Friday, 6 July 2018

hors de combat

Been to what had been planned to be the last of this year's leaving do's (during which I heard some news suggesting there'll be another this Summer). Leaving do's feel a bit strange: it's nice to see old faces, catch up with the gossip and that, but it's sad to see how tired and stressed out the working remainder are. It was always a bitter joke that the people that retired looked ten years younger than the ones still in work. When I first moved out of libraries into my last team fourteen people struggled to do the work expected of the six who remain (who have also had a few other odds and ends dumped in their laps). At the last library leaving do I looked around and wondered how on earth they're keeping the doors open (it was a constant struggle back when there were twice as many bodies available to shift around at the last minute). I feel well out of it and incredibly sad for the people left behind trying to deliver services with ever-dwindling resources.

I think that goes for English public libraries generally, too. I consciously stepped away from the nightmare about eighteen months ago. Before then I'd been doing odds and ends and then I'd offered to lend a hand to the Library Taskforce. After a while I had to conclude that that had become an expensive hobby that wasn't getting anywhere. This was no fault of the Taskforce, it was the fault of the political realities it has to work in. At that time much of the work that we had been talking about had been stalled for the best part of six months awaiting a ministerial signature to the action plan, a consequence of a change of Prime Minister and a ministerial reshuffle. Ironically, the plan was published the same day I finally decided to send the email thanking them for having me and wishing them luck in the future. Not planned, just one of those nasty coincidences real life throws at us.

My breaking with the Taskforce wasn't a reflection on the action plan, it was a reflection of my sense that I wasn't doing anything useful. Until the plan was authorised we couldn't take any action. We'd spent a few months discussing how to use the library data that the Taskforce had managed to collect so far. Objectively this was nothing much, just a list of all the libraries in England and their current status (open, closed or various flavours of "community" library). In fact, collecting this was like pulling teeth and involved trawling round hundreds of web sites to build a list, then each library authority was sent a list with the note more or less saying: "We think these are all your libraries. Please could you confirm/deny and make any corrections. Thanks." Most authorities responded and any corrections were made to the "definitive" list; when an authority didn't respond the hope had to be that they hadn't found any mistakes. And then we sat around, full of ideas and possibilities but not being able to get anywhere. Which is why I felt I was being useless and eventually quit.
(When this data set was finally released, after the action plan had been authorised, there were howls of anguish about what wan't included. "This is available already from CIPFA statistics," somebody complained, ignorant the fact that the reason why CIPFA stats weren't trawled in the first place is that a large minority of library authorities don't submit the data every year, or in some cases at all. This was what it said on the tin: an attempt to create a definitive list of English public libraries with a model process for keeping it up to date, the base on which to build other national or regional data sets about the libraries, their services, their use and their contexts within their communities.)
There were things in the action plan I could argue with but by and large it provided something to work with, given the working realities of a fatally-fragmented service with no standards for service delivery or performance management set as a small backwater in local government provision that had had its funding halved, with most of what remained buttonholed by adult and children's care services. The underlying problem was (and still is) that there is no way of changing that working reality: on top of the usual inertias and contests between vested interests there were the lingering effects of Localism and — worse, much, much worse — a Brexit that was already occupying most of the time, energies and resources of government with scant room for business as usual let alone a radical rethink of public library policy. So the action plan was inevitably going to disappoint anyone looking for a white knight to charge to the rescue of English public libraries. The complaint was that this was too little, too late. And of course it was: nothing short of a shitload of money and a time machine was going to be any different. And even then, once you'd gone back to the Golden Age of English Public Libraries (which I would argue would be 1996 – 2007) what response would you get? "Oh we're much too busy, besides, they can't cut us we're a statutory service." In my experience the history of English public libraries over the past thirty years is littered with the expectation that somebody will come along to make everything better, just so long as they don't change anything.

Which brings me to the other reason to step away awhile. There's a fine line between many years of experience and a hell of a lot of baggage. For example, when the argument is being made that English public libraries are best placed for bringing information literacy to their communities the reply: "Well, they didn't, did they?" isn't an unfair response but it isn't helpful or useful, especially not in the context of an existential struggle for the future of the service. It's the sort of stuff that might be useful to a post-survival lessons learned or a "How did we get there and how do we stop it happening again?" process but isn't useful now.

So I've withdrawn from the field. Whether or not this is temporary, I don't know. Life happens while you're making other plans. I wish those still engaged the best of luck, with the unhappy knowledge that they will need it.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Library data part three-and-a-bit: sharing customer data

Having had a quick scamper through the worry list, what customer data could be shared openly?

