Monday, September 7, 2009

PL 61/09: Difficult statistics

Filed under: IFLA, statistics — plinius @ 5:50 pm

acapulcoIn Milan, the Statistics and Evaluation Section set up a small working group to help IFLA develop a course package on statistics for advocacy.

The hotel Acapulco Princess (right) evidently “quotes” the great Mexican pyramids.

Since 2004 the Section has worked hard to establish library statistics as a necessary and important component of cultural and educational statistics. The advocacy project builds on this work, which culminated in a conference in Montreal in 2008 (which I attended) and a volume of conference proceedings.

The task is not easy. We want to train library – or library association staff – to argue with statistics. Understanding and measuring the impact of libraries is a professional task which requires a combination of library expertise and some understanding of practical sociology and statistics.

Scattered results

Such impact studies are not well established anywhere. Even in highly developed library environments – like Finland, Denmark, Great Britain and the United States – we lack solid documentation on a broad front. There are many smaller studies, but these tend to be scattered and ad hoc.

But the interest in documented contributions to social change is increasing.

In Great Britain and the United States, systematic efforts to draw conclusions from the smaller studies (meta-analyses) are appearing. Our project is another example. In several countries – Lithuania, Poland, Romania – the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has initiated impact assessment projects in connection with its Global Libraries initiative. I see these as vital contribution to the field of quantitative assessment – which can support more political and strategic arguments.

Statistics in the South

The moment we move beyond the high industrial North, the basic conditions for statistical work changes, however. Let me take an example from Mexico – where I did some socio-demographic studies once upon a time – as a very young researcher (1969/70!).

In Mexico the national statistical authority – Instituto Nacional de Estadistica y Geografia (INEGO) –  has published a table showing the number of public libraries by state from 2004 to 2008. These numbers look quite problematic.

Both the total number of libraries – and the numbers for every single state – are listed as identical in 2004, 2007 and 2008. The 2008 data are described as estimates – and probably just repeat the 2007 column.

But when the 2005 and 2006 statistics differ somewhat from 2004 in every single state except Tabasco – and rebound to their 2004 values in 2008, I conclude that the 2008 data must be based on 2004 rather than on actual data collection.

How trustworthy the 2004 – and for that matter the 2005-2006 data are, I do not know.


  • 2004 – 7.211 public libraries
  • 2005 – 6.810
  • 2006 – 7.010
  • 2007 – 7.211
  • 2008 – 7.211 [est.]


  • 2004 – 508 public libraries
  • 2005 – 477
  • 2006 – 485
  • 2007 – 508
  • 2008 – 508 [est.]


  • 2004 – 563 public libraries
  • 2005 – 563
  • 2006 – 563
  • 2007 – 563
  • 2008 – 563 [est.]


The Working Group consists of Colleen Cook (US), Toni Feliu Oller (Spain) and Tord Høivik (Norway, chair). If you want to follow our work, I recommend visiting – or even subscribing to – the project blog.



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