Libraries Should Become Better with Use

worn bag

One indication that something is well made is that it becomes better with use. Think about your favorite pair of jeans or a leather briefcase handed down from a father to his son. These things might not necessarily appreciate in actual monetary value but they’re nicer to use than when they were brand new.

In this way, libraries should be like a nice leather briefcase. However we conceive of them a bit differently right now.

Disposable Goods

timevsgdpThings that get better with use have to last a long time. Most of the time, though, people buy inexpensive and low quality goods (quite often manufactured in Asia). Why? It’s often temporarily easier to buy things that are less expensive if your focus is on the short term. Especially if after some time passes you are going to want the Next Big Thing anyways. We’re conditioned to think like this. In the USA, 70% of our GDP consists of consumer spending and the success of our (global) economic system hinges upon continued and never ending increase in GDP. Hence, more spending and a lack of focus on stuff that lasts.

I realize I’m a bit of a pinko and live in People’s Republic of Portland but I don’t think it takes a tremendous amount of insight to realize that such growth isn’t sustainable in the long term. Currrent economic crisis, anyone? Global warming?

Economists & Librarians: Peas in a GDPod

timevscircWhat do consumer spending habits have to do with libraries? Just like economists are obsessed with increases in GDP, librarians are obsessed with increases in per capita circulation. Both are rather shallow.
I bet these statistics play a major role in 99+% of reports to library boards. Similar reports go to the state libraries at the end of the year. I don’t know if anyone takes the HAPLR ratings seriously anymore (the animated .gif on the homepage certainly doesn’t help) but 6 out of 15 measurement categories are related to circulation. That’s 40% of the measures. LJ’s Index has less criteria, four, which makes circulation 25% of their measures.

And just like continual increases in GDP aren’t sustainable, libraries can only optimize their operations and collection development strategies so much. If we extrapolate this model a few centuries out we will see a library either circulate nothing, stagnate, or checking out 5000 items per day. I dare say the later scenario is physically impossible.

The continuation of increased circs isn’t something we can take for granted. This is compounded by the fact that libraries are being squeezed out of the content distribution game by the lack of circulatable digital commercial content.

We’re not at a crisis point yet. Many libraries have been able to get more and more items into the hands of patrons to stay solvent. The fact remains though, that there’s an upper limit to how much can be circulated. What’s the plan for when that happens?

A Better Goal

I don’t think I’ve met a librarian who really values circ stats beyond being happy to report favorable ones. Everyone just seems to accept that shuffling content around and reporting the stats is the way the game is played. Including me, to some extent. Why shouldn’t a library be proud when it circs a bunch of stuff?

Even if it were possible, though, the continuation of the red trend isn’t desirable. Our collective fixation with circ numbers is stifling the evolution of libraries. It is making us focus on a very narrow and relatively boring aspect of libraries: distributing content.

I’m not terribly interested in just being a content distributor. Are you? I doubt it. Even if we could be better than Netflix at movies, even if we could have “you may also like” recommendations better than Amazon, even if we could do music better than iTunes, we have more important things to do.

I’m interested in helping people accomplish tasks that support their goals.

Measuring the Nebulous

Much like there are difficulties in (quantitatively and even qualitatively) measuring the characteristics of your favorite jeans that have become more comfortable after five years, libraries don’t yet have a mechanism for measuring success without circulation statistics. (Or similar stats like computer use and reference questions asked.) Measuring something as grand and vague as “helping people accomplish tasks that support their goals” poses challenges.

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Libraries cannot concentrate on matters other than getting books out the door unless they have a way to demonstrate success elsewhere. And they can’t fully commit to succeeding elsewhere (let alone trying to figure out how to measure it) if they’re busy getting books out the door.

Let’s suppose that a library shifts the emphasis of its efforts and has wild success supporting community and individual goals. How could they measure it? Customer satisfaction surveys? Seems like a fine idea but nothing that could be relied on fully. Telling stories of the successes? Good. Having people in the community tell their stories? Better.