Let's start with what can't be shared:
  • Name
  • Full address
  • Unique identifier for the data record
  • Nearly all combinations of data elements within the record
The first two are obvious Data Protection precautions; the last two are less obvious precautions for the same reason: they make it possible to identify the individual data subject.

Any data extraction for release as open data must specify the required data elements. Required fields need to be selected for extraction rather than having fields not required filtered out post-extraction. This prevents any accidents. Once data's openly out in the wild it's out in the wild.

"Registration location" and "Library/libraries used" (if available) are both safe in themselves as they aren't personal data and will have data sets broad enough not to be able to identify individual data subjects. They could be combined with each other and any one of the following:
  • Category (e.g. type of borrower)
  • Ethnicity
  • Disability
  • Gender
  • Year of birth/age in years (if only date of birth can be extracted then this data shouldn't be used)
The data extract could be:
       Bedlam Library     Child
       Bedlam Library     Child
       Bedlam Library     Adult
       Bedlam Library     Adult

But not:
       Bedlam Library     Child     Male
       Bedlam Library     Child     Female
       Bedlam Library     Adult     Female
       Bedlam Library     Adult     Male

Any two of these could be combined:
  • Category (e.g. type of borrower)
  • Ethnicity
  • Disability
  • Gender
  • Year of birth/age in years (if only date of birth can be extracted then this data shouldn't be used)
A postcode dump for the whole library authority could be made available but not combined with any other data because of its very specific nature for identification purposes.

I think that's pretty much it. And I'd still want to run it by an Information Governance expert before going ahead (and for them to check my Privacy Impact Assessment).

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Library data part three: dangerous demographics

The data about the people registered with a library is at one and the same time the most potentially useful and the most potentially dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that when it comes to making this data openly-available the default position must be: Don't. Do. It.

That position will be strongly challenged by many so I'll devote the rest of this post to explaining the dangers and the next one will have a look at the data that might be openly-shareable so long as all the necessary precautions are taken.

Demographic information is immensely useful to a library service. Operationally it's important to see that the service is meeting the needs of all its communities and not just providing a service "for people like us by people like us." It's important to be able to make sure that particular services are reaching their target audiences and that you're not doing anything to put sections of the community off using your services. And it's essential that you have this data for Equality Impact Assessment of policy decisions. So why would you not want to share the data to get a bigger picture?

Generally speaking there are three main concerns:
  • Privacy. The library is one of the few safe public places left for the individual. Removing the right to privacy is an information governance issue just as much as an ethical one and both need to be taken very seriously (both are generally given too much lip service and too little analysis and action).

    It also compromises the quality of the service being provided: if library customers know that how they as individuals use the library will be made public a good many of them will modify their behaviour and not use the library the way they want or need to. If they don't know this the library will have committed a significant breach of trust. 
  • Legality. Does the library have the legal right to share the data? If it is possible to identify individual data subjects then the answer is categorically: No, unless the data subject has explicitly said that their data may be shared.

    Anonymising the data so that it is no longer personal data is easier said than done. It isn't a matter of just removing all the names. We'll have a look at this later on.

    The agreement has to be an opt-in and the purpose of this data sharing has to be clearly stated. "We want to make your data open so that other, as yet unknown, people can manipulate it to get as yet unknown information and outcomes" would be an open invitation to the Information Commissioners' Office to come and investigate your organisation.
  • Safeguarding. This is the most problematic and under-appreciated concern. Anybody knowing whether or not a person even visits a library, let alone uses it, may put that person in actual physical danger. In some controlling relationships a partner may only be allowed out to go to the shops and heaven help them if they do anything else. They may be allowed to take a child to library activities such as story times but not for themselves. An abusive partner discovering that somebody was somewhere they shouldn't be — the wrong end of town or even the wrong town — could be a trigger for violence. The test here isn't: "What is reasonable?" because this isn't about safeguarding people against reasonable action. It's about safeguarding them from action that may be anything but reasonable.

    In my head I can hear somebody saying: "If they let us know that they're in an abusive relationship we could put a flag in their record to say their data's not to be shared."

    • This requires the data subject to actively opt out of data sharing.
    • Identifying yourself as a person in an abusive relationship is a brave thing to do and not something that should be required to be done at a public service point in a library.
    • The library suddenly becomes a less safe place.
    • Someone's got to remember to filter out the flagged records before sharing the data.

    I don't think any of that is acceptable. (And said so when it was said to me that time).
Anonymising the data requires more than stripping out all the names. The Information Commissioner's Office has a useful checklist (pdf).

In public libraries the combination of nearly any two data elements may be enough to make that data subject identifiable, or at least narrow the number of possibilities down enough to make it statistically probable they could be identified. The combination of "library where registered" and "library used" plus one other datum is usually OK but this needs to be tested with the particular data set, in case of nasty surprises. Other combinations very quickly narrow down to the individual.

