Libraries are for Use

Demonstrating the value of librarianship

Beyond correlations: Using epidemiology to establish library value


Source: Beyond Books: The Extended Academic Benefits of Library Use for First-Year College Students

Abstract

The purpose of this paper was to investigate whether there are relationships between first-year college students’ use of academic libraries and four academic outcomes: academic engagement, engagement in scholarly activities, academic skills development, and grade point average. The results of regression analyses suggest students’ use of books (collection loans, e-books, and interlibrary loans) and web-based services (database, journal, and library website logins) had the most positive and significant relationships with academic outcomes. Students’ use of reference services was positively associated with their academic engagement and academic skills, while enrollment in library courses was positively associated with grade point averages.

Based on this and a growing base of research, we in librarianship are establishing the correlation of library use and academic outcomes of various types.  We feel pretty confident that library use and good grades, quality academic engagement, and completion are linked.  I think we are ready to move on and investigate this relationship more deeply.

Consider putting this into terms of a public health problem.  We notice a correlation of incidence of cancer with people who smoke.  But is smoking causative or merely coincidental?  This article provides some statistical background to help us ground our own attempts to solve this problem.

In epidemiology, the standard of establishing a connection of agent to disease is called the Bradford-Hill criteria, which I will paraphrase with questions.

How strong is the effect?

One in 9 smokers get lung cancer, and the relative risk of getting lung cancer is 10-30 times greater for smokers than non-smokers.  That’s pretty darn strong.

What about our problem?  This article describes a study in which the authors used quite sophisticated statistical methods (multiple hierarchical regression modeling).  The effect, after adjusting for other factors (see below) on grade points, was about 1.8% overall; that is, student’s use of library services explained 1.8% of the difference in GPA from those who did not use the services, after adjusting for other factors.  However, the effect of using library databases or attending library instruction was over 13%.  Strength is in the eye of the beholder – is this strong or modest?

Is the relationship consistent & stable?

Are some groups of people who smoke more likely to get cancer than others who smoke?   Is the correlation of smoking & cancer more or less strong depending on age, race, sex, location of childhood, occupation, etc.?

Similarly, is the relationship the same for all students in all kinds of institutions in all countries?  The Library Analytics & Metrics Project (LAMP) (formerly called the Library Impact Data Project (LIDP)) conducted in the UK determined that this association did vary for different student groups (ethnicity, education-level, country of origin).

Is the cause specific to the outcome?

Do all people who smoke get cancer?  Do only people who smoke get cancer?  Not likely, so let’s get a little more realistic.  Does smoking make it more likely to get lung cancer?

Regarding using libraries and grades…while there may be many factors that result in higher or lower grades, could using libraries make it more likely to get good grades?  That is what the evidence suggests.

Why?

Why is smoking correlated with lung cancer?  What about smoking could possibly link it to lung cancer?  Over 50 carcinogenic agents have been identified in tobacco smoke.

Now, why would using library be correlated with good grades?  This may seem obvious enough to us, but consider the viewpoint of the skeptic – what about going to the library, checking out books, or attending events lead to a good educational experience?

What else could explain the correlation?

Are people who smoke otherwise more likely to get cancer?  Do people who smoke also get exposed to known or unknown cancer causes?  Would they get cancer even if they didn’t smoke?

Now, applying the same reasoning to our current problem…Why are these two aspects of the higher education experience linked?  Is it inherent? Is there some similarities between them that inherently link library use to good grades or engagement?  (Note that the correlation with engagement may be considered a tautology…engaging with libraries is itself academic engagement.)

Can more exposure cause greater change?

Researchers have established that not only is smoking correlated with lung cancer, but frequency, total years smoking, length of inhalation, and use of filters affects cancer incidence.  Thus, greater exposure to smoking can increase the incidence of lung cancer.

What about the use of libraries on grades?  Could using more service or more books result in even higher grades?  Or more simply, increase the likelihood of getting good grades?  This study did not really investigate this, but the LAMP study has – showing a limited increase in the likelihood of good grades with greater usage…to a point.

In what direction is the association?

It may seem obvious to us now that smoking precedes cancer, but it wasn’t clear when first examined.  People start smoking at different ages, and cancer can develop years before clinical diagnosis.  Studies had to clearly demonstrate that cancer indeed followed smoking in time.

Our problem is more difficult.  We’d like to think that using library resources and services leads to good grades and a valuable learning experience.  Maybe I’m a bit cynical, but I suspect that the relationship is actually the inverse – those who are likely to get good grades know the value of using the library.  And those who get good grades are most likely going to persist and succeed.  And those who are attend events on campus are likely going to attend library events.  But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t work the other way.  Which leads to our next question.

Can the association be used to affect change?

If people never smoked, would the incidence of cancer drop?  What if people stop smoking…would incidence drop?

It has been estimated that up to 20% of all cancer deaths worldwide could be prevented by the elimination of tobacco smoking.
(article on lung cancer epidemiology)

Could students who are failing get good grades after using library resources or services?  This, I think, is what librarians are most interested in determining and demonstrating.  Consider an experiment that actively encourages a random sample of at-risk students to use library services and/or resources.  If these students show greater improvement in grades than those who did not receive this intervention, then the case is stronger that use of libraries does affect grades.

Conclusion

There is a growing body of evidence supporting the correlation of the use library services and resources and academic outcomes of different measures.  Articles like this one are contributing more evidence teasing out the knots of this riddle.  But there are more aspects that need to be explored before we can be more certain about the value that we contribute.

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