Friday, July 8, 2011

PL 26/11: A necessary evil

Filed under: debate, statistics — plinius @ 6:53 am

Everybody can sing.

Sort of. But the real stuff is hard. Most people accept that it takes training and talent to sing at a professional level. In our cultures we are exposed to rock and pop and jazz and folk songs from an early age. We learn to recognize the difference between amateurs and professionals.

Everybody can play with numbers. Sort of. Real statistics is much harder.  But very few people consider that it takes training and talent to do statistics at a professional level. They are unable to “hear the difference” between advanced beginners and real experts.

At the age of twenty-five, the average European has listened to many thousands of hours of music. Songs are part of the mainstream culture. Quantitative reasoning is not. Only specialists can afford to spend thousands and thousands of hours doing statistics.

Auf Widersehen

At school and university students may get a cursory introduction to statistical methods. Our library students in Oslo devote thirty hours of their second year curriculum to research methods. This is intended to cover qualitative as well quantitative as well as methods.

The course is fair enough as a brief orientation. But as practical training you might as well take a thirty hour course on modern European languages that covers French as well as German.

Bon jour, bon soir und Auf Widersehen!

The rules of evidence

Professional musicians are recognized as such. Professional statisticians must shout to be heard. The things we have to say are generally unpopular.  We attack the sloppy use of numbers, indicators, graphics and tables. We want clearer concepts, better data and stronger arguments. We ask for intellectual discipline and quantitative rigor.

When I say so in public, silence descends. I suspect Ray Lyons, my US colleague, has met similar reactions.  But the time has come to speak out, as Ray has done:

I have implied this in other entries in this blog, but I might as well say it outright: The library and information science profession needs to come to terms with the issue of standards for (i.e., rules of) evidence for performance, statistical, and advocacy research data. There, now I’ve said it …

Navigating with fragmentary information



Martha Kyrillidou writes is a blog for and by librarians interested in defining library values & impact, library assessment, evaluation and improvement supported by the Association of Research Libraries. The definition of library assessment used here is very broad and covers all types of libraries. We’re interested in discussions about: “….any activities that seek to measure the library’s impact on teaching, learning and research as well as initiatives that seek to identify user needs or gauge user perceptions or satisfaction with the overall goal being the data-based and user-centered continuous improvement of our collections and services….” Pam Ryan, 2006

We’re also looking to share information about local research and good practice, post notices about assessment and evaluation-related research, presentations and publications as well as announcements of conferences and other professional learning opportunities.

Ray Lyons cites

It appears to be certain, however, that large numbers of librarians… look upon their statistics in the light of a necessary evil.

They must be collected, because some thing of the kind is expected in the annual report, but they should be minimized, and, once in print, they should be dismissed from the mind. This attitude reminds one of the rural workman who used a dull saw because the amount of work before him gave him no time to stop and sharpen it …

The American Public Library, Bostwick, A.E., New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1917, p. 255

There is no branch of library economy more important, or so little understood by a librarian as helps to himself, as the daily statistics which he can preserve of the growth, loss, and use (both in extent and character) of the collection under his care. The librarian who watches these things closely, and records them, always understands what he is about, and what he accomplishes or fails to accomplish. The patrons to whom he present these statistics will comprehend better the machinery of the library, and be more indulgent toward its defects.

Public Libraries in the United States of America, Warren, S.R. And Clark, S. N., Eds.,
Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of Education, 1876, p. 714


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