A lot depends on the data itself: if the categories used are very general it might be safe to combine it, though it may be so general as to be pretty useless. I really did once work with a library service that thought it was OK to have two ethnic identifiers in the system: blank for "people like us" and "ethnic" for anyone who looked or sounded a bit foreign; I put a block on that the first chance I got; even so it wasn't until we got all the libraries onto the library management system that we finally got right of the last of the old Browne Issue tickets with a red E on them (disturbing symbologies like that make me wonder what librarians were thinking about in the eighties).
  • I'd imagine my local library authority will have thousands of white adult males in their database. How many — or few — teenage Bangladeshi females would there be?
  • Postcode data very quickly narrows down. There are perhaps ninety people in my postcode area. Twenty-odd adult white males. About four males in their fifties. One white male in his fifties.
  • Age data gets very specific very quickly. "Adult" and "Child" is pretty safe but as soon as you start refining that down it becomes problematic. Full date of birth is so specific it 's a red flag. 
So we would need to be very careful about what data — and what combination of data — is made available. In a library consortium setting this should be governed by formal data sharing protocols that had been passed by each authority's information governance experts and given the OK by whoever is responsible for the authority's information risk so all the data of all the people who have actively agreed to their data's being shared can be made available to the appropriate staff for the appropriate purpose within the consortium. That's a very specific remit for a very specific purpose for the use of a very specific group of people, with checks and balances and sanctions for abuse.

Which is exactly not the case with the open release of data, so different rules need to apply and need to be applied proactively (the genie doesn't go back into the bottle if you find you've made a mistake). Hence the greater need for precaution.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Library data part two: what do we know about the stock?

In principle stock data is much the least problematic data set held by libraries when it comes to trying to map it and potentially share it across local authority boundaries or make the data openly-available. There are good reasons for this:
  • Every English public library service has a catalogue of resources
  • There has been decades' worth of data-sharing for the purposes of interlibrary loans including, but not limited to, the UnityUK database
  • There are long-established standards for title-level bibliographic data
  • The outsourcing of most bibliographic metadata, limits the number of original sources of data and so imposes some consistency
Added to this can be the data mapping work involved in setting up an interface with the evidence-based stock management system CollectionHQ and the increased use of library management systems in consortium settings. Both of these get library systems people thinking about the way their data maps against external frameworks,

Technically, data about virtual stock holdings can be treated the same way as physical stock holdings. Culturally, there is some variation in approach between library services.

For the purposes of this post we'll assume that all stock has been catalogued and the records held in the library management system. In reality this will be true of most, if not all, lending library stock and a high proportion of whatever reference library stock there is these days. Many local studies collections and special collections are still playing catch-up

Title-level bibliographic data

All the bibliographic records come from the same place so this is standard data and would be easy to share and compare, right? Well… up to a point, Lord Copper.
  • Not all library authorities are buying in MARC records.
  • Of those that do, not all of them are retrospectively updating their old records so they'll have a mix of bought-in MARC records and locally-sourced records which may or may not be good MARC records in the first place and which certainly have variations in the mapping details.
  • Those that did do a retrospective update may have hit a few glitches. Like the library authority that had an LMS that had ISBN as a required field and so had to put dummy data in this field which turned out to be the valid ISBNs of extremely different titles to the ones they actually had. (This wasn't Rochdale, though it did cause us some collateral damage.)
  • There may be local additions to commercial MARC records, for instance local context-specific subject headings and notes.
  • Commercial MARC records may not be available for some very local or special collection materials so these will need to be locally-sourced.
Taking these into factors into consideration this would be much the most the most reliably uniform component of a national core data set for libraries if any such were ever developed. The data available would be either:
  • A full MARC record + the unique identifier for this bib record in this LMS (this is required to act as a link between the title-level data and the item-level data); or
  • A non-MARC record including:
    • Title
    • Author
    • Publisher
    • Publication date
    • ISBN/ISSN or other appropriate control number, if available
    • Class number
    • Unique identifier for this bib record
    (I think there's a limit to the amount of non-MARC data that should be admissible.)
For the purposes of this game RDA-compliant records can be assumed to be ordinary MARC21 records (there's a heap of potential MARC mapping issues involved in any national sharing exercise which we won't go into here). I can see the need for the use of FRBR by public libraries but I don't see it happening any time soon so it's not considered here.

