By Lola Alapo
At 3:00 a.m. on any given morning when most of Knoxville is fast asleep, the Commons in UT’s John C. Hodges Library is alive and buzzing with students. Some are huddled in group rooms working on projects, while others edit video in newly designed studios.
Students are increasingly considering the library as the place to be on campus–particularly the Commons, a recently renovated area that features a variety of student services and academic support.
But does the library actually contribute to their academic success? That’s one of the primary questions the Lib-Value Project is trying to answer. The three-year collaborative study, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, comes at a time when many universities are facing financial challenges and competing needs for funding academic support.
“The project’s ultimate goal is to create surveys and tools that other university libraries can replicate to assess their services,” says Carol Tenopir, Lib-Value co-principal investigator and director of the UT Center for Information and Communication Studies. Project collaborators include researchers and librarians at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Syracuse University; and the Association of Research Libraries.
Without the luxury of budget increases, many library leaders are being forced to make hard choices about which products and services to fund based on the benefits they provide.
“These measures will help staff demonstrate their libraries’ impact to university administrators who make decisions about funding and donors who support library efforts,” Tenopir says. “Showing the return on investment is critical.”
Lib-Value works in teams, each developing measures for different library collections or services. Tenopir’s team led the project’s review of scholarly materials and measured their value to researchers and faculty members.
“We found that electronic collections are heavily used and contribute directly to the research productivity of faculty and students,” she says. “They have allowed UT faculty over the years to read more items without spending a lot more time and money. Library e-collections provide fast access to high- quality material.”
Although the library is the primary source of articles, its contribution to e-access may be underestimated as behind-the-scenes linking provides access to outside collections seamlessly through Google Scholar and other search tools.
Teresa Walker, associate professor and head of Integrated User Services in Hodges Library, led a team that focused on measuring the Commons’ impact on student academic endeavors. Surveys of students in two undergraduate communication studies courses asked what library services each student used and what their feelings were about the value of the Commons to their UT experience.
The team also surveyed Commons visitors for two weeks during summer and fall 2011. Working with the UT Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, they were able to link the results with demographic data on student retention, success, and years to graduation. Among the survey findings, 70 percent of students indicated the Commons made them feel more involved in the university, 95 percent agreed the Commons facilitated group work and collaboration, and 85 percent responded that the Commons is a place where they could get help with assignments.
Students who used technology services and research assistance the most were also students who made a 3.5 grade point average or above.
“You can’t make the direct correlation between spaces and services and student retention, but you can see the trend,” Walker says.
Recent renovations to the space were an effort to bring numerous academic support services under one roof. These include the Student Success Center, Stat 201 Lab, Math Tutorial Center, Office of Information Technology, and Library Services. “We want to keep seeing that we’re meeting the needs of students and the greater university community,” Walker says.
The Teaching and Learning team, led by Rachel Fleming-May, an assistant professor in the School of Information Sciences, and Regina Mays, an assistant professor and assessment librarian, also collected feedback from instructors about how they used library resources and services in their teaching. Survey results indicated that instructional support was being used; however, instructors need more information about the resources and services available to assist with their teaching.
“In the digital era, students and instructors are searching for guidance about how to use information legally and effectively,” says Walker, noting that the library has responded by adding classes on media literacy, including how to avoid plagiarism.
Another aspect the Lib-Value Project examined was the scope of library special collections, from rare books to digitized photographs. Gayle Baker, professor and the library’s electronic resources coordinator, employed Google Analytics to track access to digitized collections.
Her team tallied how many users visited selected digital image collections, how they reached them, and from where in the world they were accessed. In one month, unique visitors from Knoxville, Tennessee; Berlin, Germany; Delhi, India; and many places in between visited the site.
Baker also found that many collections–the Great Smoky Mountains photos, for example–drew viewers through referrals from blogs. A review of these blogs suggested that visitors weren’t always academics. “The collections not only appealed to historians, but also everyday people with specific interests in the Smoky Mountains,” Baker says.
The researchers also realized that the library has to do a better job branding its collections so viewers know they belong to UT. “It’s name recognition,” she says.
“It might also encourage people to contact us for other donations or to allow their collections to be digitized.”
As the project comes to a close, Lib-Value researchers have been traveling the globe to share what they’ve learned and provide useful tips on how other university libraries can use similar research methods.
The Lib-Value Project web site offers access to databases, assessment tools, and a series of webcasts that explore the findings.
UT plans to continue studying the library’s impact on student learning over the next several years. The library staff anticipates the Commons will play a crucial role in that long-term examination. Judging by the results gathered so far, there will be plenty more late nights to come.