Friday, February 10, 2012

PL 5/12: A conceptual study of web traffic

Filed under: statistics — plinius @ 8:46 am

Library services are increasingly produced on and for the web. This is not recognized by traditional library statistics.

Picture: National Library of Spain.

Librarians are aware of the discrepancy, however. New statistical guidelines are being developed. Some countries – with Denmark in the lead – are starting to publish some data. A fair number of libraries do the same on their own initiative.

There has been very little professional discussion about the meaning and interpretation of such data, however. At the IFLA conference in Montreal (2008) I presented a paper on this. A revised and updated version of How Much is Much? has just been published in Liber Quarterly. I reproduce the conclusion below:

Three environments

Libraries of the future will clearly deliver their services in three different environments: physical buildings, local web sites and distributed user environments.

The physical libraries are caught up in a process of profound change. When their customers change, they must adapt or fade. It is the new ways of research, teaching and learning that give the process its momentum. Public libraries are becoming more physical and more digital at the same time. Academic librarians are taking a new look at their place within the intellectual division of labour. Student-oriented libraries redefine themselves as learning centres. Research-oriented libraries take on much more active roles in the research process. The termcyberinfrastructure is clumsy, but covers what I mean. National libraries face similar challenges. On the web they must shift from collection-based thinking to competitive customer services. This involves a deep change in organizational culture.

Easy to collect

The speed and uptake of web-based practices will of course differ from country to country. But I see the end result as given. The digital revolution will impose its conditions on the world like the industrial revolution did two hundred years ago. We are all moving in the same direction. When we discuss the future of national libraries, we can therefore draw on trends and experiences from many neighbouring fields. Library statistics tend to focus on information that is easy to collect but hard to interpret. The number of physical visits does not indicate the time spent at, or the benefit gained from, using the library. The number of loans does not measure reading or understanding, learning or wisdom. If we look at web-based versus physical activities, we see that virtual visits are different in kind from physical visits.

Beyond hope or fear

During its first decade (1991–2000) the web was mainly used to strengthen existing structures and services. Web sites were typically designed as mirror images of the organization chart. Beaujolais Nouveau was poured into old bottles. During the second decade, from 2001 to 2010, the web started to challenge the structures themselves. This third decade (2011–2020) will be a period of major readjustment and deep structural change. All the libraries I have visited in this paper are confronting the challenges of the web. Their strategic plans are clear enough: a new era is upon us. What I argue for is better documentation. We need statistics that show us what is happening. Some of the numbers will be encouraging. Others will not. Professionals should gather, publish and discuss both kinds, beyond hope or fear.

In Norway, massive digitalization of books started after this paper was first drafted. So far we have only scattered data on the corresponding traffic. But the volume is clearly increasing. In the Summer of 2010 the national librarian reported that traffic to the book site now ‘represents roughly one book page per second, day and night.’  This implies thirty million pages a year, moving the library from the low to the high end of its category (= 0.1–1 million page hits per week).

High and low intensity

However, to properly interpret these changes we need to look at all three indicators [visits, page hits, unique viszitors]. The book readers on the web form a relatively small group. They make a big impact because they remain on-site for long periods and download lots of pages: 65 pages during the average visit. To understand web traffic, we need to separate high-intensity from low-intensity users. Since we lack data about user profiles from other national and academic libraries, this is a task for the future.



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