Item-level holdings data

The library catalogue includes holdings data as well as bibliographic data so that, too, could be part of a national data set. The detail and format of this data can vary between LMSs and from one library authority to another:
  • Some, but not all, item records may have at least some of their data held in MARC 876 — 878 tag format
  • The traditional concept of a "collection" may be described in different fields according to the LMS or the local policy. Usually it would be labelled as one or other of item type, item category or collection.
Which data to include? Or rather, which would be most likely to be consistently-recorded? My guess:
  • Unique identifier (usually a barcode)
  • Location
  • Key linking to the appropriate bibliographic record
  • Item type/item category/collection label best approximating to the traditional concept of "collection"
  • Cost/value
  • Use, which would generally mean the number of issues
  • Current status of the item
After that the variations start to kick in big time.

There are a few devils in the detail, for instance:
  • There is no standard set of "collections," though there is a de facto standard set of higher-level item types:
    • Adult Fiction
    • Adult Non-Fiction
    • Children's Fiction
    • Children's Non-Fiction
    • Reference
    • Audiovisual
    • Everything else
    The item type/item category/ collection for each library authority would need to be mapped against a standard schedule of “Item types.” For instance, when I used to pull out stock data for CIPFA returns I didn't have the appropriate categories available in fields in the item records; so in Dynix I had a dictionary item set up to do the necessary in Recall and with Spydus I set up a formula field in a Crystal Report, in both cases it involved a formula including sixty-odd "If… Then… Else…" statements.
    • Are those already used for CIPFA adequate or would a new suite need to be developed and agreed?
    • Would this translation be done at the library output stage or the data aggregation stage?
      For CIPFA our translation was done at output, for CollectionHQ it was done at data aggregation stage according to previously-defined mapping.
  • Cost could be the actual acquired cost including discount; the supplier's list price at time of purchase, without discount; or the default replacement cost for that type of item applied by the LMS.
  • Use count data may be tricky:
    • It could be for the lifetime of the item or just from the time that data was added to this particular LMS if the legacy data was lost during the migration from one system to another. 
    • Some LMSs record both "current use" (e.g. reset at the beginning of the financial year) and total use. You need to be able to identify one from the other.
    • The use of loanable e-books/e-audiobooks may not be available as this depends on the integration of the LMS with the supplier’s management system.
    • Curated web pages would be treated as reference stock and not have a use count.
    • Some LMSs allow the recording of reference use as in-house use.
  • Item status is always interesting:
    • Does this status mean the item is actually in stock?
    • Is the item available?
    • Has the item gone walkies/been withdrawn?
    • Again, this would have to be a mapping exercise, similar to the one we did for CollectionHQ

So what have we got?

Overall, then, we could say that every public library could put their hand to a fair bit of title-level data that's reasonably consistent in both structure and content; and some item-level data that wouldn't be difficult to be structurally consistent but would need a bit of work to map the content to a consistent level.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Library data part one: variations on a theme

Over the Summer I've been doing a bit of work for the Public Libraries Taskforce and that set me thinking about the data that public library services hold. Each one holds a shedload of data about its resources, its customers and its performance, but each one holds a slightly different shedload to its neighbours. Why would that be?

Technical reasons

  • There are surprisingly few standard data structures in play in public libraries
  • Different management systems hold data in different ways
  • Even if the data has the same structure a different suite of descriptive labels may be in use

Human reasons

  • An organisation might not feel the need to record the data at all
  • The quality — or not — of the data may not be a priority so elements may be missing
  • Naming conventions, etc. may change over time without retroactive conversion, leading to internal inconsistency
  • The data may still be on bits of paper
Having said that there are some key data that are generally common to all, though variable in detail. I'll have a look at those over the next few posts.

Disheartening the visitor

For a long time — nearly twenty years — I had a very clear candidate for Worst Entrance To A Public Library Ever, though thankfully that particular entrance barely survived the millennium. I've now found one that's worse. No names, no pack drill, it wouldn't be fair to the staff who I know are trying their best in very trying circumstances.

The other day I popped into this library. I've been meaning to go and have a nosy for a while. Up to a few years ago this town had a reasonably busy little library, nothing special, in a simple brick two-story box of a building. The shopping area of the town got redeveloped quite extensively, one of the casualties being the old library. It was the replacement I'd been meaning to visit.

The good news is that the building's well-signed in the shopping area and made easy to find because there's a lot of colourful and useful library posters in the window. The first bit of bad news is that it's on the first floor above a supermarket so you can't idly walk past, see the library in use and be tempted in. But the posters and notices in the window try to draw you in.

library lobby with escalatorSadly, once you are drawn in you're in a small lobby with just enough room to wheel a buggy round to a lift or else take the escalator directly in front of you. Everything is grey: pale grey walls, mid grey ceiling, dark grey carpet, steel grey lift doors and escalator. It's all a bit soulless. Nothing much invites you to go up the escalator: it rises up into a dark grey shadow with no knowing that anything's up there, least of all a library. All in all pretty nasty.

