How to Have “Fun” with Statistics

Libraries have a long history of gathering statistics at all levels. National associations and accrediting agencies such as ALA and ARL, as well as states and consortia gather and use statistics to set benchmarks and provide comparison across libraries. Individual libraries use statistics to inform all kinds of decisions including collections, staffing, physical space allocation and usage, etc. 

With all these different data points and possible things to highlight, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of numbers, or stuck in a routine, and lose sight of the reasons why we’re gathering all this data and how it can actually help us. 

Some things are tracked for so long we forget why we started tracking them in the first place, and usually don’t stop to think whether we should still be tracking them. An example of this from our library is the number of “click-throughs” in our catalog from a bib record through a link displayed as “Content, Cover & More” (shown below as Content Cafe). This statistic might be worthwhile if we used the number of “click-throughs” to determine whether or not to continue paying for the linked service each year, but we don’t. It’s currently just a number we track and then do nothing with. (Another obvious example from the screenshot below that JUST popped out at me while I was writing this is the fact that we track link clicks from bib records to “Alta Vista” which was taken over by Yahoo! in 2003…)

* Honestly, while writing this I’ve been asking myself why we’re tracking ANY of these “click-throughs” and will be doing a full review of this set of statistics ASAP.

When I was trained to gather the statistics for which I’m responsible, I wasn’t really given an explanation of what every number means, or why we track certain things. At different times over the years I remember thinking I should do this kind of evaluation, but it usually only occurred to me once a month/year when it was time to gather the statistics, and I was either “too busy” to do it right then, or would tell myself I’d “do it later” (and never did). So when it came time for me to train someone else to take over certain statistics, I still didn’t have that information to share. We’ve now had at least 4 different people tracking the same statistics over a 10 year period (or longer) without a real review of why or whether we should continue to track some of this data.

Now that I am painfully aware there are things I need to review, I will make this a priority and do a complete evaluation of all the statistics I track, focusing especially on what and why. Once that’s complete, I can get to the “fun” referenced in the title of this post–all the things I can do with this data!

I’d still consider myself a novice when it comes to data visualization, but it’s something I will be spending more time on in the coming months once I finish my evaluation. For others who are beginners to data visualization, this post might be a good place to start. For those with some expertise in Javascript, you might be better off starting with some of the tools in this post. Don’t forget that many of the tools and platforms we already use in our libraries come with dashboards that do some of this for you (see the readership map from our bepress Digital Commons dashboard below).

 

You can pretty much visualize anything now, so once you’ve evaluated your statistics and know they’re meaningful, take this opportunity to think about who you need/want to share this information with and get creative with how you do it!

To conclude, a shameless plug for our program on this topic at AALL in New Orleans—

“Data, Stats, Go: Navigating the Intersections of Cataloging, E-Resource and Web Analytics Reporting”

Speakers: Racehl Evans (Metadata Services Librarian at UGA Law Library), Wendy Moore (Associate Director for Collection Services at UGA Law Library), Andre Davison (Research Technology Manager at Blank Rome LLP) and me.

P.S.

Horror stories of long-forgotten statistics or success stories of revamped stats welcome! Please comment below or email me if you’re willing to let us share your story in our program this summer (hanesjl@umich.edu).

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