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Using Data to Influence Decision Making in Your Library

I recently had the chance to sit in on a webinar that my colleague Donna George, Director of Sales Operations and Product Development, hosted.  The webinar was all about using Analytics tools to aid in decision making. The panelists consisted of Sam Cook, Systems Library for The Library Connection in Connecticut; Emily Althoff, Public Services Administrator for St. Louis County Library; and Mo Yang, Studio Coordinator at Anythink Libraries in Colorado. 

If you were not able to attend, you are in luck! Check out our Webinar recording below.

During a wide-ranging discussion, we learned how Sam and his team have built a data warehouse that combines data from both their current ILS and their previous one.  The tools they build for the libraries of their consortium allow the libraries to do everything from run yearly state reports to ad hoc weeding and missing title lists.  In so many ways, they are helping their member libraries spend less time trying to gather the resources to make wise decisions by allowing them to have access to a wealth of data that is collected for them at the system level.

We also heard from Emily at St. Louis County Library, who worked with her library staff to solve a problem any library with a lot of branches has – how to equitably distribute staff based on the busyness of each location. With a bit of analysis, they were able to fairly and smartly move staff between branches so every building is adequately covered and resources are wisely used.

Finally, we heard from Mo Yang, Studio Coordinator at Anythink Libraries.  He has developed a system to capture anecdotal evidence in a consistent way that allows the internal staff to make smart decisions about their department and the programs they offer.

Since we only had an hour for the webinar, we were not able to get to all of the questions from the audience. Sam and Emily were able to answer more questions after the webinar ended.  Here they are in their entirety. 

Questions for Sam

Sam – Thanks for such an amazing presentation.  I was blown away by the amount of data that you are accessing and manipulating.

Question 1. How did you combine the data from your old ILS and your new ILS – did you put old data in a SQL server and then regularly export current data and mapped it all to the same tables and fields?  Can you explain a bit more of the mechanics of the database you are working within?

When we migrated, we were able to pull our old ILS data into the new ILS as variable-length fields. This means that our new ILS saw them as just text strings and could not interpret them as dates. Additionally, even if it were able to read them as dates, it would have no ability to combine this field with the official Date Created or Last Checkout Date field to determine which one to use for statistical purposes. And, as I reference in the webinar, I would never have expected our vendor to have thought to design a reporting tool with this capability. With SQL, however, we were able to write a query to do this. The SQL code translates the old data into an actual date, compares it to the date listed in our current system, and then either takes the older of the two (for Date Created) or the newer of the two (for Last Checkout Date).

 

Question 2. Lots of libraries don’t have folks with the skill sets you have but still want the very powerful tools you have created.  Do you have advice for librarians who would like to get where you are?  Hire a temp developer, go back to school, etc? 

In some cases, it might indeed be significantly easier to hire someone temporarily to get it started, but you would still need someone on staff to understand how the resulting tool works, if only so that you can keep adding more reports to it over time. But given enough time, I suspect libraries would be more capable of developing this type of tool on their own than they might think. Two things I would strongly recommend:

  1. A) Start just by learning SQL. Once you understand the syntax of SQL, which is much easier than many languages, then it's just a matter of understanding your own data, and that's something libraries are the experts on. If you are able to learn by following online tutorials, there are plenty of them for SQL. If a classroom approach works better for you, there are many options for that as well, possibly even through your vendor (the more their customers can run custom reports themselves, the less the vendor needs to worry about what reports they're providing, so it is in their best interests to get customers onto SQL).
  2. B) Use Google. Anytime you run into something you aren't sure how to do, there's a good chance that exact problem is explained online. Do a Google search for "sql" and whatever you're trying to do, and you'll usually find the answer. Trying to extract just the first four letters of a patron's name? Just Google "sql get first four letters of a word". As you get more knowledgeable about the language, you'll figure out even better ways to ask Google what you want. The same applies to PHP, or really any other language.

Question 3. Any new projects you are considering taking on or anything that is really stumping you right now to figure out how to give the libraries?

One data heavy project I've been working on for about a year (and will continue to work on) is the effect of fine-free policies on overdue rates and return rates. This isn't running through our website, as it is just data that I'm collecting for now, but it is using scheduled SQL reports that are extracting data not available through other means. I recently finished assessing over 400,000 transactions to look at return ratio trends at libraries that do and do not charge fines to seniors. Next, as we do have one library going fully fine free in a couple of months, I'll be assessing before and after data regarding return dates, overdue percentages, and the average number of days items are kept overdue.

Questions for Emily

Emily – I think you a lot of your colleagues from around the country are going to be borrowing your tool and adapting for their own systems.  Some related questions on how to use data to tell a story.

