious to see what the evaluation would entail. Would we truly move into an era of qualitative assessment only? My impression is that "their" idea of a qualitative assessment is just about as well developed as "their" idea of quantitative assessment. Unfortunately, it does not go far beyond asking us to define what method (focus groups, surveys, libqual), if any, is used at the library to measure user satisfaction. At least it is a start.
To take it a step futher, the questions should be more targeted to demonstrate at least some understanding of current library trends. They should choose to focus on questions that ensure libraries continue to take action in support of the ABA Standards for law libraries. For example, the questions could track certain standards such as 601 (being an active part of the educational community) and/or 605 (which deals with providing bibliographic instruction among other things). To check on those standards, a series of question that goes beyond identification of methodology for assessment could be introduced and phrased more like these samples:
- What steps does the library take to ensure information literacy training for the first year students? For faculty? For themselves?
- What subject specific workshops does the library host on an annual basis?
- Do the librarians train law journal staff members how to research and how to source checks?
- Do librarians routinely distribute/collect evaulations in response to their educational sessions?
- Do librarians collect written or oral evaluations of librarian services from the governing >faculty?
- What active changes have been made to these programs during the past year in response to user feedback?
The questionnaire also asks to identify any new services implemented by the library within the last year. The question about our services should not be limited to the last year. Many programs take years to perfect and should always be counted. Focusing on what changes made to library services in response to the user population evaluations during the last year is more indicative of how the library is working with the community at large then simply asking about new services generally.
That is the sum of what the ABA is asking of us with respect to a qualitative measure of materials and services. They still ask for the cost of items by type, and they still ask for the amount of shelf space left to grow into. That last one escapes me. I wish there was more emphasis on the ratio of librarians to students and faculty. I think I am not alone is saying that I could use a few more librarians. I know people worked hard on the questionnaire, but I wish it had more meat, and I wish it tracked the ABA Standards that we strive to meet. Whatever they end up being. (VS)