Evaluating digital services: an alternative reality
Sorry for what I’m sure will be a longish post. This is a bit of a brain dump —
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how libraries determine if services that they provide are successful. Well, specifically, how libraries determine if digital services that they provide are successful. And after attending DLF and listening to more than a few folks talk about very cool digital programs, I’m starting to think that libraries view digital programs as living in a kind of alternative reality, where the rules of regular evaluation and assessment don’t apply.
Our recently retired University Librarian and I would spend a good deal of time talking about assessing digital projects. However, the months prior to her retirement, we spent a lot of time talking about digital services and the necessity for libraries to being looking at those services that we provide critically and assess their feasibility in terms of impact and cost of operation.
I think in the library world, there is a feeling that libraries need to catch up, and in many respects, catching up is a code-word for building digital programs, creating mobile sites, creating institutional repositories, etc. It could be a lot of things – but I think the question that sometimes gets lost is the question of if a library should participate in those activities. Let’s use the institutional repository as an example. I know that libraries and librarians love to jump on the open access hobby horse (yes, I’m quite cynical about this one), but does every library need to have an institutional repository. I’d argue no. In fact, OSU’s IR is very successful when compared to other IR efforts in the library community, but even here, I sometimes wonder if its necessary for an institution of our size to maintain such a repository. I honestly think that as repository efforts go, OSU’s is one of the best. At the same time, I know how many resources (both infrastructure and people) go into delivering this service and because of that, I sometimes get discouraged when I consider the substantial costs per item. At the same time, I see how this effort becomes more important to the campus and the library each passing year as more content finds its way into the IR.
At the same time, it seems to me that the concept of an IR is an old one. Yes, organizations want to maintain walls around their information to demonstrate ownership and provenance, but in reality, I often times believe our patrons would be much better served with repository efforts that removed the concept of the organization. Thinking about OSU’s repository efforts…could this work have more impact if we could leverage a larger state-wide repository effort. For that matter, couldn’t every institution in Oregon. And why would it have to just be statewide…again, those are fairly arbitrary boarders.
I think the thing that I find myself struggling against sometimes is that libraries search for digital services to distinguish themselves and provide services that make resources more readily available for their patrons. But we often times have approached this the same way we build traditional print collections. We start a local program, brand it, promote it. When in reality, the digital space provides libraries an opportunity to work outside the traditional boundaries of ownership and build more collaborative services. And collaborative not in the sense that I run and IR and you run and IR and we have an API that let’s us communicate with each other – but collaborate in the sense that we build tools that everyone shares. We see this model happening and it will happen more as libraries are forced to justify stretched resources, but I often times think that we could be doing so much more today.
Anyway – what has got me thinking about this lately has been talking to people about users and their digital services. Over the past couple of months, the number of times I’ve spoken to folks building mobile sites, or grant driven projects that excitedly talk about 500 visitors a day, or 2000 visitors daily – and see those numbers as justifying tens of thousands of dollars of startup monies or locking up finite FTE resources makes me wonder if libraries have lost their minds, and should be doing better assessment with our digital collections. Because of MarcEdit’s automatic updating, I know that it’s opened over 5,000 times daily. A few of my map cataloging tools on my page that I don’t even update any more get a few hundred visitors a day – these are tools that are created in my spare time, with little resources – yet many times, have larger audiences than many digital library services being spun out by libraries. And yet, it are these vampire projects that are siphoning valuable time and resources away from libraries and make really transitive development more difficult.
This isn’t to say that libraries shouldn’t be doing things. We should. However, what I’m finding myself looking for more and more at digital library conferences, are librarians talking seriously about assessment of their digital assets and projects. They are out there –