Getting Data Right

Among the hottest trends in collection development are tools that help libraries more efficiently crunch their numbers to make data-driven decisions. But while the tools are new, using data to make selections is not. Data-driven decisions have been on the rise in libraries for years. Anna Mickelsen, Springfield City Library, MA, explains why she uses data for collection development: “I use stats to get a look at the bigger picture of the whole library’s collection and how the different parts compare to one another. Collection decisions shouldn’t be made in a vacuum, and statistics are sometimes the only solid information I have to work with.”

For more on how collection development librarians select and purchase today, see “Big Spender.

Data-driven decisions became more crucial as budgets contracted. Many libraries were forced to make tough choices about what they could purchase with a much smaller pot of collection dollars, so they could afford fewer mistakes. Also, with the number of formats increasing (and budgets shrinking), where to put those dollars became extremely important, and data not only helped make those decisions, it also made the case for them to administrators and stakeholders. As VHS gave way to DVD and music/audiobook cassettes gave way to CDs, circulation stats made it easier to convince administrations that it was time to move to the next format. As interest in materials about European vacations dwindled and books about “staycations” or “daycations” became more popular owing to the economy, circulation stats were used to shift focus in those respective areas.

Apples to apples

It is important to remember, however, to use that data in a way that compares apples to apples. Very often, a circ is not just a circ. Does that number include renewals or is it just first-time circulation? Those numbers can be, and often are, significantly different. Are you comparing items with different loan lengths? If your DVDs circulate for three days or one week, take that into account when comparing them to books that may circulate for three or four weeks. Are you compensating for the seasonal nature of some items? Christmas music CDs will circulate heavily from October through January, whereas Beatles CDs will circulate heavily January through December. There may be items in your collection that get a lot of in-house use but don’t have traditional circulations and will appear to be unused items. Do you have a method of precisely counting these materials? The goal is to replace holdings that aren’t being used with different items. To do that accurately, “use” needs to be clearly defined.

Using data right

Once you’ve got the right numbers, how do you use them effectively? In their presentation at the 2014 Public Library Association conference Making a Collection Count, Mary Kelly and Holly Hibner give a number of examples on effective ways to use collection metrics such as “How does one collection perform compared to another?” and “How old is the collection?” Hibner also has a fantastic blog post called Collection Metrics: Using Publication Dates, in which she writes, “We don’t just weed everything that hasn’t circulated in three years.” This is a key point. Not every book that hasn’t circulated deserves to be discarded. Not every book with a certain publication date deserves to be discarded. Statistics serve as a measuring stick to determine what may or may not be of interest to your community. Once you have that data, you take the next step and evaluate the material. If you have a high-quality item that you feel may have been overlooked, give it another chance. You can’t, however, give it a fresh start by placing it right back in the spot where no one noticed it. Make a display. Market it in a blog post, a Facebook post, or a tweet. Put it in front of more viewers so it can be seen. And if it still doesn’t circulate, make peace with its being a purchase misjudgment and move it on to find a home somewhere else (i.e., weed it).

Those new data tools

New tools to help libraries slice and dice their data better are becoming more available, such as collectionHQ from Baker & Taylor (for more on its new Evidence-based Selection Planning (ESP) feature, see Baker & Taylor, collectionHQ Launch ESP, a Predictive Collection Development Tool) and Decision Center from Innovative Interfaces, Inc., and Intota Assessment (though the latter is more targeted to academic than public libraries). Indianapolis Public Library began using collectionHQ only a few months ago to put data at the fingertips of individual librarians in a timely manner, and it is already making headlines in the local press. Depending on your ILS and your skill level in manipulating it, these data may not have been as readily available in the past. So far, my skill level is toward the bottom of the learning curve.

However, collectionHQ has already been an incredibly helpful tool in identifying items in our collection that have been incredibly well used and need to be replaced. Also, the Top Charts feature has become my new obsession. Top Charts lets a user run the top authors and titles for a particular location. The differences among branches and between our Central Library and various branches have been enlightening for the collection development staff, especially in areas where we don’t get much, or only anecdotal, feedback. Top Charts lets a user make the focus as wide or narrow as desired. You can run a list for all top authors in all of fiction across the system or at a particular location. You can run a list of the top 25 titles, at a certain location, for the month of February, between call numbers 641.2 and 641.999. The data mining can become habit forming.

Beyond surveys and statistics

While the numbers libraries collect and cross-reference can be an invaluable yardstick, knowing what the community wants takes capturing more kinds of information than can be found in even the most advanced combination of software. You can’t survey your community once every five, ten, or 15 years and conclude you are serving them satisfactorily. For one thing, library surveys are usually only filled out by library patrons. What about the people in your community who aren’t patrons but you’d like them to be? Not that you should do away with formal surveys and data collection instruments—just supplement them with more wide-ranging information-gathering techniques. What events are popular in the community? If local stores are maxing out attendance for cooking demonstrations, classes, and seminars, that’s a big indicator that the library may want to expand that collection. It also should drive the marketing and readers’ advisory activities that make the collection more visible. A banner on the website or a blog or Facebook post reading, “Best of Brunch class sold out? We’ve got you covered with these books on the official meal of weekends” is responsive to people’s interests at the time they are interested.

Robin Bradford is a Collection Development Librarian, Indianapolis Public Library

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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