In chapter 2 some quite diverse problems associated with library services were briefly described. It was suggested that progress in dealing with these problems was hindered by inadequate understandingby inadequate theory. In this final chapter, these problems will be reconsidered in the light of the conceptual framework developed since chapter 2.
Why do libraries differ?
The traditional types of library services (academic, public, school, and special) are generally recognizably different from each other, although each type of library may vary from one country to another. How might this be explained?
The nature of the inquiries that are brought to the library service varies from one sort of context to another. Different sorts of inquiries call for different sorts of services. An author catalog is obviously less useful than a subject catalog for an inquiry framed in terms of subject matter; the ability to browse in open stacks would seem more useful for inquirers whose wants are vaguely defined than for those who know precisely which document they want.
In chapter 6 variation among inquiries was considered and a typology more sophisticated than the traditional known- item/subject inquiry dichotomy was proposed. In chapter 7 we noted the need for each library's collections to reflect the needs and expertise of the population to be served. In chapter 14 the manner in which different sorts of inquiries indicate different patterns of provisions was explored. The conclusion reached was that known differences in the patterns of inquiries provide a plausible explanation of the characteristic differences between types of libraries.
In chapter 11 it was argued that the detailed pattern of provision of library service was largely determined by the allocation of resources to and within the library. Further, since such allocation is fundamentally a political process, it will follow that the values (altruistic or otherwise) of those who do the allocation and such compromises as may be necessitated by the political processes involved will determine the outcome. This, it is suggested, goes a long way to explain differences in the scale and orientation of library services of the same type in different countries. A country with relatively limited resources and other pressing needs for public funds, such as, for example, Zambia, can hardly afford to provide the same level of library service as, for example, Canada, even if the social values were the same. However, even where resources are equally present, differences may be reflected in the proportional allocation of public funds between, say, public libraries, on the one hand, and the restoration of ancient buildings or subsidies for railroads. Such differences in values should not be seen simply as calculated public policy decisions taken by national governments but as reflecting cultures and their traditions. For example, school libraries are unlikely to flourish if the educational philosophy of the school system stresses teaching, standardized curricula, and the authority of the teacher rather than learning and discovery by the child. Even where resources are provided and library use is encouraged, the flavor is likely to differ in detail. North Americans accustomed to viewing the public library as a bulwark of Western, liberal democracy are liable to be surprised to learn that Lenin was an admirer of the public library services of the United States and that he fostered libraries in the Soviet Union. This is surprising only if one fails to distinguish the ideological purpose from the library service as an instrument1 and also fails to see library services in relation to their cultural context. 2 Differences in motivating values are especially likely to be reflected in the allocation when it comes to selection and censorship.
Differences in fashion and tradition within groups of professional librarians presumably also contribute to variations between libraries. However, the two aspects that derive most directly from the conceptual framework developed in the previous chaptersinquiries and allocation processeswould seem to go a long way to explain the differences between library services.
Why aren't library services used more?
That people do not necessarily want to use library services in all cases when they have a need to do so is understandably a source of regret to librarians. Chapter 10 examined the background to, Mooers' dictum that "An information retrieval system will tend not to be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for a customer to have information than for him not to have it." 3 The explanation was seen in terms of the balance between the perceived probable cost (the "real price") to the user relative to the perceived probable benefit and also relative to the perceived probable cost of alternatives to the library service and to not bothering at all.
How should catalogs be evalulated?
The problem of the evaluation of catalogs and other retrieval systems was addressed in chapter 8. Critically important is the separation of three different processes: formulation of the inquiry in the terms of the system; the retrieval process itself; and utilization of the data retrieved.
The retrieval system itself can only retrieve stored data in terms of the attributes used as the basis for retrieval. To the extent to which data consistent with the specifications of the inquiry as formulated are yielded, the retrieval system can be said to be responsive. Whether or not the retrieved data are found by a user to have utility depends not on the retrieval system but on the human being who examines the data. 4
There are, then, two different bases for evaluation. Evaluation in the narrow sense of an evaluation of the retrieval system itself is a matter of responsiveness, of ability to yield consistently the data that fit the descriptions expressed in the formulated inquiry. Evaluation in a wider sense has to do with the utility of the data that have been retrieved and examined. This differs from the narrow definition in two ways: (1) it is not an evaluation of the retrieval system but of the combination of a retrieval system and its users; and (2) it is concerned with human values from which alone utility and beneficial effects derive. It is, therefore, different in scope and different in kind.
Evaluation in the narrower senseof the capability of the retrieval systemneed not be rejected on the grounds that capability is less important than utility since attributes other than utility can be used as predictors of utility. For example, a system that can retrieve documents pertinent to Austrian history reliably and consistently can, in practice, be expected to yield documents useful to a student of Austrian history.
How large should libraries be?
