The theme for this month’s international Open Access Week celebration is entitled, “Redefining Impact” and will focus on alternative metrics (altmetrics) and the emerging realization that there are better ways to measure the reach of one’s research than simply how many times a published article about it is cited. Publication certainly has value, but in today’s world with so many faster, far-reaching, and varied means of communication, scientists and others in academia need to recognize – and track – how well their work is or isn’t getting to its intended audience (and, perhaps, beyond).
Similarly, with funding harder to come by and the cost of everything rising exponentially, e.g. healthcare, education, food, clothing and shelter, the pressure is on from administrators, funding bodies, and the general public for these expensive endeavors to demonstrate their value. If the NIH gives a scientist several million dollars to carry out research, the expectation is that the outcomes will be worthy of that grant funding. If you pay $100,000+ for a four-year education, you expect to walk across the stage four years later with more than a piece of paper claiming you have a degree. More and more, we want demonstrable value for our investments.
In such an environment, we have to begin to investigate these altmetrics. For libraries, the traditional practice of tracking gate counts, circulation statistics, reference transactions, collection size, and other straightforward numbers that measured … well … numbers, it is past time for looking at alternative means to really answer the question(s) of our worth. As Steve Hiller, director of assessment for the University of Washington Libraries noted in an article for Information Outlook last year, we need to ask, “What makes a library good?” We need to look at these traditional metrics and ask if they’re truly yielding measures that matter. (Information Outlook, 16(5), Sept/Oct, 2012)
Yet, value is a difficult thing to measure in numbers, of course, and this is what makes the task so difficult and, often, elusive. There are many articles and blog posts and online discussions on the topic of assessing the value of libraries, written by people with much more expertise in the area than I have. If you’re interested, I’d recommend Megan Oakleaf’s white paper, The Value of Academic Libraries, that grew from the ACRL-commissioned study of the same name, as a starting point.
In this post, I want to ask instead how we measure not the value of libraries, but librarians. What are the altmetrics that we need to collect on ourselves to demonstrate that the work we do matters to our patrons? As an academic librarian, I’ve built my portfolio of those tools that we tell researchers to build themselves. I have my ORCID profile, my ResearcherID, and my ImpactStory. I’ve registered this blog with ScienceSeeker. I have a LinkedIn account. I put my presentations on SlideShare. I tweet prodigiously (@mandosally).
These things have been successful in raising my profile within my profession. They’ve garnered me a small band of loyal followers, invitations to speak at conferences and to be part of webcasts, the opportunity to teach classes to a number of library staffs, and the odd-but-thrilling connection with a few real celebrities. It’s all wonderful stuff and I wouldn’t trade a bit of it. But… what does any of it say regarding my value as a librarian to the research community that I serve here at the University of Massachusetts Medical School? How do I measure that? What altmetrics are there that I can track and collect and show to my administrators to prove to them that I am, in fact, adding value to the work of the people that I serve and thus, ultimately, to the library?
I thought of this question earlier in the week when I was putting together a traditional altmetric profile (how’s that for an oxymoron?) for a faculty member here. As part of OA Week, we want to give a presentation on altmetrics and my library profile just isn’t going to cut it for an audience of researchers, so I asked Dr. Sherry Pagoto if I could use her as a guinea pig to set up all of the previously-mentioned profiles for her. Her reply was, “Cool! Yeah, I’d love to see this data (I think!). I’ve been wanting to set this kind of thing up but haven’t gotten to it, so this will be fun!” Later, when I had her ImpactStory profile pretty well done, I tweeted it (of course!) and it prompted this “transaction”:
To me, this is an unequivocal demonstration of my value as a librarian on that particular day. I did my job and I did it very well and I have the proof, in a tweet, of this fact. Great, isn’t it? But short of taking screen shots of tweets and email replies, short of catching conversations with grateful patrons on video and posting them to YouTube, short of saving notes and phone messages and journal entries describing “good days”, how do I systematically capture all of this “value”? It’s a challenge. It’s perhaps THE challenge that any and all of us who work in information, innovation, and intellect, and the service roles that operate in those realms, face. It’s perplexing.
This week I’ve been reading Kim Dority’s book, Rethinking Information Work, and I really resonated with her sentiment that ultimately we are all self-employed.
And believe it or not, this is good news. Because if we understand that regardless of our current employment situation we are solely responsible for the well-being of our careers (and paychecks), that means we can take control. We can focus not on lifetime employment, but on lifetime employability.
One thing that I often find myself saying to colleagues, particularly newer grads from library schools, is that when you successfully embed yourself in the work of your patrons, your own value – and your job security – rises much more than if you were only trying to prove your value to your library directors and managers. This is because, if you want to talk numbers, there are more of them than there are library directors and managers. The word gets out that you’re worth having around – that you can do this and that and the other thing that they never knew before. And suddenly, you have done for yourself what can’t easily be captured on any annual evaluation, but is worth much more. You have made yourself employable, regardless of any circumstance. In a time of tight budgets and job cuts and the very real struggles of librarians to keep their libraries open, this is likely the biggest asset you can have.
Perhaps for a long time, librarians depended upon their libraries for their value. We counted on the intrinsic value of the institution to give us worth. Perhaps today, however, it’s the institution that is dependent upon those of us who work in it to bring that value back. And this is why, I believe, we need to shift the discussion from measuring the value of libraries to measuring the value of librarians. Those are the altmetrics that I’m still waiting to see emerge.