Output Measures for Public Libraries

by Moya K. Mason

For library administrators to make plans and set goals, they must have a clear picture of the current performance of their library. One way to find out this information is to measure, using a number of different "output measures," and to interpret the results. This will enable them to serve their users better and to increase library excellence. One such measure is "library visits per capita," which is the number of library visits per person in the community served, and is calculated by dividing the annual number of library visits by the population service area.

This output measure is trying to operationalize the concept of overall library use -- how a particular library is being utilized by the public, and can get as specific as a library would like. For instance, Library X may want to know how busy their libraries are during 11:00 and 2:00 so that it can schedule staff lunch hours. They may simply like to know this data in order to make informed decisions about a certain aspect of collection development, such as how many copies of best sellers to order. Overall, data that provides information about library use is extremely important if a library is trying to justify their existence in the community. If they can prove that the facility is being utilized, funding should remain constant.

If the analysis shows that numbers of visits per capita are lower than expected, a library can take measures to increase patron use by reviewing such things as the collection development policy, library hours, and staffing levels. The output measure of "registration as a percent of the population" is connected to determining library use because it measures the extent to which the library is reaching its potential user population, based on what proportion are registered. This is important to know when staff is deciding on what and how much to order, as well as the number of workers needed to anticipate user requests.

If materials or service is lacking, it could be reflected in decreased use and loss of revenues, so these are important numbers to know. The other five output measures also seem to be operationalizing library use on some level, and can either promote or decrease it in many general ways. For instance, if a library knows the overall use, it may be able to determine program attendance and to plan these events better or use them to increase library use among specific user groups.

There are many factors that might affect the reliability of this measure, and may include: sample size being too small; choosing a week in the library's schedule that has numerous guest speakers slotted in; by restricting counting to the library's peak time, which usually coincides with after school hours; employing an inefficient and unconscientious person to do the counting, or one who is also busy answering patron questions or performing check out duties; and the fact that the library is situated in an area that habitually has a large population of homeless who may enter the building to use the telephone or bathroom facilities.

Many of these influencing factors can be minimized by the participating library to ensure higher reliability for the measure. Sample sizes are extremely important if reliable information is to be gathered. Since the larger the sample the better, libraries can choose to increase the days they collect data. This should be done during a week that can be described as normal for the library. For instance, there may be story time, but not a speaker such as Jane Goodal. Libraries need to keep this in mind before they decide when to schedule data collection. The other thing they can stipulate is to have the number of people entering the library counted from the time they open until they close, since this will remove the possibility of skewing the experiment by peak hour numbers.

Most important, it would be in the best interest of libraries not owning a turnstile to rent one for the length of the measuring because there are too many reliability issues involved with using a person to do it. Even if he or she is competent, they could get tired or become distracted. But there is not any way to account for the number of homeless people who enter a library but do not actually use library services, unless a regular member of the staff is on hand to identify particular people who are well known, and they are seen going to a specific area of the library (i.e. the bathroom).

"Further possibilities" can provide more information by suggesting such procedures as collecting additional data, constructing new measures from available data, and performing additional analyses of the data. Reliability and validity are increased if a library can break down the visits by time of day. Just as adding the number of telephone reference questions received during specific periods of time, and the numbers of users who take advantage of the library's outreach programs gives a clearer idea of actual library use. Many people e mail reference librarians, and take up just as much of the librarian's time as a personal encounter. This increases the validity and reliability. Another possibility that increases the reliability and validity of the experiment is to determine how many people are using which library services and how those numbers rate in comparison with staff and materials actually provided. And if the number of visits can be broken into population groups, this can further enhance the study, allowing the library to use those specific details to review library materials, staff schedules, and their inhouse programs.

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