27 May 2012

This business of tracking library usage…

…is challenging and time consuming. We all want to understand what our respective audiences are up to. Collecting realistic usage data should be easy and swift without taking up too much individual staff time.

The basics revolve around finding out about:
  • Nature and frequency of assistance we provide
  • What are our busiest hours (by the hour/daily/weekly/monthly)?
  • How do our busiest hours change over the semester?
  • Identify reference staff training needs based on patrons’ FAQs
  • Sources of reference questions (e.g. phone, in person, IM, email)
  • Effective staffing patterns
  • Collection development needs

Libraries want to access this information in a timely and efficient manner. The mechanism of collecting stats must be simple. Reports from raw data should be compiled easily too. There’s libstats and desktracker.

You could also enter data into a spreadsheet from a form via Google Docs.
  • Simple data recording (minimise clicks via a grid of check-box options)
  • Instant stats compilation
  • Easy export to Excel
  • Quick customisation
  • Expandability (tracking variables)
  • Web accessibility
  • Built-in reference interaction time-stamp
  • Flexibility (enter more or less information)

Sunshine Carter (University of Minnesota-Duluth) came up with using Google Docs as a straightforward solution to the challenge of effectively collecting library usage data. This approach requires no budget and also no assistance of IT staff. It took her about one hour to get the show off the ground (same here when I tried it).

For data collection, I simply created a communal access point via Blogger (by invitation only). A separate “Help” section explains to users the meaning and scope of each tracking variable.

Blogger Screenshot

The interesting bit is to come up with local tracking variables that mean something to your library. The idea is to keep this high-level and straight forward. The more complex the solution, the more time it will take for reference staff to enter data.

Prior to implementation think backwards. Here are some suggestions:
  • What questions about library use do we have?
  • What statistics would help answer those questions?
  • What data would get us those statistics?
  • Carefully customise data collection fields
  • Ensure common data collection/terminology/practice across all library sites/offices


  1. Thanks for this Alexander, some very interesting optiona. I was especially sold when I saw the "no budget..no IT staff" bit! It's worth spending a bit of time on the setting up side of things - it saves time and gives more meaningful results later.

  2. Sounds like a very cost effective way of doing it all right.

  3. Thanks Alex, it is also a much nicer interface for staff to deal with than an Excel spreadsheet-type format. You can also use Google docs in a similar way to create survey and feedback forms which can be a useful way of getting around the limit on free SurveyMonkey usage.