Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Statistics and librarians

Most librarians live and die by statistics. In many public libraries, funding is given to the library by local governments based on how many people in the town have used the library each year, and how many materials they have checked out. Librarians worry about statistics an awful lot, maybe more than some people in some other professions, since, for the most part, libraries are not-for-profit organizations. Since libraries don't have profits to show at the end of the year for their hard work, they use statistics to show how effective or ineffective they are being.

Over at the Information Wants To Be Free blog, librarian Meredith Farkas talks about the difference between Numbers vs. meaning.  One example she gives in particular that stands out is "reference desk transactions are down," and the inevitable panic that library patrons are not using the reference desk "enough."

In certain types of libraries, this can be a real problem. It may lead to the cutting of a reference librarian position, or reduced funding for the library in a public setting. Panic over the reduced usage of this vital service is understandable.

But one thing a number or a statistic doesn't tell you is WHY the reference desk  transactions are down. They could be down because a reference librarian is doing a stellar job, and so people are not making repeat trips, due to getting the correct information the first time. It could also mean that since the renovation, no one can FIND the reference desk. Or there is a nasty or imposing staff member. These are all things that numbers and statistics alone can't tell us.

Sometimes, as librarians, and as professionals, we worry way too much about the number itself, instead of what the number means. We see the immediate effect of a number going up or down--potential lost funding or staffing, so we may try to artificially inflate a usage statistic by directing people to a different desk, or requiring that all questions go through reference, even when they do not need to. What we really need to be doing is getting to the heart of what those statistics actually mean, and addressing the core problem.

If you do have a stellar staff member who makes sure all of a customer's questions are answered in the first transaction, acknowledge that! See if you can get other staff members to follow suit! And try to drive up your usage statistics by making patrons aware of just how wonderful your reference staff are. Promote reference services, allow users the "opportunity" to try out the skills of your excellent staff.

If no one can find the desk, move it! Or at least move those creepy plants that keep people from seeing those wonderful shining faces waiting eagerly to help. If it's a grumpy librarian, see what you can do to minimize or change their impact. Different solutions to different problems all represented  in the same number.

Remember the book "How to Lie With Statistics" from college? That's because numbers, themselves, do not mean anything. They only have meaning when we provide them with context and explain them. Just a note to librarians to remember to focus on the MEANING of the number, and the CAUSE. Don't just fixate on the number itself.

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