Once you get upstairs it's slightly better, though that's despite the design of the library not because of it. The colour scheme is followed again, relentlessly, with grey metal shelving and an extensive network of exposed pipes in the ceiling space also painted mid-grey, the building designer obviously being a big fan of warehouse shopping chic. Or else one of the Borg. The overall effect was softened as far as possible by posters and displays but there wasn't physically a lot of scope for making it a much more human environment. Which was a shame as there were good things going on in there including a very enthusiastic rhythm and rhyme session going on in the enclosure that was the children's library. Lots of colourful books on the shelves may have helped a bit but this is a local authority that was closing libraries and cutting book funds back when the rest of us were refurbishing and replenishing so the staff didn't have many resources to play with there.

Generally speaking this is just the worst of a trend I've seen over the past few years, new library builds by architects and designers who see the library space as being like an office or else just a room with a few shelves of books in it. For all the consultations that go on it's evident that the designers haven't made any effort to understand how the business of the library is run:
  • The need to invite the visitor in, ease them back out again and leave them wanting to come back soon; 
  • The different lines of flow for different kinds of use and different kinds of customer;
  • The ease of navigation so that somebody standing in the entrance knows immediately where they need to go;
  • The essential requirement of lines of sight for staff so that they can provide unobtrusive supervision and support;
  • The capability for change in response to early experience of use (like some landscape designers who only hard pave paths after a few months so that paths follow the "cow lines" established by the people using the space) and to allow for development of delivery of the services on offer;
  • Most of all, the acknowledgement that the library space is a human space so people have to feel comfortable in it.
None of this costs anything except a bit of effort and a willingness to understand the desired outcomes that are being designed for, Sadly…

Friday, 30 September 2016

Don't blame technology for bad management attitudes

Once upon a time, back when the millennium bug was a thing — or we thought it was — the Director of Recreation & Community Services as was told me to put together a roadmap of the IT developments the library service should be undertaking if money wasn't a big issue. We didn't have the money  and there wasn't any immediate prospect of having it but it would give him a sense of where we wanted to be and the opportunities we'd like to grab if they came along. The results included the usual suspects: we desperately needed to get all the libraries networked and onto the library management system and staff on enquiry desks needed access to the internet as well as the library catalogue, and internet access for the public would be good. I also said that we needed to invest in self-service circulation.

I'm now going to say something heretical, please bear with me. There is no intrinsic value in stamping a due date in a book. There, I've said it. The value in a staff-mediated issue/checkout transaction is:
  • The borrower gets to borrow an item
  • The loan is recorded
  • There's the human interaction, which may be the only one some people get that day
  • The library staff get the opportunity to provide information about other library resources and services ("We've got that author's new book on order," "Did you know we've started having toddlers' tales sessions on Wednesday afternoons?" etc., etc.)
The value of the return/checkin transaction is similar.

To my mind the high-value parts of any transaction are the ones you need to put your resources into. Anything that takes resources away from the high-value areas needs to be designed out.

In those days our busiest library was issuing between four and five thousand items every Saturday. More to the point, six Library Assistants were issuing between four and five thousand items every Saturday. And returning a similar number, which creates a lot more work as something needs to be done with all that incoming  stock. A lot of the time the queues at the counter were awful with staff and customers both having a stressful experience. Consequently the value of the issue transaction was compromised — the loan was effected and recorded but there was no time for the human stuff: both the staff and the customers felt under pressure to get the transaction over and done with as quickly as possible. Some customers even gave up and didn't bother: they wanted to become borrowers and our process stopped it happening. If someone desperately needed that human interaction they were badly short-changed. At the returns desk it was even worse: some borrowers lost patience and just left items on the corner of the counter and in the confusion these sometimes got back onto the shelves without the return having been recorded. The rest of the week there were other, smaller, stress points and other events and activities in the library added to the mix. By this stage we'd successfully made the case for some more Library Assistant hours but there's a limit to the number of bodies and workstations you that can physically fit behind even the huge counter that was in this library.

So I argued that we needed to include some self-service issue/return functionality to try and ease the burden a bit. Some people just want to be in and out, they want to borrow an item or return it and they're not much fussed about anything else. Some people would have privacy or safeguarding issues that could be addressed by allowing them to self-issue a book. Giving these people the self-service option would address their needs and also reduce the queue, allowing more time for the people who did need the human stuff at the counter. The director, whose background was adult and community education, was enthusiastic about the idea: "You mean that we could get the library staff off that production line at the counter so that instead of stamping books they could be doing something more interesting like helping people to find things and getting them interested in something new?" Yes, we could have.

