Demonstrating Library Value Through Outreach Goals and Assessment

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By measuring the impact of their outreach activities, libraries can better communicate their value across the institution.

aerial view of a campus common area
Credit: Stephen Griffith / Shutterstock © 2018

Colleges and universities are evolving to meet the teaching and research needs of their rapidly changing campuses. New methods of teaching, the proliferation of online information, and a call for universities to demonstrate value has created an environment that challenges higher education institutions to communicate their continued relevance.

These cultural shifts have been felt deeply by traditional campus services such as libraries. Long gone are the days when libraries exist merely on the goodwill of campus administrators and the fond memory of the book stacks. Libraries now must justify their relevance to student success, and librarians are responding to these requirements by both designing new services and adapting traditional models for a new era.

As libraries adapt, it is vital that they continually communicate their value to users and key campus stakeholders. This paradigm holds true for other campus services as well, and many are renewing their outreach efforts as a means of attracting a new clientele and introducing new services to long-standing users.

Outreach is a way for libraries to promote their services, demonstrate value by engaging with stakeholders, and show their usefulness and relevance in today's modern academe. To map the impact of their work, however, libraries must use metrics to assess their outreach programming. Further, to create a narrative of value and relevance, libraries must think strategically about designing programs that speak both to the library's mission and that of the university as a whole. By aligning outreach programs with strategic campus priorities, libraries can demonstrate the value of their contributions to the larger campus audience.

Library Outreach

Library outreach activities typically promote services to campus stakeholders: students, staff, faculty, and community members.

Telling the Value Story

Academic libraries engage in many common outreach activities, including student orientations, library open houses, book readings and author talks, student events during finals, partnerships with K–12 schools, and colloquia on copyright and data management. Regardless of how each library engages in outreach, the library profession as a whole seems significantly interested in the ways libraries can use outreach to tell the story of how they add value to their communities.

Indeed, outreach is now appearing more often in librarian job advertisements and as a theme at professional conferences, and there are newly formed professional organizations that focus on library outreach. Further, the conversations in the library literature are transitioning from "how to program successful events" to "how to demonstrate the impact of library outreach." Libraries have much to offer, and librarians are becoming more astute at crafting and assessing the innovative programming that they are developing.

Collaborating with Institutional Initiatives

Library outreach programs and campus outreach initiatives share many similarities, including common audiences and goals. When planned strategically and intentionally, library outreach programs can dovetail with larger campus initiatives and vice versa. However, despite these similarities, successful alignment between library and campus outreach programs is not automatic. The first step in creating outreach programs that support each other rather than compete is for stakeholders to be aware of program similarities, key services, and specialized expertise. If libraries and campus partners lack awareness of each other's policies, practices, and efforts, other campus stakeholders may receive confusing or contradictory messaging.

For example, helping faculty successfully navigate the research life cycle is a priority on many campuses. Such an effort is complex, however, and involves many other stakeholders, including those from offices for information technology, research, and sponsored projects, as well as from research centers, institutional review boards, graduate schools, and libraries. As a result, efforts may be duplicated across different units.

Libraries can play a key role in eliminating—or furthering—this confusion. For example, at some institutions, the library houses a data repository, and the office of information technology (OIT) handles (and promotes) data storage services. As a result, stakeholders may be confused about where to go with their data storage and preservation questions.

When libraries take the lead here and align their messaging with OIT, however, their roles are clear: OIT supplies resources to house active projects, and the library offers assistance with closing projects and providing solutions for long-term preservation for data reuse. As this example shows, ensuring continued communication, outreach, and collaborative training offerings across campus support units can in turn ensure that faculty understand the specific type of expertise that each organization offers.

Developing Outreach Outcomes

Although intentional outreach alignment is ideal, outreach activities are often implemented on an ad hoc basis. Other issues may also stymie efforts to be intentional with outreach:

  • Outreach may not be specifically articulated in mission and vision statements.
  • Units may not have staff or budget lines specifically designated for outreach.
  • Goals and outcomes for individual outreach activities may not be intentional (or even articulated).
  • Organizations may not have a clear view of all potential campus and external stakeholders.

