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.

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