Measuring the Value of a College Library

| April 14, 2011

This article at the Chronicle of Higher Education takes up the important question of how to determine and measure the value of college libraries. Academic departments have been increasingly asked in recent years to justify themselves by quantitative measures, like how much grant money they take in or how many articles their professors produce. This has become a frequent subject of debate in philosophy departments, because fields in the humanities seem to be at a disadvantage when asked to compete along quantitative dimensions with, for instance, science departments. However, I was surprised to hear that the trend in favor of quantitative analysis has spread even to libraries. Some researchers are pushing back, claiming that conventional and quantitative measures of “Return on Investment” in libraries do not reflect their true values.

I agree that it seems difficult, maybe even impossible, to put an accurate number on the value that libraries provide to their colleges. But, just to play devil’s advocate, I ask you to consider the difficult spot in which university administrators find themselves. The recession has decimated many universities’ budgets, and the money to run things – including humanities departments and libraries – has to come from somewhere. It’s not enough to show that some part of the university is important per se; sadly there may be many more valuable functions to fulfill than dollars to fulfill them. Administrators must make judgments about the relative importances of various parts of the university, in order to make the most of scare institutional resources.

Is conventionally calculated, quantitative return on investment the best way to judge the value of a library? Or, how can we tell what the relative importance of a college’s library is, without resorting to narrow measures of return on investment? Should libraries be taken as non-negotiable core features of colleges? Why or why not?