Libraries Look to Big Data to Measure Their Worth—And Better Help Students

Digital Learning

Libraries Look to Big Data to Measure Their Worth—And Better Help Students

By Jeffrey R. Young     Nov 17, 2017

Libraries Look to Big Data to Measure Their Worth—And Better Help Students

Libraries have long counted up the books on their shelves to show their value. That meant Harvard University’s library (with 18.9-million books) was clearly superior to Duke University’s (with 6.1-million volumes) or University of California at Riverside’s (with a mere 3 million titles).

These days, though, libraries are finding new ways to measure their worth. They’re counting how many times students use electronic library resources or visit in person, and comparing that to how well the students do in their classes and how likely they are to stay in school and earn a degree. And many library leaders are finding a strong correlation, meaning that students who consume more library materials tend to be more successful academically.

“University libraries are having to explain their place in the world of degree completion,” says Alan Bearman, dean of university libraries and the Center for Student Success and Retention at Washburn University. “As we all know, there’s this big push in the nation about on-time degree completion, and libraries are trying to see where they fit in that world.”

These new measures aren’t just about bragging rights. Many college leaders now see encouraging library use as a way to boost student success.

Washburn University has been leading that charge. For the last six years, it has made the library a key partner in its student-success drive. Officials started carefully tracking how library use compares to other metrics, and it has made changes as a result—like moving the tutoring center and the writing lab into the library. Those moves were designed not only to lure more people into the stacks, but to make seeking help more socially-acceptable for students who might have been hesitant.

“We’ve destigmatized getting academic assistance,” says Bearman. “They can say, ‘I’m going to the library’” instead of having to announce that they’re going for tutoring.

When the writing lab was in a different building last year, about 25 students a month came in. Now that the lab is in the library, about 400 to 450 students per month make use of it.

Because Washburn is a largely commuter campus, officials hope that encouraging students to come to the library will increase the time they spend on homework and studying. And Bearman says he replaced cramped worktables and study carrels with larger furniture to keep students there.

“We know if a commuter student leaves campus, life just gets busy,” says Bearman. “Now they can spread out and stay longer, and as they stay longer the retention rate went up.” Visits to the library have shot up from 108,000 in 2008 to 280,000 last year.

Meanwhile, the retention rate at the university has risen 12 percentage points in the six years since officials started the library reforms. “That’s a massive increase at an open-admissions university,” says Bearman.

Of course, there’s no way to know whether the library visits are causing the improved retention on campus—as researchers like to remind us, correlation does not equal causation. Still, something is working for students, and officials plan to keep watching the data and making design tweaks. And many other libraries are conducting similar experiments with library data (one influential one was done by Adam Murray, dean of libraries and educational technologies at James Madison University.)

Increased Monitoring

Perhaps the biggest change for libraries is creating systems to make library-use data part of the dashboard of options available to administrators across campus.

At Mercer University, for instance, that has meant a partnership between the library, which knows what electronic materials students use, and the technology office, which manages other campus data such as usage of the course-management system. The university is doing a study to see whether library usage there also equates to student success.

Scott Gillies, associate dean of university library at Mercer University, says that having the data at the ready has come in handy when explaining the library’s value on campus. One faculty member, for instance, asked why the library invests so much in online materials when the faculty member preferred print. Gillies was able to show with data that online resources were more popular with students, and heavily used.

He hopes that with the data from their study, “we could be more justified in spending money on electronic resources, and we can be more comfortable with them,” he says. “And maybe it will help us identify areas where we’re under-serving students.”

Librarians working on such efforts say they are careful to protect the privacy of individual students, by stripping out names and only reporting aggregate usage information. “We don’t care what they’re looking up,” he says, “we just care that they’re looking at resources.”

Bearman says his library has also had discussions about protecting student privacy. “We are not tracking what they read,” he said, meaning they don’t try to isolate which particular article was chosen. “We’re not tracking what they search for. We’ve got a pretty clear line there that we won’t cross.”

The issue of privacy also emerged during a session on libraries and data at the annual Educause conference earlier this month.

“How much library data do we want to be part of the student learning record?” asked Shane Nackerud, the technology lead on a library-data initiative at the University of Minnesota. “Do we want faculty to be able to see how much library use students have? They could possibly use it to negatively profile students if they don’t have high library usage.”

He and other library leaders, however, say that it is important for the library to “have a seat at the learning analytics table” to help resolve just that kind of question.

“The library is more than just a repository of stuff,” says Bearman, of Washburn University. “It’s really central to the student-learning experience. There’s a lot of people out there starting to quantify it.”

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