An epistemological critique of gap theory based library assessment: the case of SERVQUAL


Library assessment has been an area of professional concern for decades. Earlier
attempts at assessing libraries focused mainly on comparing a library’s performance
with national standards, which were largely input-based. The 1980s saw a marked
shift from this approach to output-based assessment, manifested notably in the
popularity of output centred performance indicators. While output was generally
recognized as an improved perspective for library assessment, it showed nevertheless
distinct inadequacies, particularly in view of the two primary purposes of library
evaluation: to measure a library’s accountability for public support, and to diagnose
areas for improvement. For the former, output was criticized as reflecting only partially
the true value of library services; for the latter, it was criticized as making little sense
without taking users’ experiences into account. Owing to the recognition of these
inadequacies of output-based assessment, user- and impact-based evaluation began to
gain momentum in the 1990s.
SERVQUAL was introduced into the library world in this context and was seen as
an important addition to the array of library assessment tools; it was in fact often
considered as a superior tool over the preceding ones (Nitecki, 1996; Hernon et al., 1999;
Hernon and Nitecki, 2001). SERVQUAL is a service quality assessment tool originated
in and for the commercial sector (Parasuraman et al., 1988). The original SERVQUAL
instrument is formatted as a questionnaire which consists of 22 pairs of statements,
with the first half of each pair measuring customers’ expectations for the quality of a
service, and the second half measuring their perception of the actual quality of the
service. Both the expectation and perception are measured against an ordinal scale;
the discrepancy between the two ratings is called the service quality score. Together,
the 22 pairs of statements measure five dimensions of service quality: tangibles
(aspects relating to physical facilities, equipment, personnel, communication
materials); reliability (aspects relating to the ability of an organization to perform
the promised service unfailingly and accurately); responsiveness (aspects relating to
the willingness of an organization to provide appropriate service and to help
customers); assurance (aspects relating to the knowledge and courtesy of employees
and their ability to inspire trust and confidence); and empathy (aspects relating to the
caring, individual attention that an organization is able to provide the customer).
Unlike traditional library assessment methods which tended to measure library quality
objectively through, for instance, size of collections, error rate, length of hours open,
etc. (Nitecki, 1996), SERVQUAL lays particular emphasis on users’ subjective
judgement, claiming that “only customers judge quality; all other judgments are
essentially irrelevant” (Zeithaml et al., 1990, p. 16).

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