2009 Porto

Count the traffic

Count the traffic (CTT) is a method for systematic mapping of user activities in libraries and other visitor oriented institutions.

I am giving a workshop on CTT on Thursday January 29, 2009, at the student organized BOBCATSSS conference in Porto (Portugal). The workshop includes practical exercises in observation.

Lello bookshop in Porto.

In this workshop we present CTT – a simple, but effective method to gather quantitative information about user behavior in libraries. We provide the basic materials and instructions you need to undertake such studies in your own institutions. We also refer to results from previous studies.


For many years libraries have measured their success by counting the number of loans, or by the number of loans per capita – based on the population served. This statistic is still important. But usage patterns are changing. In many Western countries, the amount of lending is going down. To understand what is happening in the public library sector, we must explore a wider range of indicators.


The number of library visits captutres another important dimension of library use. The average Norwegian visits a public library five times a year – and borrows slightly more than five books or other media.

But it is not the case that every visit results in a loan. About fifty percent of the visitors do not borrow anything at all. They visit the library to read, to play, to study or to use the internet.

Libraries are more than collections – they are places where people participate in a wide range of activities. Standard library statistics reveals very little about activities inside libraries.

In this workshop we show how to gather such data. The method has been tested by library staff – with guidance from the author, and also tried out by more than forty second-year library students.


The basic method is simple: once an hour an observer should walk through the public areas and note down the number of visitors, and what they are doing, in various parts of the library. This should be repeated for at least one full week. At the end of the week(s) all the information should collected in spreadsheets and analyzed.

In the English-speaking world the method is known as seating sweeps. Two Canadian researchers, Lisa Given and Gloria Leckie, first used the sweeps method in 1999, to study user behavior at the Toronto Reference Library and the Vancouver Public Library.

The Norwegian version has been developed in close collaboration with several Norwegian libraries and has been tested in fifty institutions. We have labelled the method TTT in Norwegian – from the expression Tverrgående TrafikkTelling (transversal traffic counts) and CTT in English, from the expression Count The Traffic.

The method is introduced to students as follows:

The purpose of this study is to investigate how library visitors actually use library services – inside the library itself. The method has been tested in Lillehammer and Drammen [two medium-sized cities], and you may therefore compare your results with those of other libraries. CTT can also be applied ito academic and special libraries and to other institutions with extensive visitor areas and acitivities.

What we observe in this study is not the individual user, but the different activities that take place inside the library. All library workers know that the level of activity follows certain patterns or cycluses. The traffic varies throughout the day, the week and the year. More accidental variations come on top of this, for instance due to the weather, special events and moveable holidays (Easter, Whitsun).

We do not try to observe on a continual basis. Our observation schedule depends on a sample of observation times. We must see to it that this sample is representative. Observations should therefore be spread evenly throughout the day, while the actual counting days ought to be distributed over several weeks.

Practical tools

To undertake this study, you will need the following resources:

  • A list of activities – with explanations
  • A floor plan covering all the public areas of the library. The plan should be divided into functional zones: reception area, newspaper section, children’s books, etc.
  • Time plan, with dates and times for all observation rounds (”sweeps”).
  • Observation forms. The form combines the zones, on one axis, with the activities, on the other. Observers fill in one form per observation round.
  • Guidelines for observing activities and entering data.

The list of activities is standardized. Additional categories and sub-categories may be added, but the basic structure should be retained, to facilitate comparisons between libraries. The actual floor plan and the division into zones will of course differ greatly from library to library. An architectural plan may be available – otherwise make your own sketch of all areas open to the public.


1130-1150. Presentation

1150-1230. Practice in small groups

  • Phase 1: Define zones and activities
  • Phase 2: Carry out observation
  • Phase 3: Compute results

1230-1300. Present results and discuss the exercise



In Norway, the CTT method has now been tried out in about fifty libraries. The results are encouraging: new and interesting data on user behavior inside librairies can be collected at moderate cost. This information is useful for planning and advocacy.

In connection with the workshop we will give a summary of the empirical results – describing the patterns of activity in the twenty libraries that were studied in May 2008. Here I only mention results from a sample library – in the town of Kongsberg, with 24 thousand inhabitants, seventy kilometers southwest of Oslo.

The total number of observations was 1452. Only 3,8 percent of the visitors’ time was spent in contact with library staff. Nearly forty percent of the time was spent on “classical” library activities – or activities that most people associate with the traditional library: walking or standing alone; sitting alone; browsing alone; sitting alone reading or writing; speaking with staff or queuing.

Kongsberg library is clearly a social and sociable place: customers spent thirty-nine percent of their time with others rather than in their own company.

Widespread use of digital media was also notable: one third of the time was spent in the company of active computers. In the past, Kongsberg was a silver mining town, and it is still a centre of high technology. This can explain why the use of portable computers (21 percent of the time) was substantially higher than the use of the library’s own computers (11 percent).

Student reports

Students were also asked to write about their personal learning experiences in connection with the project. We will use the student reports as inputs to the workshop. Here I give a brief example, from a student who did a traffic count in Trondheim – the third largest city in Norway:

I’ve realized that the loans do not reveal everything; loans are only a small part of the activities that take place in a library. Many people use the library as a place for work and study or as a social meeting place. This shows that the library is an important institution, even if this does not appear in the lending statistics.

Importance and interest of the study

CTT has been developed as a tool for systematic data collection. The method can be used for research as well as for regular planning purposes.
But its main value lies in the operative field. The method is simple and economical in use. It is supported by detailed written guidelines on data collection and analysis (using spreadsheets).

Libraries that want to study the impact of their in-house services can do so on their own – without waiting for a full-scale research project or a special grant. Comparative data from other libraries are available (more will be published in 2009). The method could be of practical value to library managers everywhere, and also to library owners, such as municipalities, counties, universities and many government bodies.

Background and contact information

Tord Høivik, b. 1942, teaches statistics, e-learning and digital library subjects at Oslo University College. He blogs in English at and in Norwegian at

His main interest, as a teacher and researcher, is the interplay between data technology and processes of social change – both in organizations and in society as a whole. He is a professional statistician and sociologist.

I am a member of the Standing Committee of IFLA’s Statistics and Evaluation Section – and one of the directors of the international summer course LATINA, which stands for Learning and Teaching in a Digital World. Feel free to contact me if you want more information about either. My e-mail address is – and phone: 0047 97 543 721

Additional information about CTT is available at

Updated January 26, 2009


  1. […] skal holde en praktisk verksted om trafikktelling på […]

    Pingback by P16/08 « Plinius — Tuesday, January 27, 2009 @ 7:15 am

  2. […] I’ll start with a brief introduction, divide the participants into small groups, and send them off to define zones and to observe […]

    Pingback by PL 9/09 « Plinius — Thursday, January 29, 2009 @ 10:09 am

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