Thursday, October 9, 2008

PL 48/08: Putting statistics to work 1

Filed under: IFLA, statistics — plinius @ 5:04 pm

Next year IFLA will meet in in the marvellous city of Milan.

Some people stay forever in Milan …

I have not visited Milan itself for forty years. But I had the good fortune to go to Florence (twice – to study Italian) and Bologna only a few years ago. It will be great to come back to Italy.

With a bit of statistics, of course.

IFLA’s Statistics and Evaluation Section is planning two events in Milan. Michele Farrell is in charge of of the session Statistics for cultural heritage. I have offered to organize a session called Statistics on the agenda (or possibly Statistics for advocacy) – with the assistance of several other members. Navigating the IFLA system is nor for the faint of heart.

The formal call for papers will come in due course. In the meantime I have started to write down some of my own ideas about the practical use of library statistics – to win friends and influence decisions.

Applied statistics

As a statistician I believe in statistics as a practical discipline. Like many other professions – teaching, architecture, medicine – it has to apply general principles in variable situations (Schon). We learn statistics in depth by working with many different cases.

Let me start with a statistical fact. Asker is an affluent community south-west of Oslo. Last year, Asker Public Library registered 440 thousand visitors. This corresponds to 8.4 visits per inhabitant.

What does this number mean? How was it measured? What is its purpose? How can we use it?

Library statistics are intermediate products. They are the end results of complex data production processes. But data as such have no value unless they are used as inputs – for the production of library services. The purpose of statistics is to improve services. To interpret statistical data, we must place them in an operational context.

This is easier said than done. Libraries are changing under the impact of digital technology. But our statistical systems are conservative. The way we produce and utilize data is still shaped by print and paper rather than by digital  technology.

Traditional publishing

We see this most concretely in the way statistics are published. In a digital world, all public data should be made available in convenient digital formats. In that way, professional users can choose how to present and analyze the data, and are not restricted to the variables, indicators and cross-tabulations selected by library authorities.

At the moment, only a few countries make the full data sets available. In the United States, the Institute of Museum and Library services (IMLS, created …) clearly understands the value of such access:

Researchers use data files to perform customized data analysis not available in the web tools and publications. For example, publications and web tools may not make available an analysis using the particular variables the researcher needs.

Source: Choose the link Using Data Files on the page Public Library (Public Use) Data Files.

I also note that their home page includes Library statistics as one of their eight main headings …

But the power of tradition is strong. Most countries still stick to paper, to paper-oriented digital formats (like PDF), or to preselected combinations of digital variables when they publish their data. The traditional forms of publishing impede the use and reduce the value of the data that library organizations so strenuously collect.

More installments expected



About IMLS

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support professional development.


Libraries and museums help create vibrant, energized learning communities. Our achievement as individuals and our success as a democratic society depend on learning continually, adapting to change readily, and evaluating information critically.

As stewards of cultural heritage, information and ideas, museums and libraries have traditionally played a vital role in helping us experience, explore, discover and make sense of the world. That role is now more essential than ever. Through building technological infrastructure and strengthening community relationships, libraries and museums can offer the public unprecedented access and expertise in transforming information overload into knowledge.

Our role at the Institute is to provide leadership and funding for the nation’s museums and libraries, resources these institutions need to fulfill their mission of becoming centers of learning for life crucial to achieving personal fulfillment, a productive workforce and an engaged citizenry.


1 Comment »

  1. […] 48/08. Putting statistics to work 1. How to reason with statistical […]

    Pingback by P 8/12: News from the North « Plinius — Sunday, March 4, 2012 @ 10:33 am

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