This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, March 8, 2000

March 8, 2000 - Library Measurement

Librarianship is like any other business. You have to watch the numbers. But -- like any other business -- the question is, "which numbers?"

The traditional measure of library services is "circulation." In some respects, this is like sales. Circulation is what people check out the door. (Let's just ignore for the moment that most of our sales are also, technically, "returns." In business, that's bad. In librarianship, that's good.)

If we just count "checkouts", the Douglas Public Library District is doing very well. Our increase of use far outstrips population growth. And why not? Our adult demographic profile almost defines the ideal library user: well-educated, white collar, upwardly mobile, lots of kids.

But -- like any other business -- our environment is changing. New uses are emerging, new expectations, new demographics.

I believe there are three areas of significant growth in the demand for library services, particularly in Douglas County.

The first is reference. What do reference librarians do, exactly? Well, the public piece of their job is pretty simple. They answer questions. This varies from the elementary school student's last minute research assignment ("What's the chief export of Bolivia?") to the idle telephone inquiry ("What does ëhumongousí mean?") to thorny investigations into abstruse market conditions for potential products ("how many Douglas County households have replaced their roof shingles in the past five years?").

There's the problem with reference. An easy question equals a count of ... one. A hard question equals ... one. In sales, items involving different costs have different values. In libraries, the distinction is not so clear.

But here's what I do know. We get many more -- and much harder -- questions than we used to.

The second area of growth is children's services.

Ask the following question to the next three adults you meet: "When you were a child, what book changed your life?" Chances are, there is one.

Then ask the next question: "Who told you about it?" Where there's good library service, the answer is, "The librarian in the children's department." Just how, exactly, am I supposed to measure that?

I don't know. But I do know that we're working hard to add, and to educate, library staff around library services to children. If you haven't seen our new service stations in the children's area already, you'll see them soon. I can't think of anything else we could do that has such power to transform our communities.

From the business perspective, why are we doing this? Because a smart counselor in the world of bibliography builds our customer base. In other words, a good children's librarian has the power to hook you into a lifelong pursuit of reading.

Like any good sales professional, a children's librarian knows the product, knows the customer, makes the sale, and keeps you coming back for more.

The third area of library measure is electronic services. And here, I must confess, the whole profession is in utter disarray.

Think about it. The library has a web page. What, exactly, does a "click" mean? I can sure count that. But is it equal to a checkout? A reference question? A suggested book?

There are lots of ways to look at this. A positive spin is that when librarians add a new reference link to a web site, lots of our patrons will click along for the ride. They're curious to see what it has to offer. That never happened with our reference books. So web sites encourage our patrons to explore more of our collection, to serve themselves.

But it's very hard for us to know whether or not we've made the sale. In the old days, librarians made sense of hard books. But some web patrons don't ask us for help with a balky database.

Should we count the click? The number of database retrievals? The number of pages printed?

Again, I don't know.

I've decided that library statistics fall into one of four types.

The first is Availability. For instance, we count the number of library branches, or library hours, or staff, or magazine subscriptions, or databases subscribed to, or Internet terminals.

The second is Incidence. It's the number of transactions: checkouts, reference questions answered, programs held, people who walked in the door, photocopies made, links that somebody clicked on.

The third is Relevance. Here, the difference is between a book somebody pulled off the shelf but left on a desk, and the book checked out. "Relevance," in this context, just means, "looked promising."" And at present, none of our statistics really measure this, with the possible exception of our occasional survey that asks people if they actually found what they came in for.

The fourth library measurement is Quality. In this area, we join the ranks again of merchants and professionals. You may check out and read a bestseller. Was it any good? Hard to know.

In a business and librarianship, it's good news if you come back to buy something else. In medicine or law, it's bad news if the first visit didn't fix things.

In libraries, the things we measure do little more than point towards kinds of activity, and our measurements often don't capture useful meanings. Science is about numbers, hard facts, clear relations. Library Science, I've decided, is about much fuzzier relationships. It is, in sum, not science at all.

It is art.

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