This summer, on a sweltering July morning, I had a Saxby’s coffee with Mary Marissen, librarian at Swarthmore College. She’s taking on some new roles in assessment at the library and we met to talk about emerging trends in this area. The “interview” below is based on our conversation, and pursuant email exchanges. It runs the gamut from overcoming resistance from faculty regarding “assessment”, to connecting initiatives to the strategic planning process.
NBT: How did you come to take on your new role of assessment?
I have been working in libraries as a paraprofessional for a number of years, first in the Boston area, and then at Swarthmore, starting in 2002. I eventually began working toward an LIS degree and graduated from the Drexel iSchool in 2012 while continuing to work in the technical services department in McCabe Library at Swarthmore.
In the summer of 2014, I was offered the opportunity to work on the first user experience research at Swarthmore for our online catalog, Tripod. I found myself really interested in and engaged with user research and I’ve become a bit of a proselytizer here ever since then. My work on the project helped launch me to a professional position and assessment was added to my new title and responsibilities.
NBT: Did you bring any special background, or education, to this – or is it an ongoing interest?
In a word, no. But responsibility for user research and assessment seem often to go together in professional responsibilities elsewhere and so it made sense when applying for the promotion to put them together. Swarthmore has always done assessment, but I began to take a more active role and have become the convener for our standing committee.
One of the many wonderful things about Swarthmore is the deep level of support for professional development. I’ve taken the six courses required for the certificate in UX from the Library Juice Academy and I’m currently enrolled in an excellent LITA course on Contextual Inquiry. I’ve received support to attend the Design 4 Digital conference for Library UX professionals and also the Library Assessment Conference in Washington last fall. I’m grateful for the time I’m provided for learning and thinking in addition to the expectations there are for planning and doing.
I think it’s fair to say that there is some faculty resistance to the word assessment here, so one of my interests is in how to begin to shift the perception from assessment being an imposed compliance responsibility to an appreciation for understanding and value — learning from meaningful assessments and making productive changes as a result.
NBT: How is the work of assessment organized at Swarthmore? Do you have a committee, or is it just you?
Swarthmore has had a standing Assessment Committee for a long while. When I began to take responsibility, I had the benefit of an excellent strategic plan already in place to provide a framework and orientation for what to do. Although that planning cycle is coming to a close, it has provided a great template for informing new work.
As someone who has taken on assessment or user experience studies as a new part of their job scope, how do you prioritize your work?
This has been one of my biggest challenges and steepest learning curve! I moved from very task oriented library work — highly detailed and interesting– but task oriented. I knew at the end of the day exactly what I had accomplished and what I should begin working on the next day. This is an entirely different world for me, albeit a more interesting one, in which there are big-idea projects I need to approach, involving much more thinking and strategic planning. I love that, but I sometimes struggle with setting priorities for myself. I’ve tried different organizational tools, Trello, a simple calendar, a bullet journal. None of these are magic. I’d love to hear how others answer this question!
NBT: What are the advantages of doing assessment at a small college?
I love working at a small college because I know everybody and can reach out to almost anyone for help or to talk through an idea. We’re a relatively flat organization and people are usually very willing to cross traditional departmental lines to work together on projects of interest. There is a lot of flexibility here as a result and it’s great.
NBT: Are there particular challenges?
I suppose the advantage of knowing everyone can also be disadvantageous. Many of us have been here a long while, and despite the flexibility, we may bump into some preconceived notions of what work ought to be done and by whom. But we’re lucky to be incredibly well resourced and supported. It’s difficult to think of disadvantages.
NBT: You’ve mentioned a couple of times how the strategic planning process connects up with assessment. Could you expand on that?
Swarthmore Library’s strategic plan was largely shepherded by a good strategic thinker at Swarthmore, Kate Carter, the Head of Digital Initiatives and Strategies. She pulled a team together with the Assessment Committee at the time. The plan was substantive and aspirational. I think the goals they identified are timeless in nature. In fact, we could probably just keep them all and substitute newer objectives and different approaches that continue to guide us and keep us current.
After looking back at the plan cycle coming to an end, we realized that there is a tension between the aspirational nature of it and finding ways to actually accomplish the things that are in it. We were getting bogged down keeping track of things and almost making things up, by simply doing some things and then going back to look for how they might fit the plan instead of the other way around, having the plan guide what we do. So we started to think of something shorter and more accomplish-able. We also consciously tied it to the priorities of Swarthmore College for the first time. This was made easier by the College also identifying three strategic areas for planning. But now that we’re finishing up work on the plan, I wonder if we are setting the bar high enough. I think so? But I’m not positive.
NBT: What are you most looking forward to in your new role?
I’m eager to launch our new strategic plan. The conversations we’ve had to identify priorities and articulate goals has been inspiring. I’ve also received approval to hire some student user experience workers beginning in the fall, and I’m really excited about training them, getting them to work and implementing changes as a result.
On that positive note – we’ll wrap up. Thanks very much for being so open with sharing your thoughts on assessment and planning. Good luck, and I’ll look forward to talking with you again next year.