Sunday, July 29, 2007

PL 23/07: NTC – What happens inside libraries?

Filed under: statistics — plinius @ 12:56 pm

butter3.jpgLibrarians have, in general, very little systematic information about what goes on inside their libraries.

They have many impressions, ideas and intuitions that derive from their personal encounters with users on the job. But this information is qualitative rather than quantitative. They know about the types of activity – reading, talking, snoring – that occur in libraries, but not their relative frequencies.

For evaluation, planning and advocacy purposes it is very useful to have solid data in this area. Here I present a data collection method, based on systematic observation, that is not too time-consuming and that can be carried out by the library’s own staff.

Introducing new statistical methods in an organisation is both a technical and a political (or social) process. I assume the work will be carried out by a staff group, with a leader or coordinator. Involving several (or many) staff members is recommended.

But I start with the technical part.

The floor plan

First you (plural) need a floor plan of the library. An architectural plan may be available – otherwise make your own sketch of all areas open to the public.

Patterns of activity will differ from place to place inside the library. People will walk when they browse the stacks, but sit when they try to study – usually. They will talk with friends in cozy corners, but keep quiet in the main reading room – usually.

Divide the public area into zones that you believe have different patterns of use.

Trace a path on the plan that will take you through all zones. Observation takes place while you walk at a moderate pace throughout the building.

Fifteen activities

Second you need to define the activities you want to register. Since you will be observing, rather than interviewing, library users, you must stick to behavior that can be easily observed. Sitting, standing and walking are visible activities. So is speaking and reading. But you cannot – in general – tell which kind of book a person is reading without getting very close.

Below I present a list of fifteen activities. There is nothing sacred about this particular list. IBut I believe that library researchers tend to use too many ad hoc instruments. Most professional library debate takes place within – rather than between – countries. Therefore, standardisation is particularly useful within the national library communities.

The instrument below was made for Norwegian public libraries. It has been tried out in two urban libraries – one in a town with 25 and one in a town with 60 thousand inhabitants. I believe it fits current European settings, but it might need adaptation for use in academic and special libraries.

The fifteen categories are:

  1. Contact with staff
    Covers all direct contact with staff. Here we want to register activities where staff spens time with the users, whether it involves speaking, writing, demonstrating or walking around.
  2. Queuing
    Covers all visible waiting, whether in a proper line or not: waiting for staff, waiting for access to equipment, toilet queues, aso.
  3. Browses alone
    Covers browsing or scanning of items on shelves while standing or walking around.
  4. Walks or stands alone
    Covers standing or walking around without browsing and without relating to library staff or other users.
  5. Sits alone
    Sits alone without relating to media, to library staff or to other users.
  6. Sits alone reading (or writing)
    Sits and reads by her/himself. Includes individual work – reading and or writing – without using ICT. Includes listening/viewing music or other media – without using ICT.
  7. Sits alone with own (mobile) computer
    Sits alone with active computer (screen on). Choose 7 if in doubt between 6 and 7.
  8. Sits alone with library computer
    Sits alone with active computer (screen on).
  9. Browses in company
    Participates in a group of two or more persons that browse or scan items on shelves together while standing or walking around.
  10. Walks or stands in company
    Participates in a group of two or more persons that stands or walks around without browsing and without relating to library staff.
  11. Sits in a group without media
    Participates in a group of two or more persons that does not relate to books or other media or to library staff.
  12. Sits in a group that uses media
    Participates in a group of two or more persons that does relate to books or other media. Does not include grouops with active PC.
  13. Sits in a group with own (mobile) computer(s)
    Participates in a group of two or more persons that is using one or more PCs of their own (screen on).
  14. Sits in a group with library computer(s)
    Participates in a group of two or more persons that is using one or more library PCs (screen on).
  15. Other activities
    All activities not covered by 1-14.

Observation technique

When you walk around, you observe one zone at a time.

In each zone you count the number of persons involved in each of the fifteen activities – as you pass them. Write down the numbers in a standard Observation Sheet with Zones on one and Activities on the other axis.

Observation schedule

The observation tours take place during a sample of days (or hours) throughout several weeks or months. Since activity patterns may be cyclical – on a daily, weekly and annual basis, our data will be more reliable if the total period of observation is fairly long. A full year is ideal, but a period of 3-6 months is probably adequate.

After a bit of training and experience, one observation tour – in a medium-sized library (50.000 volumes) – will probably take 15-20 minutes. In small libraries, 5 to 10 minutes may be sufficient. In large libraries, which may have several floors, it may take 30-45 minutes.

