Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Neverending Story (of Assessment)

A while back, during the first year of this blog's existence, I wrote about how I see librarianship as an asymptote. I never stop trying to improve my professional practice. The same thing, obviously applies to the library where I'm a director. That's why assessment is such a crucial part of my (and every librarian's) job. Lots of people act like "assessment" is a vulgar word, but if you approach it properly, it can be your friend.

The thing that everyone hates is assessing things just to assess them. The useless counting heads without figuring out why people are there, or the circulation stats that mean nothing in a vacuum. But I'm here to tell you that assessment needs to be part of everything you do, and if you plan for it assessment can be easy. (In this post, I'm intentionally focusing on a more typical set of circumstances. I'm glossing things over a bit to show you how you can and should integrate assessment with everything you do.)

Let me walk you through a typical project, and how assessment factors into each stage:

  1. Identifying a Need: the beginning of any project is an assessment in and of itself. Paying attention to what's going on around you and noticing a need - whether in your work processes or to address community concerns - is making a judgement and therefore an assessment.
  2. Initiating the Project: gathering your stakeholders and discussing why the project is needed, even if it's just making your case to your boss, already has judgement involved as well. The issue here is making sure you do it intentionally. Stakeholders are people who will be effected by a project, and this is an important step of any effort. Sure, Project Awesome will make things smoother for your patrons, but how will it change the workflow of the person/people who manage your circulation desk or your website or whatever? Thinking that through is one of the most important assessments in any project and you can't do it alone. This is also where people typically establish a goal (why are you doing this project?) and desired outcomes (specific, measurable end results). 
  3. Design/Development: Sure, sometimes the perfect solution presents itself, but just as often you need to design something to solve the problem. Keeping stakeholders involved so they can give you feedback is crucial. If something is complicated enough, you will want to test early iterations of the solution as well. That can be a pilot of your new instruction technique with a faculty member who trusts you or asking a friend who works at another library to try to find something on the test website. Take lots of notes here. 
  4. Implementing the Project: This is rolling out your shiny new "thing". Taking notes about timing and people involved and such is important. How long did it take? Did people say anything about the "thing" while it was happening?
  5. Formal Assessment: Did you achieve your goals? Outcomes? Why/why not? This is writing the report for your director or reporting back to the instruction committee. This is also the point at which you try to figure out how to improve even further, which starts this list all over again since it's another example of identifying a need.

The biggest thing is that it absolutely has to be a cycle. You never stop assessing just like you never stop trying to improve. And with a little luck (dragon), that's exactly what you'll do.

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