Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Counting the Right Things

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Counting the Right Things

Article excerpt

LET'S LOOK AT THE STORIES THAT NUMBERS CAN TELL.

Libraries are political entities. Being involved in politics means being concerned with public opinions. Gathering data to support programs and services is one of the most effective ways of making a case for both the library you have and the library you want. When you're looking to obtain something that gets quantified (money), it's tactical to line that up against something that is also quantified. Libraries are already very good at telling the stories of the patrons who had a life-changing experience there. Let's look at the stories that numbers can tell.

Open Library by the Numbers

Open Library is an entirely online library. We have a lot of data about our collection and about the usage of it. We can track our loans, but we can also track people's movement through our website, see their preferred formats for ebooks, and even see who our most popular authors are. This means that not only can we adjust our collections to meet patron needs, we can also demonstrate this responsiveness to funders and the patrons.

We also track statistics on our email support. We know the most popular categories for support help-users choose from a pull-down list when they use our contact form-as well as the inbox's most and least busy times. I used to be concerned that we didn't have full staffing on the weekends, but by looking at the data, we found significantly fewer support requests on the weekends, and those requests were often less time-sensitive. Good to know.

Show Me the Numbers

One of the things that is tricky about using social media platforms for library communication is that you can't always control the format or the delivery of what you put out there. Facebook has been OK about giving page owners detailed information about things such as page views. Twitter users have had to rely on third-party applications (such as Favstar, ThinkUp, and Klout) to get an idea of what engages users. Since each of these websites emphasizes different aspects of the story stats tell, it can be tough to get granular.

Recently, Facebook and Twitter have been working harder to give people and businesses information about user engagement. Facebook updated its Insights feature on Pages so that page owners can get significantly more insight into what works and does not work to reach people. Facebook is also trying to handle Like inflation by removing Likes that were created by currently inactive accounts. Similarly, Twitter is rolling out a feature-now in beta-that can give users a per-tweet look at the major engagement factors: reads, clicks, retweets, favorites, and replies.

This feature still requires a lot of clicking and comparing and is not good for a mile-high view of a library's Twitter use generally. But it can be great for tracking short-term trends, use of keywords, and assigning fixed-number values to what can otherwise be seen as a more nebulous qualitatively good library programming tool.

Count the Things, Say They Matter

I write for Medium, an online writing platform. Unlike other places where I've written online, Medium gives writers (and editors) a "stats" view to show who is reading their work. Along with the regular numbers (such as numbers of recommends, reads, and inbound links), it also counts something it calls "reading time." This attempts to be not just a quantification of how long an article should take to read-readers get a notification that an article is a 5-minute read for example-but also gives writers bonuses based on total time reading (TTR). This encourages more emphasis on keeping the article going and less on click-bait headlines. …

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