Thursday, May 3, 2012

PL 18/12: Big public libraries

Filed under: statistics — plinius @ 6:19 am

Let us take a look at how the biggest public libraries in Norway present themselves, statistics-wise, on their web sites.


The Norwegian capital has more than six hundred thousand inhabitants and is by far the biggest city in Norway. Its public library, which goes back to 1785, is called Deichmanske (bibliotek) after its benevolent founder. Deichmanske reported the following key numbers for 2011 on its statistics web page

  1. Visits
  2. Visits per capita
  3. Loans (excluding renewals)
  4. Loans per capita
  5. No. of cultural events
  6. No. of training events

These numbers present the system as a whole. In addition, the library has published a table showing annual loans, by branch, for the years 2004, 2010 and 2011.

The library also provides statistics on its activities to the annual report from Kulturetaten, the municipal department of culture. The follwing variables and indicators are included, for the period 2008-2011.

  1. Visits
  2. Loans
  3. Loans per capita
  4. Renewals through MappaMi [personalized page in the library system]
  5. Reminders and reservations sent by e-mail
  6. Reservations sent by SMS
  7. Number of borrowers with e-mail addresses
  8. Number of active borrowers (last year)
  9. Number of registered borrowers
  10. Number of cultural events
  11. Number of training events
  12. Total number of page hits

The only indicators Deichmanske actually use, are visits and loans per capita. Very few libraries report on activities at their branches, so the branch level statistics are very welcome. But since the branch data are not related to the size of the community they serve, it becomes impossible to carry out comparisons.

The annual report from the Department of Culture shows the same lack of interest in indicators. Most of the figures presented would become much more informative if they were related to the size of the population in the service area. This can be generalized: tables that focus on absolute numbers rather than on relationships between numbers, fail to release their full knowledge potential.


With a population of more than 250 thousand people, Bergen is Norway’s second largest city.. Bergen Public Library presented the following statistical facts in its annual report for 2010:

  1. 1.29 mill. physical visits
  2. about 5 mill. page hits on the home page
  3. 1.47 mill. loans of physical pages [!]
  4. 602 events and user orientations
  5. – for 21,383 users
  6. – comprising 5,583 adults 
  7. – and 15,800 children.
  8. The library offers 4,656 sqm space for the public
  9. – comprising 2,356 sqm in the branch libraries
  10. – and 1,660 sqm in the main library
  11. 225 study and reading spaces 
  12. 73 PCs for the public
  13. 51 game consoles (PS3, Wii, DSi)
  14. 700,000 media of all kinds
  15. 840 newspaper and periodicals subscriptions
  16. Gross expenses in 2010 were NOK 64,573,995 
  17. Net NOK 59,333,857
  18. Staff in 2010: 102
  19. Full time equivalents: 87.82 including 6.52 for cleaning and janitor staff
  20. Total number of users about 130 000

The report also included a table that showed the values of seven variables branch by branch. Here we only list the totals. Totals for 2009 were also included.

  1. Book loans: 900308 / 950229 in 2009
  2. Other loans: 568706 / 614881
  3. Total: 1469014 / 1565090
  4. Loans for children: 438850 / 450971
  5. Visits: 1285646 / 1379020
  6. Events: 602/666
  7. Participants: 21383/26174

The library reported the values of more than twenty different variables, but did not present a single indicator value. This must be deliberate, since the library has been active in the use and promotion of library statistics for many years.


The city of Trondheim, which lies in the middle of the country, was the medieval capital of Norway. Its cathedral is the finest example of medieval architecture in the country. Trondheim Public Library is the third largest public library in Norway. On the web it presents itself statistically as follows

The library is Trondheim’s biggest cultural centre in terms of visits. On this page we provide information about the numbers most in demand from Trondheim Public Library:

   2011 2010 2009   2008
Number of visitors (all branches)  1.146.116  1.131.749  1.205.020  1.177.728
 Total loans (all branches)  1.120.783 1.130.853   1.205.185 1.160.266 
 No. of inhabitants (on January 1) 173.486  170.936   168.257 165.191 
 Loans per capita  6.46  6.61 7.16  7.02 
 Staff (FTEs)  48.2 47.73  46.8  45.9 
 Loans per FTE  23.252 23.693  25.751  25.278 
 Total collection (units)  487.636 463.146   474.528  469.296
 New books and other media (units)  33.444 31.443  34.361  34.823 

In addition to the main library Trondheim folkebibliotek has five branches in the suburbs: Byåsen, Heimdal, Moholt, Risvollan and Saupstad. The branches are (i.a.) located in secondary school, supermarket and public service buildings. We also have a branch in Trondheim prison. The branches are open between 40 and 47 hours per week. 

Trondheim is probably the most efficient public library in Norway, with a very high level of service production compared to its limited staff. The statistical table contains just two indicators, the traditional loans per capita and the rather surprising loans per FTE.  The second indicator was removed from the KOSTRA set in 2006, since the library community argued against a productivity measure that defined lending as the only output of interest. The other variables were presented as absolute frequencies, even though the population figures are listed in the table itself.


