Collection management 2016: from anecdotal to analytic

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By Sarah Lin, Library Systems Librarian at Reed Smith LLP

If you attended SLA’s recent Lawmaggedon webinar, you may have heard Jean O’Grady reference the term  ‘anecdata’ — usage data based on the anecdotal, in the absence of any hard (or soft) usage data.  I have seen the anecdotal trump data over the years: most notably a strong protest against a cancellation, only to find a thick layer of dust in front of the item in question.

Of course, our print collection continues to decline and so many technical services tasks now revolve around digital materials, but the physical books are still here.  When faced with competing budget priorities, how do you know what you can really cut?  I’d like to offer a few suggestions to discover real data regarding print usage.

Know what you have

Whether you use an integrated library system (ILS) or simply Excel, the most important task is to make sure every print item you have is accounted for, in terms of title, quantity, price and current user.  Certainly, ILSs are best at managing multiple copies, but they are not all equal in terms of connecting acquisitions data with those titles.  Whatever software you have, taking the time to ensure data accuracy pays dividends when you’re looking for prospective items to cancel—particularly when trying to determine if the use justifies the price.  This step also includes those bulk packages some of us contract for — those title lists can be difficult to integrate into lists of the rest of the collection, but without them you only have a snapshot of your collection.  We were recently able to mark our contracted titles from one vendor and then run a report on print usage for just that subset (it was, unsurprisingly, very low).

Use the tools you have

Using the tools at your disposal means both those that you currently know, but also searching out software/tools that can take your analysis to the next level.  If you have an ILS with a circulation module, you have circulation data of a particular quality.  In a perfect world, we would all use RFID tags to track our collections as they pass from partner to partner.  In reality, circulation statistics can range from false to merely misleading to accurate.  I’ve found this to be the biggest impediment to overcoming anecdata — a belief that because of the idiosyncrasies of one office or one practice group that the entire data is worthless.

In addition to doing your best to obtain print circulation statistics (whether card/pockets or marking things used that are left lying around), comparing and combining those with online resource usage can often enhance the picture.  Some of us have access to more advanced software to track usage, but others do not.  All we really can do is to make the best use of what we have at our disposal.  For example, while I have circulation statistics of varying usefulness, I can stack the print usage against the online usage of the same materials when there are URLs to the online versions right in the catalog.  In some cases there’s no use of either (the online usage is valid, but the print may not be), but in other cases I can see that the online is being accessed and the print is not (or most likely not).

Another way to augment the data you have is to take a look at where the data is coming from and any ways to enhance your own ability to make sense of it.  If you are tracking things in Excel or reporting to it, are your skills honed or could you use  a few YouTube how-to videos?  If your ILS reports utilize another piece of software, do you know how to use it well?  If you are using an ILS, are you making the most of the MARC fields to track the data your stakeholders value most?  For example, if you have a particular package of titles, you could use empty MARC fields to tag them and bring them together for reporting purposes.

Keep it dirty

Our Chicago office got a new filer in 2012, and one of the first things I saw her doing was pulling all the books out to the edge of the shelves and dusting.  I pleaded with her to stop— probably not was she was expecting! — because I find so much value in the dust on the shelves.  While it is certainly true that you run a risk with the library’s image by letting things collect dust, I would venture a guess that the decreasing emphasis on a physical library is a perspective already held by managing partners — and a clean, shiny row of shelves probably won’t trump the universally anecdotal evidence that ‘everything’s online.’  Given that reality, I prefer to use the dust to provide hard evidence when it can.

As we continue to manage the shift from all print towards mostly online, obtaining analytic data about print usage is a challenge, but one worth rising to meet.  I feel there is a fair amount of overlap between collection reduction and decluttering my house: I think I need a lot more than I truly use; saving items because I used to use them or I might use them again is usually in vain; almost everything can be purchased again or borrowed if the need really does arise.  But in both cases, there is no room in the budget for ‘anecdata,’ as hard as it can be to part with items that cost so much money over the years.

Sarah Lin is Library Systems Librarian at Reed Smith LLP.  A technical services librarian for nearly 10 years, she currently serves on the AALL Annual Meeting Program Committee and as the Membership Chair for the TS-SIS, where she advocates for the interests of law firm librarians.

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One thought on “Collection management 2016: from anecdotal to analytic

  1. Pingback: Various & Interesting #4 | Jaye Lapachet

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