Some years, and a couple of directors, later we were in a position to credibly rattle the begging bowl to fund self-service circulation. The world had changed somewhat. Library managers nationwide had picked up the idea that this functionality was a way of saving money on staffing and particularly cutting Library Assistant hours. Although I got cross when my library managers saw self-service as an opportunity to cut staffing costs I couldn't really blame them as individuals: they were coming late to a game that already had this established narrative. It was a massive pity but there we were. We weren't alone. And as Austerity took its toll self-service circulation became one of the quick fixes — I know of one library authority that cut staffing hours on the basis that kiosks were going to be installed at a couple of libraries and the next year cut the hours further because the self same kiosks had been installed. So self-service kiosks replaced staff instead of freeing them up to do other, more important, things.

The point to this story is that the technology wasn't to blame. Technology is never neutral — design must have an end in view — but the way that it is used and the consequent outcomes are largely down to human decision. In this case the opportunity to enrich the very many parts of the public library service that aren't the issue and return of books was passed over because neither the staff nor the service were being valued by "Professionals" in managerial positions. It wasn't a decision forced on them by outside forces, it was one they came to themselves collectively at the turn of the millennium and which they then transmitted to the people who hold the purse strings. Which makes it deuced hard for people now arguing the case that public libraries have never been only about issue counts: if front-line staff can be replaced by one-trick-pony kiosks all that other stuff can't have been all that important could it? Well, yes it was and yes it is and it's scandalous that enabling technology's been abused in this way.

Library authorities are repeating this mistake with technologies such as Open+. Open+ is a good way of extending the use of a building and some of its resources. Many of the running costs of a building are incurred whether or not that building's in use: the fabric of the building deteriorates regardless and the lights may be out but you'll need the heating on sometimes unless you fancy having a lot of burst pipes in Winter. So it makes sense to maximise the return on this investment in running costs by maximising the building's availability for use. Especially if that use is currently particularly limited: if you have a building and it only has a useful life of ten or twenty hours a week then this is a huge waste. In these cases using a technology like Open+ makes sense: it allows access to the building as a community venue or a quiet study space and you could make stock available for self issue/return, thus extending the reach of part of the library service. What it doesn't do is replace the shedload of other stuff that gets delivered — or should be delivered — by the library service in that building. It isn't a replacement for a library service, it just extends some people's access to some of those parts of that service that can be passively delivered.

Anything else is yet another abuse of library technology.

Monday, 12 September 2016

What do visitor counts tell us?

Why did I get into a bate about visitor figures the other day? It's largely because of the spate of recent reports and commentaries about the decline of the public library service based on these numbers. I think there is an over reliance on what is, after all, pretty rubbish data.

Visitor counts are not measures of use. They are an approximation of — sometimes a wild stab at — the number of people who entered a building. If you were to tell me that visitor counts have declined by 30% over a given period I'd take your word for it. Personal experience and observation suggests that fewer people are in some (not all) of the libraries I visit than there used to be so you may be right. And the closing of libraries and nibbling away at opening hours over the past quarter of a century won't have helped any. But I'd be extremely sceptical that you had any forensic evidence to back up your percentage.

Does it actually matter that there are fewer visits? If I can sit in my living room and reserve a book then go and visit the library to pick it up I have immediately cut down the number of visits by at least 50%. But the library has delivered the same service, and much more conveniently for me. While I'm in the library I can still avail myself of all its other services and indulge in a bit of serendipitous discovery amongst the shelves but I am not compelled to an earlier visit with the sole purpose of queuing up at the counter to ask for a reservation to be placed.

Ah but issue figures are going down as well… And? Public libraries never only issued books. Literally an infinitely greater number of people use the public PCs in the library than they did in 1964. Do we have fifty years' worth of attendance figures for story times and author visits? Do we have decades-worth of comparative data of use for quiet study? Or any and all of the other stuff? How do we know that libraries aren't having fewer but richer visits?

But we're delivering less of a service… Are you capable of delivering a better quality of service now? Did you overstretch yourselves in the past and sometimes end up shortchanging your customer service? Were you giving one minute of your time to people who needed five? Were people put off asking for help because they saw that you were busy? High throughput isn't always a measure of high quality.

But visits are down… Do we have annual totals for the number of people who walked through the door, saw the length of the queue at the counter and thought: "I'll come back later?" No, we don't.

Which is why I got in a bit of a bate about it.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Please can we stop pretending library visitor counts are performance data?

