Chapter 1: Assessing Use and Usage: The Imperative

Article excerpt

Abstract

In response to ever-increasing expenditures on collections, especially electronic resources, librarians are increasingly expected to demonstrate the value of the resources in which their institutions have made significant investments. Unfortunately, most attempts at e-resource usage assessment still follow the input-output model that has been so prevalent in evaluation of library resources. This section reviews the development of LIS use and user studies and identifies problems with relying on an exclusively statistical model of evaluation.

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Each year, libraries and other information agencies invest millions of dollars in print and electronic collections. As stewards of institutions that rely on outside sources of funding, librarians are charged with demonstrating the cost-effectiveness of their services and resources as well as their effective management of the financial resources with which they have been entrusted; in difficult economic times, this pressure is significantly increased. Furthermore, librarians are frequently tasked with putting this information in "layman's terms" in order to communicate it to library board members, university provosts and presidents, or members of the general public who may have limited knowledge of the policies, procedures, and issues connected to running a library.

Electronic resources are no exception. As "electronic use has skyrocketed," (1) so have the costs associated with providing library users with quality electronic content. In a harsh economic climate, librarians are searching for approaches to assessing the use and usefulness of hard-won resources (see figure 1). This report focuses on not only the more traditional statistical measures of electronic resource usage, but also models that attempt to assess the use of individual works in more locally relevant ways.

Use, Usage, and the Use Study

Over the years librarians and researchers have studied the usage of books, journals, meeting rooms, photocopiers, programs, and just about any other resource or service libraries have chosen to provide. The reasons for doing so are simple: librarians wish to provide their communities with resources and services of the highest utility, consider use or usage (2) of those resources and services to be an indicator of their patrons' satisfaction, and undertake these assessments in order to make practical and often difficult decisions regarding staffing, services provision, and management of both the collection and physical facilities. Reflecting the stalwart belief of LIS theoreticians that the best predictor of future use is past use, librarians also assess usage in pursuit of the holy grail of librarianship: effectively foreseeing which materials and services will be popular and which will (literally or figuratively) collect dust.

Much of the literature related to use and usage has concerned specific methods for evaluating or measuring usage of a collection, information resource, service, or facility in order to assess its quality. (3) Much of the discussion of usage in the LIS literature takes place in the context of a Use Study, the process of which was described by Broadus as "start with a group of library materials, then try to determine what use, or how much use, they receive." (4) Studies of the uses made of libraries, their informational sources, and the services they provide can be found in some of the earliest literature of librarianship. For example, Alvin C. Eurich's 1933 Journal of Higher Education study, "Students' Use of the Library: Seasonal Variation in the Use of a University Library," measured, as the title implies, changes in student circulation patterns according to the season. It's worth noting that Eurich's references to "use of the library" describe only one type of action (book checkout) occurring in one area of the library (the reserve room). (5)

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Perhaps not surprisingly, early discussions of library use focused almost exclusively on this type of quantitative measure. …