As the crow flies, it is about 180 miles from London to Aberystwyth. As the combined railway services of Virgin Trains and Transport for Wales go, it’s a good deal longer than this – and takes the best part of 5 hours.
So as a performance measure of this country’s railway service, this journey does not score highly in terms of efficiency. But the scenery as the train winds its way through the valleys of mid-Wales, before reaching the west Wales coast is all very pleasant.
And therein lie the vagaries of performance measurement – a quantitative measure of time or a qualitative measure of experience? Both can be valid if the context is appropriate.
And this gives me a tenuous and tortured introduction to explaining the reason for my journey ….The 13th International Conference on Performance Measurement in Libraries took place from 23rd -25th July at Aberystwyth University’s Penglais campus.
Conference accommodation was provided in student flats in the Penglais Farm student village. Impressive clean, modern facilities and soon after arrival I gave the shared kitchen space a quick inspection, as the conference preview blurb had emphasised these were at the disposal of all delegates. Tea bags – tick; fresh milk in fridge – tick. So far, so good. But no cups! An oversight perhaps, or maybe deliberately arranged to give a more authentic shared student accommodation experience. The lack of cup provision meant I trotted along to the dining hall on the first morning in greater need of tea than I had hoped. But a good breakfast set me up for the first full day of the conference.
Enough of the peripherals…. Let me share some thoughts and observations from the conference itself.
We had a very thought provoking keynote address from Simon Tanner (Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage at Kings College London) to open the conference. Prof Tanner spoke of his lifelong attachment to libraries, and the challenge for libraries (in all sectors) to capture and measure the social and community value that they give. This can give a more powerful case for supporting library development than KPIs as he questioned the worth of these; referring to the example of the National Museums Northern Ireland service being given a target of delivering 80,000 digital images in a year – with no criteria set around quality or accessibility.
The keynote sessions and panel discussion were made all the more engaging by the use of sli.do – an audience participation tool, enabling delegates to post questions and comments to the speakers during their talk. These were worked into the dialogue at breaks in the discussion, as well as being used to compliment to the more conventional Q&A approach at the end of the talks. This worked really well, giving an immediacy to the interaction.
The conference always attracts delegates from a breadth of countries which gives a great diversity to the types of libraries represented. This also brings a great diversity of job titles but there is a commonality around endeavouring to achieve the most efficient and effective ways of gathering, presenting and analysing data about our library services. North American University libraries generally have a Head or Director of Assessment on their payroll. Some UK institutions are beginning to blend assessment and user experience. But I’m more comfortable with having a shared ethos among a library leadership team towards evidence based planning and decision making.
The sessions were clustered under the topics of Learning, Teaching & Research; Spaces; Collections; Learner Analytics and Methods.
It was interesting to hear about some of the work being done by EBSCO to partner with libraries in developing tools to measure digital engagement and impact.
With our various current library estate projects, I was also very interested to learn of the experience of the University of Limerick where a recent building project has doubled the library’s seating capacity. They have also rolled out an Automated Storage and Retrieval System for their printed collections. The four stages of evidence based decision making described as being central to this project were international benchmarking; user feedback; collection analysis and post-occupancy evaluation. All of which chimes with our approach to the Northampton Square library extension, the Law Library moves and refurbishment work at Cass.
One of the papers which attracted most questions and debate was from Conference Chair Frankie Wilson (Bodleian Library) – Are incentives ethical. This revealed various approaches towards involving students in reviewing and assessing library services – cup cakes, payments, Amazon vouchers (these led into another ethical debate). And from this discussion came a very useful mantra to remember – avoid only oiling the squeaky wheel and remember the often silent majority in the middle.
It was my first visit to this part of west Wales, great to be able to do so with fine summer weather. I managed to fit in a lovely coastal walk taking in Cladrach bay….and the town’s promenade offered great views out towards the Irish Sea, particularly as the sun went down. The National Library of Wales building was very impressive and its current exhibition of folk, protest and pop would have made for an interesting diversion had time permitted. I was pained to see the abandonment and subsequent neglect of the town’s early 20th Century Carnegie Library. But it was refreshing to see plans for a thorough restoration of the Old College Building (pictured below), this hosted the conference reception.
A very enjoyable conference, giving real insight into current practice around gathering data and analytics in libraries across several countries. It gave me several ideas to take forward in our space and service planning work – a privilege to be able to attend, and the good fortune too of taking in the sea air while London stewed in a heatwave.