Sunday, February 8, 2009

PS 2/09: Private lives and public libraries

Filed under: Uncategorized — plinius @ 8:12 am

killer-whalesTo understand libraries we need to know what our customers are up to.

Public library in Oregon.

The Northumbria conference is a good place to discuss research methods and data sets. I have sent in two alternative proposals. The first one was posted last Sunday. This is the second one.

The full title is

Private lives and public libraries. A quantitative approach to the study of user behavior


The paper presents and demonstrates an effective way of gathering statistical information about user activities (traffic) inside libraries. We outline the method, describe the procedures in sufficient detail for practical use, present traffic data from about twenty Norwegian public libraries and indicate how such data can be used for advocacy and strategic planning.

Design and methodology

Librarians have, in general, very little systematic information about activities inside their libraries. Staff meets users every day, so there is no shortage of impressions, ideas and mental images. But this information is ad hoc and qualitative rather than systematic and quantitative.

Count the traffic (CTT) is a cheap and simple method to gather such data. It is based on regular and systematic “tours of observation” through the public areas of the library. It can be carried out by the library’s own staff rather than by hired consultants. The data gathered will tell you, in some detail, about the structure of activities in the various parts (zones) of the library throughout the day (daily cycle) and the week (weekly cycle).

The data analysis is not technically difficult: standard spreadsheets will do. Many libraries should be able to do their own data processing without external assistance. The generation and evaluation of relevant tables requires some skills in standard social science research.


The method has now been applied in about forty Norwegian libraries – including public, academic, special and school libraries. Additional CTT studies will be carried out by library students in 2009.

When we compare the data with our intuitive expectations, it is fair to say that in public libraries

  1. the actual use of computers – including personal (mobile) computers – was higher than expected
  2. the frequency of activities carried out in groups – involving children and students in particular – was higher than expected
  3. purely social activities – not involving computers or media – were higher than expected

Research limitations

Gathering data by direct observation is generally time-consuming. CTT was designed to minimize the data collection effort by using time sampling. But we do lose some detail. In 2007 five of the largest public libraries in Norway carried out an observation-based study using a different methodology. Instead of “sweeping through” the building at regular intervals, the observers “shadowed” individual users from the moment they entered till the time they left the library. Since observation was combined with a brief exit interview, it was also possible to link background and behavioral data.

This project, which was called Storbyundersøkelsen (The Metropolitan Study), gives more information about individual behavior than the CTT approach. The two methods are highly compatible. They map and quantify the same types of activities. The shadowing method is much more labor intensive than the sweeps method, however. A combination of relatively frequent CTTs with occasional “shadow studies” may therefore be the best overall data collection strategy.

Practical implications

CTT was designed for practical use. It show how – and to what extent – the various parts of the library arPlinius › Edit Post — WordPresse used, throughout the day and through a typical week. Using traffic counts, libraries are able to document the type and intensity of use. This is useful for allocating resources and – not least – for reorganizing the library space.

In a municipal setting, CTTs generates new types of data that are likely to be of interest to politicians and senior administrators. Some data will also be useful in contacts with parents and other stakeholders among the general public.

At the regional and national level, reliable data on user behavior make “life in the library” visible in a new way. Loans and visits are rather abstract categories. Reading, talking, browsing and using computers provide more vivid images of what the physical library actually provides.


The method provides important new data on user behavior in the physical library. The method can be applied in all types of libraries – and indeed in all types of visitor-oriented institutions.

It is cheap enough to be repeated on a regular basis, and simple enough to be carried out by library staff or young students.  The observation categories are standardized, but easy to use, since they are based on normal social concepts.  All libraries that choose the CTT approach will generate comparable data. We publish our data sets on the open web – and encourage others  to do so as well.

Both the method and the data should be of interest to all persons that support evidence-based librarianship.




  1. Pre-print now available at Private lives and public libraries

    Comment by plinius — Saturday, July 18, 2009 @ 6:22 am

  2. […] PS 2/09. Private lives and public libraries. […]

    Pingback by PL 30/10 « Plinius — Sunday, June 27, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

  3. […] 2/09. Private lives and public libraries. Proposed paper on traffic counting for Northumbria 8. See Florence 2009 for full […]

    Pingback by P 8/12: News from the North « Plinius — Sunday, March 4, 2012 @ 10:32 am

  4. […] nick, rachel, sequoia and newfound friend in the children’s library – _MG_9322 Image by sean dreilinger used here, here […]

    Pingback by Unknown child in a toy car, Belgium (ca. 1959-1960) — Monday, September 28, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

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