One of the major themes of the 2009 IATUL Conference (International Association of Technological University Libraries) this week has been quality. Always a dry topic, but the combination of different perspectives - IATUL's collaborative programs, plus examples from Germany, Belgium, Poland and New Zealand - made for an interesting session on Tuesday
It was particularly engaging to hear Martha Kyrillidou, of the (US) Association of Research Libraries. Martha is Director of ARL Statistics and Service Quality Programs, and is responsible for the LibQUAL library customer survey instrument. In Australia, this is a rival to the Insync survey, used by most university libraries. At Swinburne, we use both, and we will be running a LibQUAL survey in September.
Martha's slogan "only customers [can] judge quality; all other judgements are essentially irrelevant" was interesting. I think I agree with it, but it conjured up one of my favourite quality questions "If the customer was delighted with the reference service, does it matter that the answer was wrong?"
For some reason, librarians love use and user data, the more the better. Perhaps it is because they find people more problematical in their immediate forms. Whatever, we use many methods of listening to users, and watching them too. Total market surveys like LibQUAL and Insync are one method, but we also use include quick surveys, traffic and other counts, use statistics (loans and online resources), interviews, and more. The association of Australian university librarians, CAUL, has adopted the slogan "Cheap, useful, fairly valid" to describe its official approach to statistics. This is a means of setting some boundaries around the whole user data enterprise, which sometimes threatens to get out of control.
ARL recommends two LibQUAL surveys each year. They would say that, of course, just as a butcher recommends meat twice a day. We find that a bit less than annual is OK. Most survey data is not particularly volatile - the changes are small - and the cycle of physical and financial improvement is a couple of years. There is a new LibQUAL Lite version coming out shortly, which may make it simpler to run a survey.
At Swinburne, we have added another dimension to the task of understanding the user, and have recently appointed a User Experience Architect, Dana McKay; Dana has described her role recently. Judging from the often confused way in which libraries approach technology (sorry IATUL presenters), taking a more systematic approach to the way users interact with the ever-changing technological environment of libraries has to be something we all need.