Measuring Program Impact

Evaluating the impact of your outreach programming involves three steps1:

  1. Explicitly stating outreach goals and mapping them to institutional goals
  2. Defining measurable outreach outcomes
  3. Measuring or assessing the impact of the objectives using qualitative and/or quantitative measures

Once you have identified your goals, you can construct associated outcomes for your outreach activities. These outreach learning outcomes (OLOs) break down larger-scale outreach program goals into specific, measurable outcomes that you can achieve through one or more outreach activities.2 OLOs can thus help outreach activity planners identify each activity's specific purpose and indicators of success and ensure that the activity aligns with department, campus, and professional goals.

For example, if an institution has an overall goal of making it easier for new students to transition to campus life, the library could articulate a goal of helping students transition by reducing their library anxiety. The associated OLO could be that students who attend the library's open house event will be able to identify at least two library services that they are likely to need during their first semester of classes. This OLO will help ensure that library staff create a presentation that aligns with the overall campus goal, as well as clarify how the library specifically contributes to it.

OLOs can also help communicate the value of outreach to external stakeholders. Librarians and campus stakeholders can share how involvement in an outreach activity directly supports a partner organization's goals and outcomes and can also align assessments to demonstrate the specific impact of that alignment. Using an alignment grid can help align assessments and activities. Instructors sometimes use alignment grids to help ensure that instructional activities are aligned with course outcomes and goals. Table 1 shows an example alignment grid for the transition example, based on a model designed by L. Dee Fink.3

Table 1. Example alignment grid

Campus Goal

Library Goal




Ease incoming students' transition to campus.

Reduce library anxiety.

Library open house attendees will be able to identify at least two library services.

Graffiti wall shows the prompt "What are two library services you learned about today?"

Carnival-style booths highlight a variety of library services.


Alignment grids can help outreach organizers visualize how a particular outreach activity aligns with strategic goals and priorities and how they might assess that activity.

Assessing with Purpose

Purposeful assessment provides benchmarks for outreach programs and a roadmap for improvement areas. Outreach planners can use these assessments to gain valuable feedback on whether the established OLOs were achieved; they also offer evidence to illustrate how library programs and services impact their stakeholders.4 Outreach conducted without assessment might be viewed as tangential to organizational missions—that is, as a nice-to-have but nonessential activity. In contrast, well-designed outreach assessments measure how outreach initiatives are making meaningful change in our communities.

Assessment that is intentionally and purposefully driven considers methods that will measure whether OLOs are being met. Historically, outreach measures have relied on the easy-to-reach measures—such as attendance—that fail to assess the intricacies of learning and motivation, which can have multiple and complex outcomes. Many factors, including staff training, costs, and staff time, can make prioritizing outreach assessment a challenge for organizations. To help address these challenges, libraries and their campus partners can take a cue from other industries, including museums and event planning,5 as well as explore various assessment approaches (see table 2).

Table 2. Assessment strategies



Quantitative or qualitative?

Considerations and limitations

Capturing comments

Collect thoughts of motivated participants on paper, whiteboards, or other media.


Easy to capture, but responses can be influenced by other comments that are visible; people with differing opinions may not participate.

Compiling social media comments or press cuttings

Gather coverage of an event through social media, newspapers, and other media outlets.


Not all attendees are active on social media, and attendees might use different platforms and/or hashtags from those used by the event organizers.


Capture photographs and anecdotes in a document or report to paint an overall picture of an event.


May require release forms, and not all participants will want to participate; the approach also gathers only a snapshot of one or more points in time.

Focus groups

Interview participants in groups after the event.


Time-intensive for staff and participants; may require monetary (or other) reward for participating, as well as extensive coding afterwards.

Head counts

Count the number of people present at an event.


Quick and easy, but does not address engagement or why people attend

Mini interviews during the event

Conduct brief interviews during the event.


Some staff time needed, and may also require coding depending on the questions; not all participants will be comfortable in an interview, so a confident interviewer is needed to elicit interesting responses.

