Monday, July 30, 2007

PL 24/07: NTC – Listen to your public

Filed under: statistics — plinius @ 1:40 pm

butter4.jpgWhen you collect and analyze data, it is important to be aware of the difference between visitors, users and publics.

Library publics – the community as awhole – consist of users and non-users. Users may be divided into three groups – heavy, moderate and light users – or subdivided even further.

The people we tend to meet in public libraries are the steady customers (the heavies), with a sprinkling of moderates. We know, in general, far too little about the composition of – and the differences between – the various subgroups.

Below I list a variety of data collection methods – related to each of the three groups.

Study visitors

  • Observation
    Is often used to study the user’s sequence of activities and her or his actual physical path through the library. Observation may be participative or not. If it is not participative, it may be overt – people know they are being observed – or hidden (covert).
  • Visitor interviews
    Usually, a sample of visitors during a period are approached for a brief interview. May be used to collect data on their library use in general – or on what they did and experienced today.
  • Exit interviews
    Quick interviews with users on their way out from the library. Often used to register current activities – what people did during their visit – as well as their evaluation of facilities and service (satisfaction).
  • Visitor questionnaires
    Usually, all visitors during a period are asked or encouraged to fill in a questionnaire. May be used to collect data on their library use in general – or on what they did and experience today. Fairly short questionnaires that can be completed then and there are recommended.

When you investigate visitors, you are really studying the universe of library visits rather than the population of users.

Study users

  • User interviews
    A sample of users – usually from a list of registered or active users – are approached for interviews. Since these often takec place in peoples’ homes, they may be a bit longer than the “surprise” or ad hoc visitor interviews.
  • User logs
    Since users and loans have to be registered, all lending transactions between users and libraries are logged by the systems, whether they are manual or electronic. Library systems
  • User questionnaires
    Questionnaires are sent to a sample of users – usually from a list of registered or active users.
  • Focus groups
    Small groups of users – typically 5 to 8 – are “interviewed” as a group about their library experiences and expectations. The setting is more social and normal than is the case with questionnaires and interviews.

Study publics

  • Personal interviews
    A sample of persons from the local community – both users and non-users – are approached for interviews.
  • Personal questionnaires
    Questionnaires are sent to a sample of persons or addresses.
  • Focus groups
    Small groups of people from the community are “interviewed” as a group about their views on the library.
  • Informant interviews
    People with a special position in – or exceptional understanding of – the local community are interviewed. Such interviews, which are very common in anthropological field work, tend to focus more on the informant’s perception and interpretation of the total situation than on her or his personal views and experiences.

There are many other methods that could be used. They are described in numerous books on methodology and social surveys. In smaller libraries I recommend methods that are simple, standardized and so cheap that studies can be repeated often. If necessity is the mother of invention, repetition is the father of understanding.

Do not confuse visitors with users

One statistical mistake is very frequent. People study library visitors – and assume the results apply to library users. This is not the case.

I will illustrate with a religious example. In Norway, 85 % of the population are members of the Lutheran State Church. We could call them State Church users. On an average Sunday, about 3 % of the population attends High Mass. These are State Church visitors.

Our first female minister was ordained in 1961. Six of Norway’s nine bishops boycotted her ordination. Our first female bishop was consecrated in 1993.

I note, in passing, that Denmark ordained their first female minister in 1948 – and Sweden in 1960. The Anglican Church of South Africa did the same in 1992 – and the Mombasa Diocese of the Anglican Church of Kenya in 2000.

If I want to know what our Lutheran visitors think about female bishops, I could conduct exit interviews on Sundays. If I want to know what our Lutheran users think about female bishops, I would have to phone or visit them in their homes.

The distribution of answers will probably differ a lot. Conservative Lutherans often go to church every Sunday. Agnostics and atheist members of the church – there are lots of those – might visit once a year – on Christmas Eve, at a wedding or at a funeral.

In the same way, a random sample of library visitors will necessarily include a high percentage of intensive library users. Those that come nearly every day have a much greater chance of being selected than those who only visit the library a few times a year.

Frequent users are probably more satisfied with the library than infrequent users – otherwise they would stop coming. Thus, visitor studies are likely to give an image that is too rosy. If you aim to serve the community as a whole, you should listen to the public in general – non-users as well as users.


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


Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: