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Data-Driven Libraries

Computers in Libraries [September 2014]

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Copyright (c) 2014 Information Today

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Abstract: As organizations that typically have less than ideal levels of resources to carry out their work, libraries naturally should assemble the best possible tools to enable them to operate as intelligently and efficiently as possible. One of the distinct trends in the development of library technology products involves an increased emphasis on leveraging metrics and analytics to support more data-driven decisions, both in daily operations and in the shaping of higher-level strategies and policies. Almost all of the major library management and discovery products have been created with a strong emphasis on analytics, and a variety of stand-alone tools and services provide data collection and analysis to support some aspects of library operations. Another set of tools focuses on optimizing websites. Libraries can benefit from taking advantage of any of the diverse technology tools at their disposal to enhance and optimize their organizations as well as interact with their patrons in more meaningful ways.


As organizations that typically have less than ideal levels of resources to carry out their work, libraries naturally should assemble the best possible tools to enable them to operate as intelligently and efficiently as possible. One of the distinct trends in the development of library technology products involves an increased emphasis on leveraging metrics and analytics to support more data-driven decisions, both in daily operations and in the shaping of higher-level strategies and policies. Almost all of the major library management and discovery products have been created with a strong emphasis on analytics, and a variety of stand-alone tools and services provide data collection and analysis to support some aspects of library operations. Another set of tools focuses on optimizing websites. Libraries can benefit from taking advantage of any of the diverse technology tools at their disposal to enhance and optimize their organizations as well as interact with their patrons in more meaningful ways.

Library Management Imbued With Analytics

Libraries have always had an affinity for producing detailed statistics. It's important to be able to describe levels of activity that provide feedback to stakeholders (such as funders) and demonstrate performance levels. Analytics take a large step beyond mere statistics. Beyond generating reports after the fact, libraries also have an interest in finding more ways to use data to make targeted improvements. The realm of analytics is full of discussions about actionable data.

The latest phase of development in resource management products-including both the new generation library services platforms and the evolving ILSs-has seen a great deal of emphasis placed on analytics. In some cases, analytic tools have been built into the foundation of the product or added on and integrated. Either approach has the potential to provide an essential ingredient for extending system functionality. These enhanced systems go beyond just providing computer-assisted automation for routine library tasks; they can now provide evidence and analysis to help libraries adjust the way they perform their work, improve efficiency, and make better use of their financial and human resources to maximize the impact of their collections and services.

The two major areas on which libraries spend their budgets are people and collections. To stretch these budgets, libraries can benefit from evidence-based methodologies that factor in a variety of data sources.

For collection development, an analytics-driven approach supports selectors as they make decisions regarding which physical items they purchase or de-accession and when to add, renew, or cancel subscriptions for electronic resources. In the same way that businesses use data mined from all possible sources to assemble their inventory and direct their marketing efforts, libraries likewise can use data to optimally shape their collections. Elements of data or analysis include detailed and granular statistics that describe current and historic use patterns, cost details for items already acquired, and pricing information for selection candidates. Analysis of these data can reveal trends such as the cost-per-use of either physical or electronic resources. Ideally, each collection decision should be supported by data to enable librarians to increase the impact of the collection for the least cost.

Librarians no longer have the luxury of acquiring materials that may never be used. It's an obvious observation that most libraries have shifted to a justin-case or just-in-time model of collection procurement. The recent interest in demand-driven acquisitions takes these concepts a step further. Under a demand-driven model, libraries make a pool of resources available; when a specified threshold of patron usage occurs, the purchase of an item is triggered.

A higher-level analysis can help librarians allocate budgets among the optimal mix of formats, genres, disciplines, or subject areas. This analysis might not only include data regarding the interest or demand by patrons on each category of material, but it might also be extended to include comparisons with peer institutions.

One of the foundational concepts of the new generation of library services platforms centers on providing functionality to make better operational decisions. Many of today's products are designed not only to produce after-the-fact reports, but to collect data in real time, often presented through dashboards of visual indicators to enable library personnel to perform their work with more actionable data at their disposal.

It is more than a coincidence that almost all library management products have a strong emphasis on analytics. In a highly competitive business arena in which most of the products have reached a very high level of maturity surrounding the functionality related traditional library tasks, analytics have emerged as one of the areas of product differentiation. It's beneficial to libraries that analytics has become a major area in which each of the products strive to mine their systems for any possible source of data that can be reinvested back into the system to improve performance.

Some examples of major products and their general approach, each taken from current marketing literature, include the following:

  • Intota Assessment from ProQuest-"Intota Assessment provides innovative views and metrics of a library's collection, including a number of reporting and analysis tools designed to improve collection management, making it possible for library staff to focus on delivering higher value services to their patrons."
  • BLUEcloud Analytics from SirsiDynix-BLUEcloud "gives you the tools you need to get past surface impressions and map the real ways your library brings value to your community. It does more than report today's numbers: it combines data over time from your ILS, OPAC, and other SirsiDynix software to give you key performance indicators for your library and community ecosystem.
    Discover connections you never suspected with multifaceted charts combining library and community metrics. Generate complex analyses in seconds. View all your data in one web-based interface. Streamline your library's processes and share your successes with customized reports tailored for colleagues or stakeholders."

  • Decision Center from Innovative-Decision Center offers a "comprehensive collection management solution that provides timely and focused action recommendations for budgeting, selection, weeding, floating, shelving allocation, and more. Decision Center helps libraries match supply and demand to deliver optimized service. By accessing current and complete data-including circulation, holds, transits, patrons, and acquisitionsDecision Center provides courses of action that help your library create customer-driven collections while streamlining collection management workflows."
  • Alma Analytics from Ex Libris Group-"Alma Analytics integrates analytics and reporting into everyday workflows, assisting staff in maximizing the investment in its collections, ensuring the effectiveness and productivity of its staff and ultimately enabling staff to make informed decisions regarding library operations."
  • Plum Analytics from EBSCO Information Services-Recently acquired by EBSCO, Plum Analytics, along with its PlumX application, provides alternative research metrics. "The information collected is presented in a variety of ways including data visualizations, dashboards, and widgets. Plum Analytics is the only company synthesizing this metrics data for custom analysis for each institution and for publishers."
  • Analytics On Demand from Gale, part of Cengage Learning-The recently launched Analytics On Demand is "an innovative data analysis tool to help libraries discover key insights about their library community-who is and isn't using their resources-to better inform strategic planning, collection development, programming and to measure the impact of day-to-day decision making."
  • collectionHQ is a business unit of Baker & Taylor-It offers service currently oriented to public libraries, which use a variety of sources-including usage data extracted from the library's ILSto provide a set of analytics to inform collections decisions in ways that optimize their performance. "collectionHQ allows librarians to effectively analyze how their collection is performing and take clear action to maximize and manage it-aligning supply with demand."

This list isn't meant to be comprehensive, but suffice to say it illustrates the trend. In addition to each of these specialized products or modules, most of the other automation systems have likewise strengthened their reporting or statistics modules to introduce additional analytics. As libraries consider their next investments in automation infrastructure, they will want to look closely at the relative capabilities of various systems for leveraging data and analytics to achieve practical results.

Optimizing a Library's Virtual Presence

Libraries provide much of their collection access and services virtually through their websites, and websites especially lend themselves to ongoing refinement through analytics. I can remember in the early days of the web, libraries and other organizations might brag about how many hits their website received in any given period. The state of the art has long since advanced to a very sophisticated set of methodologies and tools to help organizations understand use patterns and to accordingly refine their web-based resources. Websites are inherently measurable, since every page request, mouse click, search term, or any other user behavior can be recorded and analyzed.

The commercial sector of the web has driven the development of very sophisticated tools for analytics. Organizations with millions or billions of dollars in commerce flowing through their websites drive the advancement of improving techniques for the delivery of information or services, usability, and other key areas of website performance.

Many applications with sophisticated capabilities for measuring and assessing the performance of a website are available at little or no cost. While there are also some more advanced products available for substantial subscription fees or purchase costs, most libraries will do well to fully exploit the capabilities of the free services. Google Analytics, for example, finds very broad use by libraries for assessing the performance of their virtual presence. Following a methodology called page tagging, each page request is recorded in a database maintained by Google that can then be used to provide a comprehensive set of reports that describe the use of the site. This service is based on the principle of actionable data, especially for assessing changes in use that can be attributed to specific changes, such as a change in the implementation of a particular feature on the site. Google Analytics is naturally optimized to demonstrate the impact of ad campaigns, but it is also very effective in tuning the overall performance of a website.

Some libraries may be concerned with the issues of user data being housed by an organization such as Google. Alternative tools based on analyzing the logs generated by the web server are also available, including both free options as well as very sophisticated commercial packages.

One of the challenges for libraries in performing analytics lies in the proliferation of web-based resources that may be involved. A typical library may operate a variety of independent web services, such as its core website, its online catalog or discovery service, subject guides, ebook services, and a variety of subscription-based electronic resources. It can be quite difficult to assemble a comprehensive set of analytics that describes the total impact of these diverse resources, including the patterns of how library patrons navigate among them.

Customer Relationship Management

The provision of patron services is another major area of activity in the library that can benefit from increased use of analytics. While an ILS generally provides a great deal of data regarding the activities of technical services and the circulation desk, there are fewer tools available to support and assess the provision of reference or research services.

In the business realm, a genre of products called customer relationship management (CRM) systems provides a comprehensive set of tools that help an organization manage all aspects of service delivery to clientele. These tools allow an organization to collect detailed data on current and potential customers and measure relevant factors regarding all its interactions with customers. A CRM system allows an organization to understand and improve the quality of service delivery, providing analytics that describe the overall quantity of activity and qualitative measures such as the portion of service requests that were successfully resolved or the promptness in responding to inquiries.

To date, I have not observed a significant level of adoption of CRM products in libraries. While many go beyond the simple tallies kept at the reference desk that record reference questions answered, I am not aware of many libraries that have implemented commercial systems to provide more detailed statistics and analysis. It seems that most libraries invest far more in technology to automate technical services than they do for public services, which seems a bit off-kilter with strategic priorities. I would be interested in hearing from libraries that employ a CRM platform for their patron-oriented services.

Technologies for Enhancing Physical Spaces

Another area in which I see opportunity for exploiting data and analytics relates to the use of a library's physical spaces. Many libraries conduct periodic observational studies to gather data regarding traffic patterns and other aspects of how patrons make use of their buildings. Such data can help inform staffing priorities, collection or equipment placement, or the design of new spaces in renovation projects or new construction.

Technologies are also emerging with interesting potential for helping librarians gain a more comprehensive understanding of how patrons use library facilities and how to deliver more targeted services. Apple has developed a new technology called iBeacon, which it characterizes as an "indoor proximity system" that allows organizations to monitor the movement of individuals with smartphones using a communications protocol called Bluetooth low energy (BLE). iBeacon was conceived as a powerful marketing tool for retail outlets, enabling them to transmit promotional messages to the smartphones of customers visiting specific departments.

Tfechnologies such as these may also find application in libraries, which have similar interests in providing more targeted services to their patrons. While potentially interesting, this technique seems laden with privacy issues, which would need to be seriously addressed as this technology comes into use in the library. The iBeacon technology has caught the attention of some of library innovators, including those at Doklab in the Netherlands. I first heard it mentioned in a library context by Tamir Borensztajn; at the time, he was with Infor, and now, he's VP of discovery strategy at EBSCO Information Services. While this specific technology might not necessarily prove to be the next big trend in libraries, I do expect further interest in technologies that help libraries enhance their engagement with their patrons within their physical confines.

Although libraries have fundamentally different values and goals than commercial organizations, I see many opportunities to employ some of the same types of tools and technologies to help measure, assess, and refine their work processes. The recent emphasis on analytics in many of the strategic resource management products developed for libraries seems to be a very positive direction. I also see lots of opportunities for libraries to extend this analytical approach to other aspects of their work and to explore some interesting emerging technologies. While the commercial sector has become very aggressive and unscrupulous in creating and exploiting data about consumers, libraries work within a more tempered approach that respects the privacy of library patrons. Even within these parameters, I expect data mining and analytics to find increasing use in libraries and to facilitate improvements in the ways that libraries manage their resources.

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Publication Year:2014
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 34 Number 07
Issue:September 2014
Page(s):23-26
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
Record Number:19695
Last Update:2015-07-03 07:37:33
Date Created:2014-09-10 16:39:51