Monday, May 13, 2013

PL 8/13: Improving practices

Filed under: statistics — plinius @ 3:06 pm

IFLA recently set up a new Committee on Standards.

That is an important step forward. In library statistics, my own field of interest, most of the work on standards goes on behind closed doors, in ISO committees. This makes it hard

  • for other specialists to participate in the technical discussions statistical standards need
  • for librarians in general to learn from the scholarly debate

IFLA’s interest will make these processes more transparent.

The committee made a call for papers for the IFLA conference in Singapore. Five papers were selected, including my own proposal. I look forward to present it. Its full title is:

Improving practices. Statistical standards in global libraries

Standards are recommendations. Library standards are recommended ways of working in libraries.  Standards often differ from practices, or the ways libraries actually work. This is not a problem in itself. The purpose of standards is not to describe, but to improve practices. But standards have no value in themselves. Standards are only interesting if they change the way librarians actually do their work.

We may distinguish between active and passive standards. Nearly all standards are developed by committees that include practising librarians. But active standards interact with their environments. They are openly discussed, widely applied and frequently revised by the library community. The Dewey Decimal System is a good example. Passive standards are locked up in documents that few practitioners read or care about. They are paper tigers.

The paper presents a thesis. For many years library organizations have tried to change the statistical practices of librarians through committees, concepts and proposals from the top. This approach seldom works. The introduction of standards is a political rather than a technical process. Standardization incur costs and imply changes that affect peoples’ interests. Librarians are not willing to change their routines just because committees, without power or money to impose their views, say so. We have to shift from a top-down to a bottom-up approach. That means to start with current statistical practices. It means to improve existing data and procedures, step by step and year by year.

Change can be encouraged at the top, by library authorities and associations. But it can only be realized at the bottom, in the libraries that do the actual work of collecting, interpreting and applying statistical data. The German library index BIX is a good model.

The paper will present empirical evidence for this thesis. We look at the interaction between standards and practices in library statistics, with examples from ISO, OCLC and IFLA and from several countries that have tried to introduce statistical standards during the last decade.


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  1. […] PL 8/13: Improving practices. Paper for the IFLA Standards Committee. […]

    Pingback by PL 16/13: IFLA voices 2013 | Plinius — Monday, August 26, 2013 @ 4:26 am

  2. […] Singapore 2013 I wrote a paper on statistical standards and also had a poster stand (on traffic observation) together with Bozena, my wife […]

    Pingback by PL 1/14: My year in statistics | Plinius — Wednesday, July 23, 2014 @ 12:57 pm

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