In many areas of manufacturing, commerce, and engineering, matters of size and scale are of central interest. One might reasonably have expected the same to be true in librarianship. After all, every increment in size costs money. Yet, beyond a general belief that bigger is better, the literature of librarianship is almost silent on the topicand what little there is does not get one very far and, one suspects, is little read. 5 In brief, the literature is very limited on what one might have expected to have been a central concern.
There may be circumstances in which library books ought to be relegated to less accessible storage (or even discarded) and there may be circumstances in which staffing ought to be increased relative to (and even at the expense of) acquisitions. A change in size is a change in kind and some restructuring of the pattern or provision, such as decentralization or automation, may become desirable. However, after all appropriate restructuring, the acquisition of one more book would seem to continue to be advantageous, even though, with diminishing returns, the advantage might become very small. In other words, the marginal benefit of increased size appears to remain positive, however slight. Bigger, from this perspective, remains better. The restraint lies outside of the library. At some point, the marginal increase in the benefit to be derived from the next dollar to be spent on books is less than the benefit to the city of the next dollar to be spent on road repairs or the benefit to the university in increasing the number of teaching assistants, or whatever. We should, therefore, expect the literature of librarianship to be (or to become) rich in dealing with the problems of handling increases in size or in the development of a budget of any given size. However, we cannot expect it to be other than impotent in relation to optimal library size because the problem is, in large measure, external to librarianship and can only be resolved in relation to the context of library service and by the political processes of allocation that deal with the allocation of resources both to the library and to rival uses of the same resources.
Adaptability and the survival of library services
Another of the problems posed in chapter 2 was the paradox of the survival of library services in the apparent absence of the effective, reliable feedback that is needed for adaptation. This topic was examined in chapter 10, where the existence of a second and largely independent mechanism of feedback and adjustment was noted: the adaptiveness of the user.
Although library staff may often be unaware of failures in the use of library services, the user knows when the wanted document or the desired data have not been found. To the extent that service is perceived by the users as less than satisfactory, demand can be expected to be reduced. As demand diminishes, pressures on the library are eased. In other words, survival can be as much the result of feedback and adaptation on the part of the user as on the part of the librarian.
It is not suggested that the presence of two feedback mechanisms is a complete explanation or the only one. For example, as noted in chapters 11 and 12, users can and do share in the political processes that determine the detailed allocation and reallocation of resources and, thereby, the pattern of library provision. Nevertheless, viewing the situation as involving two feedback loops appears to go a long way to resolve the paradox.
How does one know whether one library is better than another, or that a given library is currently improving or degenerating? Can there be a single usable measure of library goodness? If so, what is it? If not, why not. 6
One can concoct measures of library goodness7 but their credibility is undermined by the number of arbitrary assumptions that have to be made to piece the parts together. Nor should this be surprising. If one wants to choose an automobile, one considers a variety of different factors: safety, appearance, economy, speed, comfort, and so on. The problem is to relate this battery of factors to one's resources, intentions, and personal set of values.
Although the quest for the Grail of Library Goodness has not (yet) been successful, there has been no lack of measures of performance proposed, nor of people proposing them. 8 There have been plenty of suggestions. What is lacking is a sense of coherencea sense of fitting together to form a whole. It is not that there has been no progress. Yet there is a long way to go, and it is noticeable that the numerous empirical efforts need to be counterbalanced by a greater attention to theory, to context, and to how the bits and pieces fit together.
A discussion that can be very helpful in trying to grapple with concepts of library goodness was published by Orr, 9 who points out that there is a fundamental ambiguity in discussions of library goodness because there are two quite different sorts of goodness:
- How good is it?a measure of quality.
- What good does it do?a measure of value.
Suppose, for example, that one were to amass a collection of Persian prayer books and that, through assiduous purchasing and photocopying, this collection came to be the largest collection of its kind in the world. Unquestionably, this would be a good collection. If one were to add good cataloging and knowledgeable staff, then one would have a good library. It would be good in the sense of quality. We can, in fact, say more than this. Quality in this sense implies capability. Such a library collection is of good quality because it is highly capable of meeting the needs of persons seeking to learn about Persian prayer books.
On the other hand, it does not necessarily follow that even the highest quality library will have beneficial effects. Let us imagine that this collection of Persian prayer books were to be located in Bella Bella, British Columbia, or some other relatively inaccessible and sparsely populated area. What good would it do? In the absence of utilization, it is difficult to imagine beneficial effects.
Unfortunately, both quality (capability) and value (beneficial effects) are difficult to measure, especially the latter. In practice, we tend to fall back on surrogate measures (see figure 20. 1). In particular, income or resources are assumed to indicate capability: "With a book budget that low they can't do much!" or "That should be a good library, just look at the resources they have! " There is an implied causal connection. So there should be in the sense that a skilled librarian ought to be able to improve the quality of a library service if given improved resources. However, the improvement is not automatic any more than buying expensive ingredients guarantees a good meal since the chef may make mistakes. Similarly, it is assumed that if utilization is increasing, then the beneficial effects are increasing. "The children's library is very busy, it must be doing a good job."
