Do Statistics Matter?

I’ve been asking myself that question a lot recently. I wish I could say yes or no. My answer, however, is yes and no.

Like most organizations, my library has to justify its existence on a regular basis. We are always counting. Questions asked, items circulated, people walking through the door. You name it. We count it. It is something that is encouraged and expected.

We have to count things so we can prove we are being used and should continue being funded. It’s how things work. It makes sense. If we can quantify our usage then we are able to point to positive numbers and say, “Look! People use our services. You can’t cut or funding.”

I wonder:

  • Are we counting the right things?
  • Can we quantify what we do?
  • Does our dependence on statistics keep us from experimenting and trying new things?

Do statistics like circulation, door count and questions answered paint a good picture of what we do?

I don’t know.

If we want to measure ourselves by the number of things moved and personal interactions I guess they do. They don’t really show what I think are important.

I wish there were a way to quantify lives improved. Lives improved by:

  • Becoming a better reader.
  • A successful job hunt.
  • Staying in touch with distant family and friends.
  • Meeting friends.
  • Making new friends.

These are just a few examples I could think of. There are more. These things are not quantifiable but they happen every day.

I’m worried about the day when our standard statistics really decline. What will we do? Will we increase our budget for bestsellers and other popular content so our circulation numbers stay up?

I think we will. That bothers me. The money spend to keep our statistics high will reduce our funding for literacy, job help and other things I can’t imagine. We may not attempt to implement some ideas because they are experimental and may not result in high statistics. They could be seen as a waste of money.

Will we let what we count make our decisions for us? Will our reliance on statistics to justify our existence stifle innovation?

I hope, when the day comes and our budget is extremely tight, we will choose to improve lives, not improve our statistics. That will be a very difficult choice.

Friday Reads – Free Edition

What is the price of free? Really. Very few things are truly free. There is always a cost to be paid. Whether it is giving a company some personal information, or doing some extra work there is always a cost associated with free.

My library will be launching OverDrive in the next few weeks and this has gotten me thinking about the costs of ‘free’ in libraries. Libraries have generally been a place for free content. It’s one of our biggest draws for many people. But what is the cost of free to the person using the library?* Usually it’s time. The person who wants to read the latest bestseller usually has to wait for the book to be available. That wait can take some time. So if you are willing to be patient you can read that book for free. If you can’t wait you can buy the book immediately.

The same is true for OverDrive and eBooks. While waiting for a digital copy of anything runs counter to how we think it should work it is the trade off people make for it being free. For a long time I griped (mostly to myself) about the lunacy of making people wait for a digital copy of a book. “It’s bits for goodness sake! There is no limit to the amount of people who can use this right NOW! Why do they have to wait?” Well the answer is they don’t have to wait for it. They are free to purchase the book from any number of places. If they want the book for free they have to wait for it. It’s not perfect and I don’t particularly like it. But that’s the current price for free when it comes to eBooks and libraries.

Maybe this will shake things up? Maybe not. Hope so.

*Not mentioning taxation on purpose

This week’s links

This post by Seth Godin got a lot of people talking this week. (I think I’ll dedicate this week’s list to this post and some of the responses)While some of the things he says have made a few people angry and defensive I think his last paragraph is rather encouraging.

We need librarians more than we ever did. What we don’t need are mere clerks who guard dead paper. Librarians are too important to be a dwindling voice in our culture. For the right librarian, this is the chance of a lifetime.

A more defensive post in response to Godin.