Minute papers

Ask participants to take one minute to write down an answer to a question.


Quick and easy overall, but may not elicit reflective/thoughtful responses; will require some coding afterwards.

Mystery shoppers

Recruit trained, undercover volunteers to evaluate your event and report their experiences.


Could be a challenge to recruit "shoppers" who are unfamiliar to staff; requires a fair amount of time to create an evaluation form and code the responses.

Observations during the event

Note how participants move through the event and how they interface and interact with the event's content.


Participants' activities and motivations may be misinterpreted.


Administer questionnaires to participants at or following the event.


Time is required to come up with good questions and code the responses.

Vox pops

Document participants' thoughts and feelings via short audio or video recordings.


Requires staff familiar with equipment and technology; many attendees may not be comfortable being on camera.

Note: Some qualitative assessment methods could be quantitative as well, depending on whether evaluators code and categorize the qualitative responses.

Table 3 shows an example template for structured goals, outcomes, and assessments for the example outreach activity described earlier: a first-year orientation event. At this library open house event, students learn about library resources and services by participating in library-themed carnival games. For example, students might play a library version of blackjack, in which they learn about different library services, or visit a green-screen booth to experience technology from the library media studio. The strategic campus goal is to ease incoming students' transition to campus.

Table 3. Example outreach activity




Library open house attendees will be able to identify at least two library services.

Capturing comments

A graffiti wall with the prompt "What are two library services you learned about today?"

Carnival-style booths highlight a variety of library services.

Vox pops using a video discussion platform

Short interviews with selected students about what most surprised them about library services and resources


A survey sent via email to all first-year students so they can provide feedback on all campus orientation activities, including the library's open house

Headcounts offer some value in terms of understanding an activity's popularity, but other assessment measures can provide deeper understanding of internalized knowledge and learning. However, not all assessment techniques are relevant to every type of outcome. Outreach planners must consider which assessment techniques will answer whether their particular OLO was achieved; they must also consider financial constraints, participant willingness, staff time, and training when matching appropriate techniques to their OLO. Ensuring a detailed outreach program that includes goals, outcomes, and assessments lets libraries tell the story of an activity's impact—not only within the library but also in the larger campus community.

Highlighting the Library's Value

Libraries and campus units rely on outreach initiatives to communicate clear, strategic messages to their constituents. Many libraries are now thinking more strategically about their outreach programs, mapping them to broader campus objectives and applying assessment strategies in order to leverage data to tell the narrative of the library's value. Indeed, other campus stakeholders looking to infuse more intentionality into their outreach activities should look to the great work happening in library outreach programs and join with libraries to tell cohesive narratives about the value of higher education.

Strategically designed outreach initiatives provide a way to speak to the organization's mission and create a narrative of value and relevance. By aligning outreach messaging with institutional priorities, libraries and other campus units can ensure that their contributions are both recognized and valued by their outreach partners and the university.


  1. Nina Simon, The Participatory Museum, Museum 2.0, 2010.
  2. Sarah LeMire and Stephanie Graves, "Mapping Out a Strategy: Curriculum Mapping Applied to Outreach and Instruction Programs," College & Research Libraries, May 2018: 1–29.
  3. L. Dee Fink, A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses [], Jossey-Bass, 2003: 22­–23.
  4. Megan Oakleaf, The Value of Academic Libraries: A Comprehensive Research Review and Report, Association of College and Research Libraries, 2010.
  5. Audiences London, Researching Audiences at Outdoor Events and Festivals (, Audiences London, 2012; and Simon, The Participatory Museum, 2010.

Stephanie J. Graves is Associate Professor and Director of Learning and Outreach at Texas A&M University Libraries.

Sarah LeMire is Assistant Professor and First Year Programs Coordinator at Texas A&M University Libraries.

Kristen L. Mastel is Outreach and Instruction Librarian at University of Minnesota Libraries.

Shannon L. Farrell is Natural Resources Librarian at University of Minnesota Libraries.

© 2018 Stephanie Graves, Sarah LeMire, Kristen Mastel, and Shannon Farrell. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0 International License.