Monday, August 9, 2010

PL 59/10: Statistics for action

Filed under: statistics — plinius @ 7:40 am

Library statistics is clearly developing.

In a global perspective there are many positive signs of growth. Let me mention a few:

  • IFLA has taken a strong interest in statistics for advocacy – and has adopted a statistical manifesto.
  • In Germany, the library index BIX is well established both in the public and in the academic library sector
  • In the US, the new LJ Index for public libraries is professionally designed and also very well presented.

  • A fair number of countries now make detailed statistics available on the web. I am aware of the following – but there may be others:
    • The Nordic group: Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden
    • The Commonwealth group: Australia, Canada, New Zealand
    • The Netherlands
  • In other countries, the Global Libraries program of the Gates Foundation supports the digitalization of public libraries – and puts great emphasis on documenting its effects.
    • Africa: Botswana
    • Asia: Vietnam
    • Eastern Europe:  Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Ukraine
    • Latin America: Chile
  • In academic libraries, LibQual+ is well established – and has contributed to a culture of assessment..
  • In public libraries, workable indicators of web traffic have started to appear – with Denmark as the front runner.
  • Tools for observing user behavior inside libraries have started to appear – in Canada, in the US, in Norway
  • In general, evidence-based librarianship is (slowly) gathering momentum.

We can build on that.

Some of the problems we face are:

  • Library researchers and library agencies need to put their methods, their data and their discussions on the open web.
    • If this is not done, ordinary librarians will lack access to the results of empirical studies
    • The professional debate among experts will also be hampered by lack of information
  • National library authorities spend too much effort on repetitive data collection – and far too little on professional presentation and analysis of the results.
    • As a consequence, ordinary librarians take little interest in the statistics.
  • Many countries lack functioning statistical systems at the national level.
    • Here we need to offer simple methods for regular data collection that interested libraries can manage on their own

Public and academic

The Statistics and Evaluation Section works to promote the collection and use of statistics

  • in the successful management and operation of libraries
  • in the demonstration of the value of libraries outside the profession

These goals – we state – require

  • definition, standardization, collection, analysis, interpretation, publication and use of statistical data

With regard to statistics, there are substantial differences between the academic and the public library sector. Libraries are service organizations. To understand libraries, we have to understand the environments they serve.

Academic libraries belong to professional organizations. Universities and colleges are – by their very nature – specialized, knowledge intensive institutions. Their libraries are shaped by the academic context.

Public libraries are much more local in nature. They range from large and professional metropolitan organizations to poorly equipped libraries in provincial towns and distant villages. Academic and special libraries tend to reflect the standards of their mother organizations. Public libraries reflect the economic, social and cultural situation of their communities. To understand public library statistics, we have to understand the communities in which they work.

Definitions and standards

I think it is fair to say that international work in the field of public library statistics has tended to concentrate on definitions, standards and general methods. These topics are relatively independent of the social context.  But we cannot study the

  • collection
  • analysis
  • ïnterpretation
  • publication
  • and actual use

of public library statistics without looking at concrete countries and cases. The actual situations we find – going from Germany to China to Mexico to South Africa (say) – are extremely different. In  some countries, there are also great differences between urban and rural areas.

I strongly believe that the field of library needs more professional debate, based on more systematic data collection and wider sharing of statistical information and analyses.By professional I mean peer-based coversations guided by statistical, sociological and economic reasons rather than by ideological, administrative or political arguments. So far, only a few countries combine decent statistical systems with lively professional debate. Statistics based advocacy requires both.

The GLOSSA project was started at the Milan conference in August 2009. IFLA asked the Statistics and Evaluation Section to produce – and test – a one day course on statistics for advocacy. The Section set up a small team – consisting of Colleen Cook (US), Toni Feliu Oller (Spain) and Tord Høivik (Norway) – to produce the course materials. IFLA also financed an international workshop – which was held in the Hague in December 2009 – to provide input and guidance for the production team.

Next stage

With the kind support of the organizers we were able to test out the course at the QQML2 conference in Chania (Crete). The participants evaluated the course. This led to some adjustments after Chania, but in the main the design seemed to work well.

A second round of testing will take place in Gothenburg, on Thursday August 12. Here we will conduct three or four parallell sessions. When the results of this workshop have been incorporated into the course materials, the Section will – as I see it – have completed the task we were assigned in Milan.

What happens next? I take it for granted that the Section will continue to be involved in the future as well. Our goal is 

to promote the compilation and use of statistics both in the successful management and operation of libraries and in the demonstration of the value of libraries outside the profession.

Using statistics for advocacy is clearly a central part of our mandate. But after Gothenburg the task we and IFLA face shifts from construction to dissemination. A small group can design and test out a new training course. The next step – that of conducting local and regional courses – depends on the interest and commitment of the library associations themselves.

The concrete task

In Norway, during the last five or six years, we have tried to develop a greater interest in library statistics. This has not been easy. We have conducted a few statistics courses for librarians, but have struggled to recruit participants. Only now, after a several years of concerted effort, do we see a greater commitment among policy makers and concerned librarians. The most recent White Paper on libraries states (NO):

An important task ahead will be to strengthen statistical and analytical work. This also includes following and conveying what is happening internationally. Various indicators of what constitutes good service performance both in the archive, library and museum sectors will be developed. These indicators – and specialised studies – should be used to generate up-to-date reports on the archive, library and museum fields.

With this in mind, I would define our new task as follows. – We want to increase

  1. the regular use
  2. of existing [or new] library statistics
  3. by library associations [or individual libraries]
  4. for advocacy [and practical management]

Let me add some comments:

  1. To influence the political environment we will have to provide statistical arguments on a regular basis. Ad hoc studies may lead to discussions and a bit of good will then and there. But their impact does not last for several years.
  2. Some countries – like the Nordic ones – have reasonably good library statistics – which remain underutilized. Here we can do quite a bit of advocacy with existing data. But in most countries of the world such statistics are limited, scattered or lacking. In such countries we must start by collecting our own data.
  3. Usually, library associations are needed to plan and conduct training courses at the national level. But in some countries there may be individual libraries eager to develop competence in this area for their own sake. They could arrange local courses and even develop local data collection. I believe both types of initiative should be welcomed.
  4. Statistical reasoning has its own  logic. It is almost meaningless to separate statistics for advocacy from statistics for management. Learning the one you also learn the other. It is useful to emphasize advocacy, since this helps us focus on the consequences rather than the mechanics of library services. But the skill we need to develop is that of effective reasoning based on statistics.

Training goals

Statistics for advocacy requires librarians that understand and apply numerical arguments in correct and convincing ways. We can hardly expect every librarian to be an expert in this area. Librarianship has many facets. What we can aim at during the next few years is to train a fair number of library professionals

  • with an understanding of statistical arguments
  • in political settings
  • who are willing to share their resources
  • in as many IFLA countries as possible

In the world of today, I believe, such a task can best be managed by the effective use of the web for communication, coordination and course planning, for translation and dissemination of course materials and for the sharing of case materials and statistical data.


GLOSSA: indicators

This article, which combines three recent GLOSSA entries, is intended as input to the Statistics and Evaluation Section discussions in Gothenburgh.


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