From an operations management perspective there is some use for library visitor count data:
  • It's useful to have an idea of when your peak throughputs occur so that you can deploy resources accordingly.
  • When you're designing new library spaces it's good to have a rough ballpark figure of throughputs for designing in capacity and customer flows.
  • It's good for morale to be able to acknowledge and celebrate when you've safely handled a significant number of visitors.
From a service management perspective there is one use for library visitor count data:
  • It's a salutary reminder of how little you know of your customers if the only available data are about loans and PC sessions.
Otherwise, they're not a lot of use. You see, the thing about visitor counts is that most of them are poor data and from a service delivery perspective all of them are meaningless.

Why are so many visitor counts poor data?

We'll assume that everyone's acting in good faith and nobody's playing the numbers.

If you've got an automated visitor count system and you're running your library as a stand-alone service you have the best chance of having good visitor count data. A lot depends on the way the count is done; the positioning of the counter; and the frequency of data sampling and verification.
  • A badly-placed counter can miss visitors — a head count could miss all the children, for instance, or the customer flows could by-pass the counter completely. 
  • Beam-interrupt counters that try to count the number of legs and divide by two have their issues. Back when we installed them at Rochdale we'd heard the urban myth about what happens when you walk past with a ladder. Having enquiring minds we tried it with a seven-rung stepladder and discovered that there was some truth in the story so long as the ladder was being carried horizontally by two toddlers, so we didn't worry about that too much. We did worry that one toddler with little legs = one interrupt = half a visitor. And that a child running into a library didn't get counted (children run into good libraries because they're exciting). People with walking sticks or wheelchairs seemed to be inconsistently recorded. So the figures were only really useful to us as rough ballpark figures.
  • Things happen, so there need to be ongoing checks on the reliability of the equipment, the data and the procedures for collection and collation.
If you've got an automated visitor count system in a shared-service building it's a bit more complicated.
  • The visitor count is potentially useful for the operational management of the building but not really for the library service. 
  • Do you include or exclude the people who came in to renew their taxi licence or claim housing benefit or have an appointment with the nurse in the clinic? 
    • If you include them how is this data useful for the management of the library service? 
    • If you exclude them how do you capture the visitors who come in for a taxi licence/HB enquiry/clinical appointment then take advantage of the fact there's a library in the same building? 
  • How do you exclude the people coming in for meetings with other services? 
  • How do you exclude the passage of staff from the other services? 
It gets messy quickly.

And then there are manual counts…

What's wrong with manual counts? Well:
  • There's the timing of them. It's unlikely that you'll have the resources to do the count all day every day. If you have, you'll find a lot of other things for them to be doing at the same time. (If you *do* have a FTE devoted exclusively to counting visitors you need your bumps feeling.) The data will be a sample. It's easier to do the sampling during the hours when the library's relatively are quiet, but what would invalidate the sample. So there will inevitably be stresses of distraction and confusion.

  • Then there's the seasonal variations. And do you want to base your annual count on that week when you've arranged for the workmen to come in to fix the heating? And so on.

    You could take the sensible view that you're not going to extrapolate the figures, you're just going to do a year-on-year comparison of counts conducted the same way at the same point in the calendar every year. Which is useful if the figures are purely for internal use or published as trends rather than absolute data.

    If that absolute data's used to compare and contrast with another library authority it becomes a lot less useful as you're comparing apples with pears:
    • The methodology may be different. 
    • There may be good local reasons for differences in the  seasonal variation — half term holidays at schools being obvious examples. 
    • There  may be differences in the library calendar — the reading festival may be that week, or it could be the breathing space after last week's reading festival. Back in the nineties our managers were concerned that visitor counts could be distorted by events in the library so, ironically, the two weeks of the visitor count were the only ones with no events in the library, no class visits, no author visits, etc.
  • Then there's the counting. A manual visitor count is easy when the library's quiet. When it's busy you're too busy dealing with your customers to count the visitors. You can try and do a catch-up later but that's always going to be an approximation based on memory and chance observation. And your finger may slip on the clicker you're using for the count. Or you could be one of those people who sometimes have four bars in their five-bar gates.
So there are issues with the visitor count data.

Why is this data meaningless?

A person has come into the building. And…? The visitor to the buildings isn't necessarily a user of the library or a customer of the service, any more than the chap who gets off the train at Waverley Station is necessarily a Scotsman.

There were forty visitors to the library
  • Three people borrowed some books
  • Three people used the computers
  • One came to read the electricity meter
  • One came to sort out the radiator that hasn’t been working
  • One came to deliver a parcel
  • One came to use the loo
  • A drunk came in to make a row and throw his shoe through the window
  • A policeman came in to take a statement about it
  • A building manager came in to inspect the damage
  • A joiner came in to board up the window
  • A glazier came in to replace the window
  • A cat ran in, pursued by:
  • A dog, pursued by:
  • The dog’s owner, pursued by:
  • Three children who followed to see the fun
  • We don’t know what the rest did.
A visitor comes into the library.
  • What did they do? 
  • What did you do? 
  • Was it any good? 
  • Where the right resources available at the right time for the right people? 
  • Did the visitor engage with the service at all? 
The visitor count tells you none of this. So how can it be any sort of reflection of the performance of your service? You can't use data about people you don't know have engaged with your service to measure its performance because the only information you have is about the people, you don't have any about the service delivery.