If you want to complete the observation project as fast as possible, I suggest the following observation schedule:

  • Start on a suitable Monday. If the library opens at 9 am, do the first round at 9.30 am. Continue once an hour (starting on the half-hour) throughout the day.
  • On the second week, do the tours on Tuesday; on the third, on Wednesday; and so on.
  • Continue until you have “two full weeks”. This would take about three months.

Your observation data will be more valuable if they can be combined with other data from the same sample of days. I therefore suggest that you register – at least – the number of loans and the number of visitors during the specified counting days.

Data processing

Each observation round results in a hand-written Observation Sheet.

The data can be processed manually or by spreadsheet. I advice processing the data quickly, for instance at the end of each counting day. This means that you get some results immediately – which is good for morale.

Here I suggest one way of handling the process, illustrated by a fictitious case..

Our imagined Maktaba library is open from 9 am till noon and from 2 till 6 pm on weekdays. On Saturdays, it is only open in the morning.

We start the Traffic Observation Project on Monday, January 7 – and intend to observe library activities once a week for the next three months. Our twelve observation days are thus:

  1. Monday, January 7
  2. Tuesday, January 15
  3. Wednesday, January 23
  4. Thursday, January 31
  5. Friday, February 7
  6. Saturday, February 15
  7. Monday, February 23
  8. Tuesday, March 3
  9. Wednesday, March 11
  10. Thursday, March 19
  11. Friday, March 27
  12. Saturday, April 3

If any of these dates are unsuitable because of national holidays (Wikipedia ) or other special events, they may be exchanged between different weeks. March 3 is the Liberation Day of Bulgaria, so a Bulgarian library might switch weekdays between 7 and 8 – observing on Tuesday, February 24 and Monday, March 2, instead. Such switches do not matter as long as they are done “robotically” – and not in order to influence the results.

Once a week …

At the end of each counting day (or early next morning), we

The sums in the right-hand column of the Activity Sheet show you the pattern of activities for the day as a whole. If you want to know the percentages, divide by the Grand Total.

The sums in the bottom row show you the number of observations for each hour during the day. From a statistical point of view you may use the first sum as an estimate of how many persons were inside the library – on the average – between 9 and 10 am. And so on for the later sums.

The sums in the right-hand column of the Zoning Sheet show you the location of activities – and hence of persons – for the day as a whole. This column tells you which parts of the library are most and least used. If you want to know the percentages, divide by the Grand Total.

Since the zones differ in extent, large numbers do not necessarily indicate overcrowding. To interpret the numbers in that direction, you also need to look at the size and function of the zone.

Finally, add the numbers from the hourly Observation Sheets to make a Full Day Observation Sheet.

Aggregating the data

At the end of our imaginary project, we have the following data:

  • One Observation Sheet (OS) for each observation round – 76 alltogether.
  • One Activity Sheet (AS) for each counting day – 12 sheets
  • One Zoning Sheet (ZS) for each counting day – 12 sheets
  • One Full Day Observation Sheet (FDOS) for each counting day – 12 sheets

We can now add all our data, creating

  • A Total Activity Table – which shows the typical distribution of activities in the library during an average day
  • A Total Zoning Table – which shows the typical location of persons in the library during an average day
  • A Total Observation Table – which sows the typical distribution of activities by zone

These Tables will probably

  • confirm many things you knew (or guessed) already – and
  • also reveal some things you and your staff did not know about the library

The advantage, in both cases, is that these data carry weight, since they are based on systematic observation rather than intuition and opinion. Many opinions are perfectly correct – but for decisions they need support.

The “traffic information” may be useful for planning and advocacy as it stands. But doing this just once, is not the best approach. If we repeat the counting from time to time (every third year, perhaps?), we see how usage patterns change.

If we use the information to change library layout and services – and repeat the exercise afterwards, we can measure the impact of the changes. Then we are really entering the virtuous circle of experiential learning:

Routine – Measure – Evaluate – Improve – Measure – Evaluate – Improve … to the stars


Complete teaching materials for Numbers that count – as a single file (Google Docs). – 18 pp.



  1. […] PL 23/07: NTC – What happens inside libraries? […]

    Pingback by PL 18/07: NTC - Numbers that count « Pliny the Librarian — Sunday, July 29, 2007 @ 1:54 pm

  2. […] more information, see NTC – What happens inside libraries , which was included in a workshop at the 7th Northumbria Conference in Stellenbosch, South […]

    Pingback by PL 4/08: Observing the traffic « Pliny the Librarian — Wednesday, February 20, 2008 @ 7:57 am

  3. […] om TTT på engelsk er publisert på bloggen Pliny the Librarian, under tittelen What happens inside libraries. VEDLEGG I stedet for å registrere antall brukere, kan du skille mellom menn og kvinner, eller […]

    Pingback by BoS-2: Tverrgående trafikktelling (TTT) « Statius — Friday, April 4, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

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