Statistics are Not Enough

It’s that time of year when schools close for the summer and vehicles clog the roadways as the whole country goes on holiday. It is also the time of year when our library is asked to provide content for inclusion in the organization’s annual report to members, donors, and the management team. In preparation, I have been painstakingly compiling figures. I have noted how many in-person visits were made, how many e-mail requests and many phone calls were received, how many publications were catalogued or new PDFs added. We even track how many volumes were loaned by different user groups and how many inter-library loan requests were made.

While I understand the necessity of keeping these statistics, even the benefits that this data may offer for planning and fundraising, I intensely dislike these numbers I am compelled to keep as library exchanges are difficult to accurately quantify. Which is a better numeric representation of answering a reference question — the amount of time spent sleuthing or the monetary value of this time, based on the hourly wage of the librarian or the user? Trying to reduce or describe every encounter in numbers disregards a very important feature: the rationale of the users and the context provided by the situation.

The qualitative elements are just as important as the quantitative, but the former are more difficult to discern, compile and sell than the latter. The 360-degree performance review process, for example, might prove an interesting opportunity to glean such information. Instead of only asking the supervisor to evaluate a staff member’s performance, one would also ask colleagues and clients for further reviews.  A well-written and -cited introduction to the 360-degree performance review, also called 360-degree feedback, is available from Wikipedia, featuring a thorough list of references to this process in academic and industry journals.

The 360-degree performance review would give the chance to collect qualitative information that is of equally value to the quantitative data already collected. Mere numbers demonstrate that an unique user’s visits to the library increased during the year, but in an interview, the user might explain the rationale behind this change. Perhaps the client’s work now required more research or had the nature of the work itself had changed. Adherence to the 360-degree review process or a similar method could help provide this contextual information.

The real value of a library cannot and ought not be simply reduced to mere numbers without context.  One can accumulate the data, but with better methods for conducting qualitative research, one could generate a fuller, more comprehensive understanding of the degree of behavioural change on the part of clients as well as the possible motivations behind this change. This knowledge could then inform outreach efforts or the decision to revise or expand existing services.

Numbers satisfy the need for logical explanations and quantifiable details. Neat and tidy, they generate graphs that can be easily interpreted and sound bites that can easily grab attention. However, the qualitative data provides the emotional ammunition required to inspire the enthusiasm of both the individual presenting the data and the audience who will use this information for decision-making. The context engenders a fuller appreciation for and a greater understanding of the nuances of a situation. To this end, in preparation for providing reports to donors or management, we need to learn to more adequately collect and convey both types of information, to avoid doing both libraries and library users the disservice of oversimplifying matters.



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