Friday, February 09, 2007

Value of Library-Based GIS Program

I want to jot down some of my ideas here about assessing and perhaps even proving the value of providing GIS services in an academic library.

Why Discuss This
... Where the money is allocated reflects our values
... How the money is allocated creates our future

Even since a colleague of mine attended the ARL 2006 Library Assessment Conference, she can not stop telling everyone how fantastic a speaker Chancellor John Lombardi (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) was and how powerful his message was. Lombardi's dilemma is whether or not to allocate the 50 million dollars necessary to make the needed physical renovations to the library. As opposed to converting the space to a 26 story study hall. (See for more background on Lombardi's presentation.) Chuck the books into an off-site storage facility and go library-less like the University of Pheonix, eh?

This really set the library community (and our library in particular) abuzz. Forcing us non-assessment focused librarians to ask ourselves:
What is the value of the academic library?

As a GIS Librarian, I want to turn this valuation lens upon my own little corner and ask:
What is the value of GIS services in an academic library?
How do we measure this and and report these measurements as proof of value to the library administration?

But let us get down to nuts and bolts. Assessment really serves 3 purposes and these are my purposes.
  1. How effective are the ways (techniques) we are using to provide GIS services
  2. Prove/describe current value of GIS services
  3. Prove/describe potential future value
What are library-based GIS services?

The goal of libraries are to bring together technology, services, and collections in one central location and GIS services mirror this perfectly.

GIS Librarians seek to bring together in one place (1) geospatial technology, (2) instruction/assistance services, and of course (3) data collections. The strength of a library's GIS program can be analyzed by examining the strengths/weaknesses in these three areas. For example, at UT Arlington our strengths are definitely in service and technology. We are extremely aware of this imbalance and are slowly but surely correcting it. (Now, I will never admit to this. If you ask me about this weakness I will claim someone hijacked my blog and put this sentence there.)

What is the value of these library-based GIS services?

As with all assessment in libraries these days, it is oh so difficult to measure outcomes and impacts. We have been and continue to measure inputs, processes, and outputs (see here for an informal example), and this is easy to measure. However, the strong emphasis on outcomes and impacts have made us all rethink how we do assessment.

So, how the heck can I place a value on GIS services? What can I measure? Even though I keep throwing out the term GIS services, I really mean technology, services, and collections. Of course there is some overlap, but I think it best to approach these three components individually.
  • Geospatial Technology
    • Expensive. GIS software is expensive. Thank goodness on our campus the library is not responsible for the paying for the major ESRI and Leica Geosystems applications, but we do provide numerous smaller GIS applications and extensions. The hardware is also expensive. Low-end, or hand-me-down computers are not adequate. Geospatial analysis requires high-end processors (dual core?), sufficient memory, video cards, etc. Add on GPS receivers, tablets, and any other hardware the library wants to provode.
    • Customized configurations. It is very time consuming to create the images for these computers as the ideal computer is loaded with numerous software packages. See here for an example of what I mean.
    • So, how do we measure outcomes and impacts of these extra hardware costs, software costs, and servicing costs? Here is an idea:
      • For the GIS labs with high-end computers, how about setting hardware capability benchmarks on the library's regular PCs and then count the number of times that students surpass these benchmarks on the high-end computers? This would prove the value of the extra hardware expense.
        • Here is how this could work. Install the GIS software on a regular library PC and try various geospatial procedures using different sized files and look for the breaking point. For example, bring in various large-sized raster images (hundreds of megs to a gig), and see when performance suffers to a point where analysis is no longer possible. Another example is to bring in tins of varying sizes. The hard part then would be devising a way to count how many times these benchmarks are surpassed. The easiest way is simply to record a notch every time a staff member is aware of it.
      • Another method is to compare the hardware your library provides to comparable institutions and institutions that you aspire to. These comparable institutions do not necessarily need to be library-based, but may be department-run GIS labs as well.
  • Geospatial Instruction/Assistance Services
    • Also expensive. Staff salaries are not cheap. It would be difficult to hire an entry-level GIS Librarian at a standard $35,000 salary. If hired at such a salary, I imagine it would be difficult to keep her/him.
    • Continued professional development/training is vital in this field. The ESRI Virtual Campus training included with a site license is wonderful, but the times I have attended live training have always been fantastic and well worth the money. But training such as this is not cheap. Not only training, but the time spent playing around is also expensive but oh so necessary. When I go a couple of weeks without a few hours to explore some new facet of GIS I begin to feel out of touch.
    • So, how do we measure outcomes and impacts of these GIS services. It is my belief that a library must provide a high level of geospatial instruction/assistance as service is one of the three pillars of a library. But how to prove it? Here are some ideas:
      • In this case the measurable benchmark would be learning outcomes as devised by the GIS staff. Learning outcomes can be devised for class instruction or even for 1-on-1 interactions.
        • For an example of a basic GIS instruction session, see my first attempt.
        • An examples of a 1-on-1 learning outcome can be that the students will understand and/or be able to duplicate the content of the instruction.
        • These learning outcomes will then be measured using print and online surveys that classes will fill out after instruction and students may fill out sometime after a 1-on-1 session. Perhaps there can be a raffle held each semester to encourage students to reflect on 1-on-1 assistance in an online survey.
      • Ask GIS users (including faculty, staff, and students) what made them decide to use GIS in their research. This would generate extremely valuable outcome data as I know off-hand that more and more students and faculty are exposed to and using GIS as a direct result of my workshops and word of mouth.
      • Count repeat GIS instruction requests by faculty for their courses. Last Fall 06 semester, I was invited to provide GIS instruction to over 40 classes on campus. This semester looks to be close to that number, most classes repeating from last semester or last Spring. This is valuable data.
      • Count acknowledgments in theses/dissertations/papers/books
  • Data Collections
    • To assess data holdings, I am most interested in how well our collections align with the data needs of our students and faculty. The connections between a library's data holdings and possible impacts on student or faculty research are too tenuous to nail down.
    • How can I measure this? To be honest, I am having the toughest time coming up with adequate measurement tools for the data collections.
      • Examine faculty vitae to ensure that our geospatial data holdings meet their research interests.
      • Examine syllabi.
      • Usage statistics. Count the number of times particular datasets are accessed.
      • Compare holdings to comparable institutions.
      • Count the number of times library staff are faced with a user whose data needs are not met by our collections.
Now, do not let this fool you. I am not currently implementing all of these measures. Now that I have taken the time to jot these things down here, I will share it with others and finalize an implementation plan for this summer. OK, now I can get back to something a bit more enjoyable. ;)


Jesse said...

Back in the day, our library was the place to go for data. They kept copies of DRGs, DEMS, DOQQs, etc on CD and most of the data was fairly up-to-date. Today this isn't the case, it would be easier for me to drive to Pitsburgh to visit libraries or just pay USGS or others money to get data. It would be great to be at a university that thought that data and materials (spatial or not) were as important as their physical library collection.

mapz said...

The way geospatial technologies and data are becoming more and more mainstreamed, libraries that do not fulfill this need are setting themselves up for a frantic game of catch-up. Soon enough, the traditional geospatial datasets you mentioned, as well as various spatially referenced quantitative/qualitative datasets, will become standard research resources.

I have worked at 3 university libraries before my current position, and none of them were as future-minded as where I am now. As I said above, every library will get there one day, it's just that some will stumble over themselves catching up.