Figure 20.1 Concepts of library goodnessSource: R.M. Orr, "Measuring the Goodness of Library Services: A General Framework for Considering Quantitative Measures," Journal of Documentation 29, no. 3 (September 1973): 315- 32.,
These assumed connections, which are depicted by dashed lines in figure 20.1, are not unreasonable so long as it is remembered that the tightness of the connection can vary. Several things can go wrong. In particular, the type of capability being provided needs to be related to the sort of demand to be served. The capability being offered may be more or less inappropriate for the pattern of demand in the context where the library service is provided. One can imagine library collections more appropriate to the probable demand in Bella Bella than Persian prayer books. Similarly, relocating the latter to Vancouveror, better yet, Teheranwould increase utilization and hence, presumably, beneficial effects.
The distinction between capability and beneficial effects helps illuminate the questions addressed earlier in this chapter. Libraries differ both because different capabilities are appropriate for different needs and because views and preferences regarding beneficial effects vary from one cultural context to another. Lenin recognized the capability of the public libraries of the United States. He chose to adapt them to a different definition of beneficial effectsthe development of a Marxist society rather than a capitalist democracy. The evaluation of catalogs and other retrieval systems in the narrow sense of their responsiveness is concerned with capability: the study of the utility derived from their use is a matter of beneficial effects. The larger the library's collection, the greater its capability, although increasing a library's capability by adding more books needs to be balanced against other ways of improving libraries, such as longer hours of service and better assistance. Converting resources into capability is primarily a matter of technique and technology. Deciding what sort of capability to provideand how much of itis a political decision, as is the evaluation of the probable increase in beneficial effects to be expected from increasing the capability of the library compared with the beneficial effects that might be derived from expenditure on other things outside of the library.
The concept of library goodness is ambiguous: "How good is it?" and "What good does it do?" are valid but quite different questions. Orr suggests another goodnessthe goodness of library managementthat would be reflected in tighter connections between the elements in his schema: more capability for any given increase in resources, more utilization for every increase in capability, and so on. 10
Such improvement in the effectiveness of library management and in our ability to grapple with concepts of library goodness calls for greater attention to library services in theory and in context.
Go to Bibliographical Note
1 For an account of the role of libraries in a country that is not a Western liberal democracy see Committee for the Compilation of the History of the Library Service, "The Library Service of Our Country During the Last Ten Years," Union Research Service (Kowloon) 19, no. 8 (April 26, 1980): 105-15; 19, no. 10 (May 3, 1960): 130-49. (Translated from Peiping, Pei-ching Tahsueh Hsueh- pao (Peking University Journal), No. 4, 1959.)
2 In using the word "cultural," we are following Sir Edward Tyler's classic definition of culture as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Primitive Culture, 187 1, quoted in R. C. Benge, Libraries and Cultural Change (London: Bingley, 1970), p. 11.
3 C. N. Mooers, "Mooers' Law or, Why Some Retrieval Systems Are Used and Others Are Not," American Documentation 11 (1960): 204.
4 "Value is not inherent in, nor is it carried by, an information message. Consequently a message has value only in context. It is given value by its users." R. S. Taylor, Value-Added Processes in Information Systems (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1986), p. 203.
5 A noteworthy contribution is D. Gore, ed., Farewell to Alexandria: Solutions to Space, Growth, and Performance Problems of Libraries (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976). Other writings include B. C. Brookes, "Optimum p% Library of Scientific Periodicals," Nature 232, No. 5311 (August 1971): 458-61; M. K. Buckland, Book Availability and the Library User (New York: Pergamon Press, 1975), chap. 2 and Appendix A. See also references in footnote 15 of chapter 2. For an informal discussion of responses to growth of university library collections, see. R. C. Swank, "Too Much and Too Little: Observations on the Current Status of University Library Resources," Library Resources and Technical Services 3. no. I (Winter 1959): 20-31. (Reprinted in R. C. Swank, A Unifying Influence (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 198 1), pp. 65-80.) See also M. D. Cooper, "Economies of Scale in Academic Libraries," Library and Information Science Research 5, no. 2 (Summer 1983): 207-19; M. D. Cooper, "Economies of Scale in Large Academic Libraries," Library and Information Science Research 6, no. 3 (JulySeptember 1984): 321-33.
6 This section is based on M. K. Buckland, "Concepts of Library Goodness," Canadian Library Journal 39, no. 2 (April 1982): 63- 6.
7 For example, "document exposure," see M. Hamburg et al., Library Planning and Decision-Making Systems (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1974).
8 The principal guide to this area is F. W. Lancaster, Measurement and Evaluation of Library Services (Washington, D.C.: Information Resources Press, 1977).
9 R. M. Orr, "Measuring the Goodness of Library Services: A General Framework for Considering Quantitative Measures," Journal of Documentation 29, no. 3 (September 1973): 315-32, esp. p. 319.
Go to Bibliographical Note
Copyright © 1988, 1999 Michael K. Buckland.
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