Sunday, December 13, 2009

PS 11/09: Maps and statistics

Filed under: statistics — plinius @ 1:00 pm

Everybody knows that maps are useful.

We use maps to navigate at sea, to find restaurants,  to illustrate history books,  to select routes,  to develop zoning plans – and for many, many  other purposes.

If the maps are wrong or out of date, however, we get into problems.  The restaurant has moved. The bridge is closed for repairs. The lake has turned into a swamp.

The quality of the map depends on the quality and the date of the mapping – and on the way the data are presented. To be useful, maps must be both correct and readable.

The same applies to statistics. Statistics are systematic quantitative data about (some part of) the world.

Demand for statistics

Everybody knows that producing good maps is hard work. The same is true of statistics. But governments have been willing to invest heavily in both areas. They need both statistics and maps for decision making, and create technical agencies to undertake the actual production of geographical and statistical data.

Such data can be useful for many purposes. Inside the library sector I would identify three main areas of use:

  • statistics for library management
  • statistics for library advocacy
  • statistics for library research

The division into three areas – management, advocacy and research – is of course relevant in many other fields as well: museums and art galleries, schools and hospitals, sports and tourism.

Let me sum up. Statistics are produced for a purpose. The demand for statistics is shaped by the

  • needs of government agencies for planning, evaluation and control of the library system
  • needs of managers for  planning, evaluation and control of their own operations
  • needs of advocates for convincing data about the services and impact of libraries
  • needs of researchers for information about libraries as social institutions

Supply of statistics

Statistics are supplied (produced) by

  • government information systems at the national and – sometimes – at  the regional or local level
  • management information systems
  • ad hoc projects conducted by
    • hired consultants
    • library teachers and their students
    • library staff

The IFLA Statistics and Evaluation Section is concerned with all aspects of supply and demand. The Statistics for advocacy project is focused on advocacy as a goal. But the way we use actual demand to define the specific need for data is relevant for all areas of use.

Statistical standards

Rules, standards, norms and regulations about library statistics may increase the value of statistics by making data comparable.  But standards must be intimately related to actual statistical practices. They are only useful if the people that produce library statistics

  • accept the recommendations
  • carry out comparisons
  • learn from the results

Standards are made at meetings. The actual statistics are produced by practicing librarians – on the factory floor, so to speak. Standards are intended to regulate the production.

Many standards require additional work from the operating librarians. Therefore I think it fair that agencies which introduce standards also should demonstrate their practical value using empirical data.


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