Measuring up

CLA 2008 at the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre:


A number of my sessions touched upon the issue of statistics and comparative analysis of libraries and library services. Don Mills of Mississauga Public Library discussed the annual public library survey and an emerging ISO standard for public library statistics in his session The Public Library Success: How Doe We Measure It? Don Mills used two quotes that illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of statistics gathering:

“What gets measured gets done”


“Success is defined locally”.

Local variations in public library services and the standards and tools used can hamper effective statistics gathering. A new laundry list of technological topics is being drawn up to find ways of comparing the new technology-driven services public libraries are offering. Even defining an “active user” is difficult. The survey defines “active user” as someone who used his or her card in the last two years, but some people only get a library card to use the free wireless Internet access in the public library.

The value of statistics (and online software such as the popular SurveyMonkey) comes to light when promoting the need for collection building and space requirements. As Don Mills indicated, there’s always that city councillor who asks why the library needs to buy new books every year. Don Mills found an effective analogy in the city’s need to maintain and replace boulevard trees every year.

For library spaces and collection sizes, the standards that Mills felt needed to be committed to were 5.6 sq ft per capita for library space and 2.2 catalogued items per capita for collection size.

Don Mills said the books by Joe Matthews were good for public libraries, and Joe Matthews of SLIS, San José State University was actually at the CLA conference and gave a presentation at another session along with Catherine Bliss of Markham Public Library. In this session, The Balanced Scorecard: The Results Please! the speakers described how the balanced scorecard begins as a measurement system but ends as a management system. The balanced scorecard is used to determine if small-scale operational activities are aligned with the larger-scale objectives in terms of vision and strategy. There is a high failure rate for strategies for reasons that include: lack of employee knowledge, no budget linking, little discussion, and few incentives. The strategy for a public library should be to translate what customers want into what libraries must deliver. Compared to effective businesses, libraries can have horrible relationships with their customers. Overdue notices are not being made up with thanks and appreciation for doing business with libraries.

The governing mantra in implementing a strategy should be simplify, eliminate, automate.

Markham Public Library was in the difficult position of dealing with a large membership increase and a large and diverse immigrant population. With no ability to add staff in some cases, Markham Public Library embarked on several programs such as a process review and RFID with self-service checkout. All operational details were looked at with a balanced scorecard against the library’s mission of having “Markham’s communities come together to imagine, learn and grow”. A special emphasis was put on proactive customer service– from teaching greeting skills to staff, to creating “wow” spaces, to names changes for services (“service charges” instead of “fines”), to cross-cultural service training, to an anti-clutter project.

Perhaps most remarkable was Markham Public Library’s decision to not use the Dewey Decimal Classification for one new branch, the Markham Village Library. Instead the library chose the BISAC system (used in book stores) in combination with an in-house system of 4-number subdivisions and author cutters. The new classification is called C3, the Customer Centred Classification, and one can see in the name that this is one more example of how low-level operational details are meant to be brought in line with the overall strategy of the library– this is what applying the balanced scorecard is about. For a small branch library, the new classification system works quite well, and is easier for both staff and library users.

DCP_1406 Vancouver Public Library

In an earlier session, Understanding Your Workforce, Teresa Hartman and Brenda Prosken of the Vancouver Public Library also spoke about strategic vision and the need for communication. They spoke of the need to not treat perception as reality– to instead challenge and question perceptions, especially when it comes to the effectiveness of the organization in having all members understand and participate in achieving the strategic vision. With a mixture of focus groups and online surveys, the library uncovered needs for more training, for better change management, and for better follow-through (nothing kills the spirit of an organization more than having results get shelved). Follow-through and meeting the organization’s goals means establishing systematic feedback on how change is managed, and to make sure that all are committed, satisfied, and, most importantly, engaged.

For measuring its progress, the Vancouver Public Library established baselines for tracking change. The library compared itself to other organizations, not just other libraries. In doing so, the library was able to separate perception from reality and thereby focus on the most important issues, especially in a competitive environment in which the library needs to be considered an employer of choice.

Dealing with comparative statistics at another level, Jane Schmidt of Ryerson University Library described the problems with comparing collections in her presentation A Simplified Approach to Acquisitions (this was the session I convened). Even when using the same classification system, difficulties arise in comparing collections from different university libraries. A lot depends on day-to-day operational decisions of how the items are catalogued and what quality control standards are used.

Jane Schmidt had a great quote when she described her experiences working with faculty, vendors, administrators, and students: “Remember your audience– stop being so librarianish!”

Side note on Ryerson University– here are links to articles on the university’s acquisition of the Sam the Record Man property for a new library: and

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s