Question 1. I have access to all kinds of data from my ILS, but I don't know how to use it for decision-making. For example, if circulation in a certain area (e.g., mysteries, or large print) is decreasing, does that mean I should phase out that collection, or do I need to buy more titles to make the collection more attractive? 

The Busyness Scale I spoke about is not really a collection development tool it was more of a tool to address and inform decisions about right-sizing staff.  As far as whether or not to phase out a collection, personally I would do a few things with that collection first before changing purchasing practices.  First, are you weeding? Have you deleted items that have not circulated in the last 3 or so years,  Have you discarded overly worn and soiled items?  Patrons tend to check out more when a collection is well weeded and culled.  Also, have you tried featuring certain collections on a display?  Maybe your Mysteries are mysterious to find in the building. Do your patrons know that you even have Large Print?  I think before I went about changing the purchasing practices, I'd work on making sure that the patrons are well aware of the holdings and that they are displayed attractively.  Barring all of that, if they are just not circing then maybe it's time to adjust purchasing and retention practices for those collections.

 And some additional feedback from Sam.  Without knowing the details of those collections, their use, and their patrons, it is hard to give a definite answer. However, I would almost always recommend weeding, but not as a stepping stone to phasing out the collection. Rather, both studies and personal experience have shown that weeding increases circulation. A more focused collection with a higher percentage of titles patrons might be interested in is easier to browse, and in turn leads to patrons being more likely to find something they want and checking it out. If continued usage warrants adding to the collection, just be sure to always continue weeding to keep a healthy balance of quality and quantity.

Question 2. What is the best way to ask the Library Board to increase the Library hours? I feel I don't have enough time in 5 hrs. to get everything done and I know patrons would like it open more!

I don't know that the Busyness scale (or a tool like it) would be the best way to address needing more hours but I think you definitely could use statistics to support your request.  I'm not sure how best to address this in your particular situation but I would do a few things to pave the road, so to speak, before coming to them with the ask.  first, make sure that your board is aware of all the things that the library offers.  In our system, a couple of years ago,  our director started having particular departments give a 5 to 10-minute presentation about all that they offer and do.  We found that our board (while absolutely wonderful people) like most patrons, were not aware of the various aspects of library work.  Giving these presentations (and asking staff to participate in presenting) has been a great way to inform the Board of tasks and services that the Library engages in, that they might not be aware of.  I'd also gather all my statistics maybe pull in all the stats currently keep (and have kept for a few years) but include as many of them as you can think of (circulation, programming, computer use, outreach, whatever you might have stats on)... Basically, let the board know that the library did X amount of things with X amount of FTE in whatever 2015,  Give the same sort of information for 2016, 2017, 2018 etc.  Hopefully what you'll be illustrating is that the library has done more and more over the past few years with essentially the same staff and during the same hours.  If you put this in a graph of some sort, the need for additional hours (and staff) should be visually evident.  You'll also want to be able to back up your request with budgeting.  Can the library actually afford to either add staff or add hours?  Maybe you're talking about adding open hours but not adding staff. In that case, what's the actual additional cost?  Probably additional utilities but of course staff is going to be the biggest factor.  I'd approach it logically,  illustrating the issue then going on to illustrate the viable solution I'd like to attempt.  

Question 3. Have staff challenged any of the measurements that you have used and suggested alternative measurements or additional measurements

Yes and no, first,  the scale is by no means directions set in stone,  it's just information to help decision-makers, make those decisions.  Second, this is not something that we share widely with all staff.  We do provide this information to the Branch Manager and Assistant Managers as a means to help them understand why a position may be deemed needed elsewhere but it's all pretty logical so there isn't a lot of room to challenge the data... the circulation is what it is, the computer use and gate count, is what it is... the allotment of FTE, is what it is.  We are always on the lookout to use statistics to give the fullest picture possible (which is why we added the stats cards created and occurrences of incidents to the measure recently).  But again, just a tool to compile and compare statistical information.  

Questions for Mo 

And last, but certainly not least, we heard from Mo Yang.  Mo has been with Anythink since before they opened the Studio.  He and I were both part of the first round of IMLS funding that was given to libraries planning to build Studio spaces.  From a cool concept, to a rich, vibrant place, Mo has been part of every step of the Studio.  During the grant period, the group of grantees spent a lot of time talking about how to measure something so different.  I am so impressed with how far he has come.

Mo-We really appreciate the insight from your presentation. We know several librarians will look at how to use programming data to provide better experiences to their patrons after seeing your successes.

Question 1: I wasn't able to clearly see the Anythink Experience Matrix. Could that be provided in a different format?

As always, I learned a ton during the webinar and appreciate the time the panelists and the audience members took to spend time with us.

Until we have our next webinar, follow @TheLibraryLife on Instagram and definitely subscribe to our podcast Two Librarians & a Microphone wherever you listen!

 

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