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Playing the Numbers: NISO/NASIG Focus On Best Practices for Library Usage Statistics
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Posted On June 3, 2014
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On May 21, NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, and the North American Serials Interest Group (NASIG) co-sponsored a webinar intended to help more “effectively understand and apply usage data,” which is “an important skill for librarians to master as they attempt to analyze their collections and justify their expenses to administrations.” Todd Enoch, chair of the NASIG Continuing Education Committee, introduced the program by stressing the critical need for all libraries to “defend their budgeting decision” and, with electronic resources now making up “the lion’s share of library budgets,” Enoch described the program as trying to provide a solid platform for librarians to better understand the many factors involved.

The 90-minute webinar provided an opportunity to learn more about current best practices and standards; however, with so much to cover, attendees would need to dig deeper to explore the topics and ideas presented in the session. At the same time, the session was successful in pointing out how much progress has been made in statistical analysis of library resource usage in the electronic age.

From Hash-Marks and Circulation Statistics to More Granular Analyses

In today’s economy, all institutions and public services are facing serious pressure to demonstrate their value. They face rising costs, competition from the internet, lower budgets, and shifting expectations. Providing solid information on the relative effectiveness of library services and their contributions to their communities is essential—both to their sponsoring administrations and to helping better hone services, resources, and staffing in this age of quickly changing economic and technological advances. In the pre-electronic world, librarians had few tools with which to defend the ROI that institutions made in their budgets: hash-marks for reference transactions, circulation statistics, counting the number of books needing to be reshelved, and perhaps, asking patrons for ‘success stories’ based on their use of library resources and services. With the rise of the internet as a means of publishing and accessing information in all formats, libraries now have new potential tools for providing the data needed to perform outcome-oriented assessments and internal analyses of their efficiency and scope.

ACRL published Megan Oakleaf’s “The Value of Academic Libraries: A Comprehensive Research Review and Report” in 2010, which notes that librarians are examining more tools and techniques “for assessment as well as inventorying institutionally available data collection methods. All assessment techniques have advantages and disadvantages. No tools are perfectly valid or reliable; none adequately represent entire libraries. In fact, sometimes there are no existing assessments and librarians must be creative and employ multiple measures” (p. 32).

In 2007, the American Library Association published the Americans for Libraries Council’s “Worth Their Weight: An Assessment of the Evolving Field of Library Evaluation,” which notes that, especially for public libraries, “it is not yet possible to make a definitive statement about the consistent value of library valuation as an advocacy tool. But as the field of library valuation is relatively young, so is the practice of converting this research into advocacy. The answer will emerge and become less speculative if both fields continue to work toward each other and maintain the momentum that has recently been created by the state libraries, private organizations, the IMLS, and interested advocates and researchers” (p. 31). A Special Libraries Association study, “Special Libraries: Increasing the Information Edge,” though dated, also provides useful information and perspectives based on 27 studies conducted during a 12-year period about corporate and organization libraries used by professionals in their organizations.

Today, however, with the rise of algorithms that can capture user data on use of electronic resources, we now are developing datasets that can provide libraries and their institutions with specific data on operations, personnel, resources, and use. Just as we now have a myriad of resources, each vendor or producer has its own internal systems that can make the process of data gathering an overwhelming task.

Nearly 20 years ago, a JSTOR user group began to consider statistics from e-resources. In 1998, the International Coalition of Library Consortia published its “Guideline for Statistical Measures of Usage of Web-Based Information Resources,” now in its third version, which outlines some of the elements needed by librarians for assessments. The coalition focuses on support for industry standards for the collection, manipulation, and understanding of use data. One key element of these efforts is strong professional support for COUNTER’s efforts at standardization.

COUNTER: Corralling User Data Through Industry Standards

COUNTER (Counting Online Usage of NeTworked Electronic Resources) is “the not-for-profit international organization whose mission is to improve the quality and reliability of online usage statistics. Since 2011, COUNTER has also had overall responsibility of the development and management of the Usage Factor project.” COUNTER project director Peter Shepherd’s webinar presentation focused on the features of the latest Release 4 of the COUNTER Code of Practice for e-Resources. COUNTER’s membership is broad and its work to establish a single set of reporting standards and clear definitions of terms has helped immeasurably.


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Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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