The West Coast city of Stavanger, with a population of 126 thousand, has the fourth largest public library in Norway. Since the library is organized as a section within a larger cultural institution (Sølvberget – The Silver Mountain), it does not produce a regular annual report on its own. This means that the library must be excluded from our survey.

Bærum is a large suburban municipality south-west of Oslo.  It has the highest per capita income per capita in Norway and the highest proportion of university-educated individuals. Eastern Bærum is one of Norway’s priciest and most fashionable residential areas, leading Bærum residents to be frequently stereotyped as snobs in Norwegian popular culture. The municipality has been voted the best Norwegian city to live in considering governance and public services to citizens (Wikipedia).
Bærum has the fifth largest public library system in Norway. The organization consists of two large branches, at Bekkestua (main library) and Sandvika (the municipal center), and three smaller branches. Every year the library writes a brief statistical summary on its web site. Below I have translated the report for 2010:

The number of active borrowers remains stable: slightly above 28.000 persons. Lending has increased a little since last year (0.5%), but the increase is less than the year before. The number of visitors has gone up. The use of web-based services is still growing, particularly with regard to the number of persons using MappaMi [a personal interactive library page]. Norgeslån – where borrowers may order materials directly from other libraries – shows steady increase.

  • Our collections consist of (i.a.) 285.000 books, 12.100 audio books, 12.300 films, 20.000 CDs (recorded music), 8.800 items of sheet music
  • The library subscribes to appr. 460 periodicals and newspapers
  • The number of loans was 713.000, which corresponds to an average number of 6,4 loans per capita. This represents an increase of 0.5% from the year before. The increase relates to books as well as other media and to all the branches. 
  • The total number of visits was 640.400. The number of visits per capita was 5,8. This represents an increase over the previous year.
  • Use of the library’s web site and web services is still growing. The web site had more than  3.663.000 page hits – an average of more than 10.000 hits per day.
  • 815.000 searches in the main database.
  • 80.600 searches in the image base.
  • 28.700 persons are now using MappaMi.  This represents a 14,5% increase from last year. 
  • 90.500 renewals were carried out through MappaMi. This represents an increase from last year. 
  • The number of reservations went up to 90.500. This represents an increase from last year. 

Bærum is a large and sophisticated public library. It has published statistical data on the web since the late nineties. One of its staff members participated in the work of public library indicator committee organized by ABM.  But they do not publish their own statistics in the form of indicators. Only two genuine indicators are included. These are the traditional ones: loans and visits per capita. The rest of the information is given in the form of absolute numbers: variables rather than indicators.

Bærum could easily have provided time series of all the indicators that ABM uses in its annual publication:

  • Children’s books: Loans per child 0-13
  • Adult books: Loans per adult 14+
  • Operating expenditure per capita
  • Accessions (all media) per 1000 inhabitants
  • Media and salary expenses per capita
  • Inhabitants per staff member (FTE)
  • Medieutgifter pr. innbygger

The data have all been published. The library has chosen not to do so. Instead it reports on quite other aspects – collections and web services – without turning the absolute frequencies into indicators.


The largest public libraries in Norway show surprisingly little interest in describing and presenting their activities through indicators. There is no lack of data that could be used. These libraries can draw on long time series of high quality official statistics. They also have access to vast amounts of data from their own computer systems. As we have shown, there is no lack of proposed indicators.

The libraries in question also have enough financial resources, as well as qualified staff, to produce such indicators. All of them have staff members who work with statistics on a regular basis. Their understanding of indicators and presentation graphics could be improved, but that can be achieved through modest amounts of training. The missing indicators do not reflect a lack of skill, but a lack of will. This lack of will is not a personal weakness. It comes from a lack of demand.

To produce honest and meaningful indicators, librarians must spend time and energy wrestling with databases, spreadsheets, tables and diagrams. Nobody in their right mind will engage in such work unless it benefits the library in question. General references to benchmarking, quality control and evidence-based practice is not enough. Committees don’t count. The benefit must be visible, definite and concrete. The interest in the results must come from real customers: people that can influence the future of the library. That means bosses and bureaucrats, politicians and journalists.

These people, however, will not confront librarians with the missing indicators. Their knowledge of practical statistics is close to zero. They will only ask about meaningful indicators if they are taught enough statistics to understand what they mean. My conclusion is clear. The initiative for change must come from the library sector itself. If we want to use statistics for comparisons, benchmarking and advocacy, we must teach: first ourselves and then our customers.


As a small experiment I am publishing the paper Indicators without customers, for our satellite conference in Turku, as a series of blog posts.



  1. […] PL 18/12: Big public libraries. Part 4. Share this:ShareEmailPrintFacebookTwitterStumbleUponLinkedInTumblrDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Leave a Comment […]

    Pingback by PL 19/12: Academic indicators « Plinius — Friday, May 4, 2012 @ 8:06 am

  2. […] PL 18/12: Big public libraries. Share this:ShareEmailPrintFacebookTwitterStumbleUponLinkedInTumblrDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Leave a Comment […]

    Pingback by PL 20/12: Academic libraries « Plinius — Friday, May 4, 2012 @ 10:12 pm

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