Library Made

What about people showcasing how they’ve solved their problems and achieved their goals by using library resources and connections?

librarymadeImagine if alongside a Creative Commons icon you found a Library Made icon. Clicking on it leads to authorship info, the context in which and when the content was created, and what library resources (including people) were consulted in the process. Also listed are links to other relevant library projects and any other pertinent info.

Even better it works the other way too. Library resources link out to these projects, demonstrating that they’ve been used, how they’ve been used and who has used them. Think of it like trackbacks for library content.

A concept like Library Made is a measurable way that our libraries could become more rich with use.

If you’ve ever felt the awe of history contained in an old object handed down to you, imagine what it would be like to open a book and see what’s been done with it and how it has changed its readers and its community.

broken in jeans

Growth of this type is more sustainable and certainly more meaningful than increases in cheap-like-Chinese-goods per capita circulation. Looking to the future we don’t see the absurd scenario of people checking out 5000 items per day. We see libraries enabling people to share knowledge and solve real problems.

45 thoughts on “Libraries Should Become Better with Use”

  1. Intriguing blog title. When I saw it, my first thought was that for the library to become better with use, was that basically the more you use the library, the better it works for you. This is basically personalization, auto-customization of some kind, the library starts to know what resources you tend to access, anticipates your collection requests etc.

    The “Library made idea” is really interesting. Reminds me a little of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign/Elsevier white paper , where they try to link the use of library resources (citations) to successful grant proposals

  2. Aaron – Thanks for linking to that paper. I’ll look at it today. Regarding personalization: I think that could be part of it. Comparing libraries to jeans works again here. Five year old jeans are certainly more personalized than new ones. Thanks for helping me refine this.

  3. We’re looking forward to fleshing out the concept of the life of a record on Open Library. It won’t have much to do with circulation (since we don’t hold any books ourselves but merely point to them).

    What some people may not know is that Open Library is a) an open, editable library catalog and b) has a Wiki back end, which means we have all the benefits of being able to see the history of edits to our records.

    Right now, it’s a bit tricky to see a record’s history, but this is something we want to make far more prominent. It will be interesting to see how more visible levels of activity will affect the catalog itself, if at all. Stay tuned!

  4. You raise some points that I’ve written about a number of times in various articles and blog posts. How do libraries demonstrate the contributions they make to academic and life success beyond traditional input and outputs. Here is an example of one that mentions a new ACRL project aimed at demonstrating library value beyond inputs and outputs:

    I also like this idea of the library growing on patrons and being more than a one-shot, get-it-over quick, “i am being forced to do this” experience. I see you are getting more interested in the idea of a user experience. In this post at DBL I laid out what I thought were three things we could be doing to promote ourselves as being about people rather than content:

    I think if we can deliver on building relationships that create meaning for people – and paying attention to the totality of our operation – we will create a service and resource organization that will help achieve your goal of getting better with time and use.

  5. Great post. I don’t think many managers believe in HAPLR or Library Journal Statistics. It was a discussion on PUBLIB and most directors were very displeased with this. Before Library Journal getting into starring libraries, the trend was strategic planning.

    Instead of having a standardization, the strategic plan was to see what the community wanted, then meeting their needs. Statistics are a good internal indicator, but it means nothing to everyone else, particularly reporters. They want to hear the human stories of how libraries are helping their communities.

    Lastly, libraries resting on their laurels with statistics aren’t likely to change or improve what they are doing. They are already successful so why change?

  6. Great post, Aaron. Thinking about reference, we are just about to have our best year statistically at our library (you know the one), but it somehow seems slower than the past because many of the question are so easy, like just identifying bestsellers. I wish we had a measure of making-a-difference-in-someone’s life. That could be hard to quantify without violating privacy. Maybe we could create some categories: “helping with job search,” “saving client money,” “helping student make the grade,” etc. But in many cases, we do not know the good we have done. Perhaps the novel read helped with a relationship problem. Also, there could be some embarrassment if the client saw us putting a scratch mark on “made lonely person feel better.” How do we measure?