Attendance figures are important to sporting venues because attendance generates income. They don't determine the trophies that team collect in the course of a season. Nor do you see schools with banners proclaiming: "According to OFSTED more people walked through our front door than any other primary school in Loamshire!"

Visitor counts are not performance data. Performance is about the delivery of outcomes, not throughputs.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

How many?

I've started doing some work with the Libraries Taskforce. I'd been to one of their workshops and it was pretty apparent that potentially there should be a lot of work needing doing by the less than a handful of people involved and it wasn't easy to see how they'd be able to do it on their own. I've got some time now that I've retired from Rochdale Council so I asked them if they needed a hand with anything and they said yes please. So I'm lending a hand with the work strand that's hoping to develop a core data set for English public libraries that can be openly-available for both public use and operational analysis. It's a voluntary effort on my part; it's something I'm interested in and have been impatient about and it's a piece of work that should have some very useful outcomes.

Whenever you start talking about English public libraries data the elephant in the room very quickly makes its presence known. Before we can talk credibly about anything very much there is one inescapable question desperately needing an answer:
Just how many English public libraries are there anyway?
There is no definitive answer. There is no definitive list. There are at least half a dozen well-founded, properly researched lists. They each give a different answer and when you start comparing them you find differences in the detail. There are perfectly valid reasons for this:
  • Each had been devised and researched for its own purposes without reference to what had gone before. Each started from scratch and each had a differently-patchy response from library authorities when questionnaires were posted.
  • This data's not easy to keep up to date at a national level — especially these days! So some libraries will have closed, a few will have opened, some will have moved and some will have been renamed. 
  • It wasn't always clear just how old the lists were. Some had been compiled as part of some wider project and there wouldn't necessarily have been the resource available to do any updating anyway.
So the decision was made to tackle this head on so that it could be settled once and for all so that the world could move on and they were a few weeks into this work when I signed on. Very broadly, here's the process:
  • Julia from the Taskforce, who has infinitely more patience than me, trawled every English local authority's web site for the details of their public libraries.
  • Between us we scoured the other lists and added any libraries we found in there that we couldn't find in Julia's list.
  • We then went through this amended list to see if we could identify any points of confusion, for instance where "Trumpton Central Library" has moved from one place to another or where "Greendale Library" has become "The Mrs Goggins Memorial Information and Learning Hub."
  • The Taskforce has sent each library authority a list of what we think are their libraries asking them to check to see whether or not these details are correct.
  • The results will be collated and the data published by the Taskforce.
Ten years ago this would have been pretty straightforward. These days the picture is complicated by the various forms of "community library" that have sprung up over the past few years. These run the gamut from "this library is part of the statutory provision though it is staffed by volunteers some of the time" all the way to "we wish them well on their venture but they're nothing to do with us." So where a public library has become a "community library" of one sort or another that needs ro be indicated in the data.

Will this list be 100% correct? Probably not at first, this is a human venture after all. But even if it's only 98% correct in the first instance it should be treated as the definite article. It will then need to be corrected and updated as a matter of course; if that's devolved to the individual library authorities the work becomes manageable and the data becomes authoritative.

Why should anyone bother?

What's in it for anyone to keep their bit of this list up to date and details correct? In my opinion:
  • It's basic information that should as a matter of principle be available to the public.
  • In the past year alone, this question has tied up time and effort that could have been more usefully-occupied. All those enquiries, and FoI requests, and debates about data that could just be openly-available and signposted whenever the question arose.
  • It is essential to the credibility of any English public library statistics. If the number of libraries is suspect then how trustworthy are any of the statistics being bandied around? If the simplest quantitative evidence — the number of libraries — is iffy then how much faith can be placed in quantitative or qualitative evidence that's more exacting to collect?

    For instance, counting the number of libraries within a local authority boundary if you're responsible for supporting or managing them is a piece of piss. Reliably counting the number of visitors to any one of those libraries most definitely isn't — I have 80% confidence in the numbers coming out of any automated system (not necessarily due to technical issues) and to my mind if you're relying on manual counts you may as well be burning chicken feathers. So when I hear that visits to English public libraries have dropped by a significant percentage over a given number of years I may be prepared to accept this in the light of a wider narrative, personal observation and anecdotal evidence but I have no empirical reason to know that this is the case. 
That's why.