A Preponderance of the Evidence

It is fairly well known that the field of business management can be susceptible to fads. Organizational scientists have studied the adoption of business approaches like management-by-objectives, total quality management (TQM), business process re-engineering, just-in-time manufacturing, scorecard methods, and others. Their work has led to an interesting body of literature about management innovations and organizational change.

One idea from this literature is that management innovations can morph from demingthe original ideas of their founders. Over time TQM began to promote practices that quality gurus like W. Edwards Deming warned against, for instance, bestowing individual rewards for quality objectives accomplished. And sometimes organizations take liberties with the specifics of an innovation. They might
Dr. Deming               decide to use only the components they’re most comfortable with or add their own idiosyncratic twists.

Recently, the business profession came up with yet another data-driven bandwagon known as evidence-based management. And some in the library profession have become enamored with this new technique, in the variety I just named or in the form of “evidence-based practice.” Both varieties have been inspired by “evidence-based medicine,” an idea that surfaced in the early 1990’s in the field of medicine.1

Evidence-based medicine began with a specific objective: to systematically collect clinical research studies, assess their validity, reliability, and relevance, and synthesize study conclusions for physicians to use in making individual clinical decisions. Because one of the system’s main tenets is the need for objectivity, its practitioners have instituted strict procedures to make sure review summaries are impartial. Preferably, several studies on each medical topic should be reviewed and compared. (This is because single research studies cannot necessarily be trusted. Their findings can easily be subject to measurement, sampling, or design errors. Plus, studies can contradict each other, leaving it to the profession at large to sort things out.)

Despite its complexities, evidence-based medicine is an application of the common sense notion that verifiable data should be a part of any decision-making process. In the arena of management this has simply been thought of as sound decision-making. And the basic managerial idea has been around at least since the late 19th century. (Some of the earliest data-intensive management practices came from the railroad industry, where accurate tracking of cars, freight, rates, and schedules was essential.) Use of valid data for decision-making has been the foundation of scientific management, financial accounting,  managerial control, and performance measurement as taught in business schools for decades.

ManifestoLast year School Library Journal ran an article with the intriguing title The Evidence-Based Library Manifesto. I am not sure whether the title means that the Manifesto was supported by evidence or that this is a clarion call for evidence as a desirable thing. In any case, the title happens to perfectly express (sorry, I’m getting philosophical here…) a basic paradox that government and not-for-profit organizations face. Evidence is objective, empirical, and systematic while a manifesto is pure subjective belief and opinion. This is the dilemma of rationality versus commitment that Aaron Wildavsky explored in his classic article which I cited in a prior post.

Anyway, the gist of the SLJ article is that school libraries need to mobilize to justify their existences and that the libraries should capitalize on empirical studies that prove their effectiveness. In a 2009 article the same author, Ross Todd, wrote more about this:

At a local school level, evidence based practice of school librarianship seeks to demonstrate the value-added role of a school library to the life and work of a school—outcomes that center on learning, literacy and living…2

So let’s see. If we translate this quote into the terms of evidence-based medicine, we get:

At the level of the individual physician/practitioner, evidence based medicine seeks to demonstrate the positive effects of the physician’s overall professional practice on the patient–effects that center on good health, healthy life-styles and living…

To which I respectfully respond (excuse my French), “Au contraire!” The function of evidence-based medicine is not to promote or commend physicians’ decisions, but rather to inform them.gold The practice has no agenda other than to help improve clinical decisions and patient health. Todd’s 2009 article even mentions this point in a description of a “gold standard” for evidence-based education which frowns on use of advocacy studies due to their inherent biases. Yet, the school libraries Manifesto aims to rally support for this use. WebJunction’s new model of “library management competencies” also urges librarians to “use evidence-based management to demonstrate the value of the library.”3   And the title of an editorial in Evidence Based Library and Information Practice promotes this stance.4

I am all for our profession conducting advocacy and action research, outcome studies, and return-on-investment and cost-benefit analyses. But I believe we ought to name these what they really are. This is a truth-in-advertising thing for me—I admit it. Gathering information or devising studies to confirm the benefits, value, or impacts of libraries is not evidence-based practice or management. I don’t think we’re helping things by mis-applying these new buzzwords. Their definitions tend to mutate, sometimes to the point that they are just plain wrong. And this fuzziness can lead libraries to believe they are using one tool when in fact they are using quite another.


1   See Trinder, L. and Reynolds, S. (eds.) (2000). Evidence-based practice: A critical appraisal, Oxford: Blackwell Science.)
2  Todd, R. (2009). School librarianship and evidence-based practice, Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 4(2), p. 88.
3  Gutshe, B. ed. (2009). Competency index for the library field,, Seattle: Online Computer Library Center, p. 2.
4  Koufogiannakis, D. (2009).

6 thoughts on “A Preponderance of the Evidence

  1. Applying management principles is so complex that what is called the same thing (whatever it might be called six sigma, lean manufacturing, TQM, evidenced based management…) in two companies are often incredibly different.

    I don’t think it is really possible to use a title of a program to say an organization is managed well. I believe in Deming’s management ideas. But companies saying they are using those ideas is often not very close to the actual ideas. And I think that is true for whatever the management style is called.

  2. So, based on your argument, can there even be such a thing as “evidence-based librarianship?”

    You say that “[t]he function of evidence-based medicine is not to promote or commend physicians’ decisions, but rather to inform them. The practice has no agenda other than to help improve clinical decisions and patient health.” Could we modify this to say the following?:
    “The function of evidence-based librarianship is not to promote or commend librarians’ decisions, but rather to inform them. The practice has no agenda other than to help improve decisions about library service delivery in order to meet patrons’ needs.”

  3. Thanks for your comments, Kerry!

    Based on the understanding of evidence-based medicine I’ve gained from exploratory reading in that area, its main function is to improve clinical decisions in order to improve patient health. So, certainly, your re-phrasing this to apply to libraries seems just fine. The point is that this EBM as an approach values impartiality. Underlying that I suppose is the value that patient welfare should be first, and that balanced and impartial views of potential treatment steps are a requirement. So, having a a bias or up-front agenda (whether this be favoring a particular treatment in EBM or ‘showing’ a library’s value in EBLIP) is not an impartial position.

    As to whether ‘evidence-based librarianshop’ can ‘ever be’, Glen Holt, editor of Public Library Quarterly, has campaigning constantly to get librarianship to begin amassing a sound body of research-supported knowledge that can guide practice. So, I think EBLIP, by whatever label it might be known, needs to be a professional aim.

    I suspect that library management and programming is not nearly as detailed and specific as health care. We many fewer client “types” than health care, I suspect. That is, our clientele cannot be segmented into categories analogous to the myriad of diagnoses/illnesses
    the medicine has. Thus, our treatment protocols, if you will, will not be nearly as numerous.

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