  7. I’d love to see businesses with this Library Made symbol, and people’s business cards (when they got a job/professional eduation w/ lib resources, or decided on a career because of them), and yes, if sucessful grant proposals have this symbol, then why not the park, animal shelter or monument or arts organization the resources in the library enabled the grantee to indirectly create. I’d love to see it everywhere as a mark of pride, like a “we’re green” symbol…

  8. I wish we had a measure of making-a-difference-in-someone’s life. That could be hard to quantify without violating privacy. Maybe we could create some categories: “helping with job search,” “saving client money,” “helping student make the grade,” Yes indeed, Rick, If I had a reliable way to capture this data, my reference staff would come out tops every time.

  9. Perhaps this post is too delayed to spark a response and perhaps my clumsy suggestion is too exotic. First of all there is a great article which discusses stats versus stories in “American Libraries” “Gathering the Stories Behind Our Statistics,” Sandra Singh. American Libraries, November 2005, Volume 36, Number 10, pp. 46-48.
    I did not note in the posts on this thread that stats–whatever their value–are what funding agencies and Boards want. Whatever their value. The case is made in some of these posts that the stories are invaluable. But only question is: who in authority will take the time to read them. My “exotic” suggestion is this: I am a fan of Edward Tufte who broadly speaking believes that one picture is worth 1,000 words. His favorite example of graphic representation is Minard’s March to and Retreat from Moscow (in “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.”) Is there anyone out there in libraryland who is a skilled graphic artists or who has friends who are skilled graphic artists that can blow away overly clever / typically dull annual reports with one powerful graphic that an attentive and overwhelmed and perhaps un-interested funder can understand at one glance: who, how, how many lives libraries transform. And I’m not talking reference questions. (I apologize for being murky about this, but I am only feeling my way with this notion.)

  10. just found your blog (and Twitter site) and am struck by your LibraryMade idea – I’m planning to use it in a webcast for SLJ next week – will credit you and will let you know what I say about how it connects to schl librarian world – thanks in advance,

  11. Im not sure if libraies stay the same in the future. im sure that more books are becoming as ebooks to save paper and space. anyway lets see, personally i like good old books made out of paper.

  12. Honestly, I don’t like the online system. I always think if something happen and all my apply to that university is not send. I prefer the old fashoined way, to come to that university by myself.

  13. Interesting concept. I never thought of libraries in that sense but yes, you do have a valid point. The more the library is used, the libraries would be able to learn about what the people who visit them expect and need.
    Will Cityville

  14. The Public Library Association Service Responses when used as a guide in long range planning are a great way of focusing on service to our public. These measures of service in conjunction with good stats create a whole picture of how well libraries are doing.

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  17. Libraries are becoming places where people (librarians) turn printed materials in digital ones by scanning the original.
    + more and more are employed technical people to work there with servers and computers in this digital era.

    sad, but true.


  18. Great article – when I worked at a large urban library, our Director understood that Circ stats only told a partial (and rather dull) story and so he expanded the Board report to include “Customer Contacts” – how many presentations were made in schools by library staff and how many kids were listening? how many public programs or meetings were there at the branches? how many times are the computers used? While stories are best, there are options out there for more meaningful statistics.

  19. There’s a typo in your first paragraph.
    It reads: “These things might not necessarily appreciate IS”
    when you meant “in”.

  20. I am an Azorean librarian and i recently discovered your blog. I’ m really grateful for your posts. They actually reflect what I think (and feel) a librarian must be, besides this fast food world we live in. Thanks

  21. Thanks, Aaron. Output measures only tell a part of the story of our true value. We need to correlate input, output and outcomes to give the full pictures. Yet I find so many colleagues afraid to make the leap, because they don’t know how to sell it to their funders or they see this as more work. I think we need to approach our work as transformative, problem-solving, then we just start telling the story. The funders will eventually get the message; we just have to start sharing it fearlessly.

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