Questions to Consider Before Collecting New Library Data
This article is an excerpt from the book Collecting and Using Public Library Statistics by Mark Smith (copyright 1996 by Mark Smith; all rights reserved) published and reprinted here by permission of Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.
Do You Need the Figures to Support Planning?
Chapter 1 discussed the relation among library statistics, planning, and role-setting. Statistics are an indispensable tool in determining the library’s role in the community. Is this your situation? Are you trying to discover how the library is used by the community, why people come into the library, and what services and materials they expect to find when they come into the library? If this is the case, it is likely that your choices about the data you collect will focus on measurement and analysis of existing services. For example, it may not be enough to know the precise subject area in which patrons are asking for reference assistance.
Do You Need Statistics to Support Role-Setting?
You may be further along in your planning cycle. You may have already completed and evaluation of existing services and written a long-range or strategic plan for your library. In that plan you may have set out some roles for the library. These roles are meant to direct decisions about funding, staffing, and other aspects of library management. Now you must evaluate the extent to which those decisions support your chosen roles. You will need data to do this. In your planning process you should already have identified certain success indicators, but it is very possible that you now need other data. If this is your situation, the roles you have chosen for your library will drive your decisions about what data to collect. For example, if you have chosen children’s services as a primary role for the library, it is unlikely that you will be very interested in collecting additional data on use patterns of adult reference materials.
What is the Nature of Your Community?
As in so many areas of library management, it is vital to know and understand the nature of your community. Is it an aging community or comprised mainly of young families? Is it a commuter town or a factory town? Rural, suburban, or urban? What is the educational profile of the town? Do most residents live in apartments or single-family houses? This is just a sampling of the many demographic questions you might ask about your town. You could probably answer most of these questions off the top of your head, while others may take some thought, and some of the answers may surprise you. But thinking about the kind of community you serve will raise some important questions about use of your services. These are the questions that your mayor and city council are considering as well. These questions are also closely linked to planning and role-setting efforts. Knowing the nature of your community is vital to determining the services your library will offer.
Is Your Community Stable or in Transition?
If your community is stable (that is, changing little over the years), then the planning and role-setting you did three years ago may still be valid. If however, your community is in transition, you will probably need different information about how patrons are using your library than you did a few years ago. Is the socioeconomic profile of your community changing? Do you serve an urban or suburban area facing an influx? Have building or zoning patterns changed? As the community you serve changes, you will need and want different information about your library and how it is used. These types of concerns may have motivated the mayor in our example above to ask Judy for information on nonresidential use of the library.
What Are the Areas of Interest of Your Library Board?
Ideally, your library board represents a cross-section of the community. They bring to their duties certain interests and concerns. The interests of your library board may very well drive your decisions about what you want to know about your library program. There may be members of your library board who are interested in adult education, automation, or children’s services. These areas of interest may affect the direction of library activities.
What Are the Political Trends in Your Community?
Even the smallest communities are affected by the winds of political change. Perhaps there is an anti-tax sentiment brewing that could threaten your new building plans. Or maybe there is a drive to consolidate city services that could result in combining of the school and public libraries. What is happening in local politics will ultimately affect the public library. You must also be aware of the interests and concerns of local elected officials. For example, are there sensitive issues in the upcoming city council elections that could affect the library? It may be very important to judge ahead of time the direction of these trends and begin to gather needed data in the event that your program is challenged or otherwise affected.
What Are Your Patrons Saying?
You may actively solicit suggestions from your patrons, but even if you don’t, chances are that you will hear from them anyway. Even the most offhand comments can indicate dissatisfaction with your library and can, ultimately, lead to decisions about what data to collect. If, for example, you hear someone complain that he cannot find books that are listed in the catalog, then perhaps an inventory is needed. If people complain that they never can find a free public access terminal, perhaps a study of terminal use would be helpful. Library data can support decisions that will bring the public better service, but you must first identify the problem areas where service needs improvement.
What Is Your Staff Saying?
Listen to your staff, especially if your library is big enough that you do not regularly meet the public. Your staff – especially those at the circulation desk and in other public service positions – is in a position to hear what your customers are saying about your services. So-called frontline staff members are sensitive to the public’s complaints since they have to face those comments daily. Also take seriously your staff’s observations about use patterns, times of peak business, staffing levels, the adequacy of the collection, and any other area in which they are directly involved.
If you’re thinking that these questions sound like they belong to a planning project, then you are right on target. Data collection is inextricably tied to the library’s planning and role setting efforts. A planning effort, however, when done correctly will be much more elaborate and involved than these questions imply. Still, for the purposes of deciding what data to collect, these questions will serve as a starting place to consider the nature of the library’s community, the political environment, the attitudes and interests of key players, and the needs and wishes of the library’s clientele.