Rust never sleeps—not for rockers, not for libraries

NeilYoung-blog-banner

In 1979, Neil Young—one of my favorite artists—released the album Rust Never Sleeps. It represented a conscious recognition that his music had to evolve to appeal to the changing tastes of a new generation. It’s a message I took to heart then, and it continues to impact me today in my work with libraries.

How can libraries stay relevant? By remembering that rust never sleeps. And that the treatment for library rust can be found in one word: assessment.

What is library assessment?

At OCLC, my research colleagues and I seek to understand what motivates people to engage in information environments. Then we propose responses that impact library use. We call it “putting the library in the life of the user.”

That’s what assessment is all about. It’s a structured process to learn about user communities and to evaluate how well libraries support them. In many ways, libraries have been doing this for years. Think of all the numbers we’ve collected in the past to show value—answered questions, collection use, program attendance, gate counts, website visits, etc.

What’s changed in assessment is urgency and focus. We’re shifting from stats to stories in order to demonstrate how libraries impact people’s lives. And we need to do it quickly as competition for funding increases.

Assessing your assessment

If, when you hear the word “assessment,” you groan or sigh… something is not right. It should make you excited. Assessment should be like solving a fun puzzle or going on a journey, not tracking stats. You’re going to learn what people are actually doing in their information lives. You’ll find out what they want and how they engage with your programs, spaces, events, and collections. You’ll get some compliments on what’s working well… and find some areas for growth. But then you can move forward with confidence.

The assessment mindset

Want to get into the best headspace for creating a good assessment environment? Start here.

  1. State your goals. Why are you doing this? What do you want to know? What do you already know? What can you do with the results?
  2. Claim your team. Who has a heart for change? Who cares about the result? Who is dissatisfied with the status quo? There’s your team.
  3. Collect your tools. How will you gather data? Observation, surveys, focus groups, interviews? You need to choose an appropriate method for getting the information you need.
  4. Commit to change. As I once was told as a doctoral student, “If you ask a question, be ready and willing to do something based on the answer. Otherwise, don’t ask.” What things are you willing to change? Don’t assess anything not on that list.

It’s far too easy to make incorrect assumptions about your users’ needs and motives. Make a commitment to get to know your community, what they’re doing now, and what they’d like to be able to do.

Rust is forever

In 1979, Neil Young’s place in the music industry may have been in doubt… at least in his mind. But, in 1994, Rust Never Sleeps was voted as one of his top albums. He realized that staying the same wasn’t an option, even if you’re doing well.

Library assessment is iterative. It should be occurring all the time.

Users have more choices outside the library and new ones every day. But you can adapt. You can empower your library and staff to change and stay highly successful while providing offerings that your community expects and wants.


If you’re interested in learning more about library assessment, please join me Tuesday, August 14 for Digging into Assessment Data: Tips, Tricks, and Tools of the Trade, and Wednesday, October 3 for Take Action: Using and Presenting Research Findings to Make Your Case. These webinars are part of a special series about assessment that brings together research and practice and provides useful, actionable data to promote and demonstrate the critical role your library plays in your community. Register now for both or for the one that interests you. All sessions are being recorded, if you’re not able to attend. There’s also a Learner Guide available with activities to complete to help you get the most out of the webinar experience. The Learner Guide is valuable for those working together as a team to explore a library’s assessment needs. One cohort of learners working through the series and related exercises is comprised of members of the OCLC Research Library Partnership, and they have been gathering for virtual meetings as the newly launched Library Assessment Interest Group.

Photo credit: Darren Hauck/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images