MultiGrain: e-Use Statistics

by Katina Strauch, Editor

This is in answer to Rick Anderson’s recent article in LJ — “Print on the Margins: Circulation Trends in Major Research Libraries”. Rick seems to be addressing the circulation of print resources and points to the the changes in user behavior.  We at ATG have been asking our subscribers if they count e-use statistics with their print circulation figures. The majority of libraries do not.  So, for me, the main question is — why aren’t we counting e-use statistics the same way that we are counting print book check out statistics?

The idea that because someone checks out a book means that he or she reads it or even consults it is just as fallacious as saying that a click on an electronic link doesn’t show use! Libraries are dishing out e-content with both hands to our users, marketing it and promoting it more than print materials and then we bewail the downturn in print circulation statistics. Duh! I know that use statistics have problems, but how many statistical measures don’t? Are we cutting off our nose to spite our face? I think we are!

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2 thoughts on “MultiGrain: e-Use Statistics

  1. Rick Anderson June 9, 2011 at 3:49 pm -

    Anticipating objections like those above, I was at pains in my article to emphasize that, for example, “a library that moves large amounts of its collection online is likely to see drastically fewer print circulations even as it fosters greater use of the collection overall by making it available more easily, remotely, and around the clock.” That’s why the article was titled “Print on the Margins,” not “Collections on the Margins” and subtitled Circulation Trends” rather than “Library Usage Trends.” The study was premised on the idea that circulation matters and is worth examining — not that circulation is the _only_ thing that matters.

    I think there’s a very simple answer to the question “why aren’t we counting e-use statistics the same way that we are counting print book check out statistics?”, and the answer is that you can’t count them the same way because they’re fundamentally different kinds of usage. We are indeed trying to measure online usage, and we’re succeeding, but we’re mostly succeeding at the level of individual subscriptions, packages, and databases, which is the level at which meaningful measurement tends to be possible. We have so many different kinds of e-products that get so many different kinds of use, and usage is reported by vendors in so many different ways, that it’s virtually impossible to compile meaningful e-use statistics in the aggregate. If you want to know how many Elsevier articles are being downloaded on my campus, I can tell you that; if you want to know how many ebook chapters have been used from our Ebrary package, I can tell you that. But if you want to know how many “e-uses” our online collections have gotten, I can’t tell you that — because “e-uses” means too many different things. Initiatives like COUNTER are helping us do a better job of aggregate e-use measurement, but we still have a long way to go.

    Finally, I want to reiterate another point I was careful to make in my article, and which the commenter seems to have missed. The purpose of my study was not to “bewail the downturn in print circulation.” On the contrary: I said that “a library that circulates fewer books isn’t necessarily doing anything ‘wrong,’ nor is it necessarily serving fewer patrons or offering its patrons less service.” The purpose of my study was to foster a better understanding of one important trend that is taking place in research libraries, a trend that tends to be obfuscated by our traditional ways of measuring collection use. As long as we are spending significant chunks of our materials budgets on printed materials (and most of us still are), it seems to me that we ought to care about whether or not we’re measuring use of those collections accurately. My study points out what I feel is a simple but major flaw in that measurement practice, proposes a way to remedy it, and encourages individual libraries to look more closely at their local trends with that dynamic in mind. That’s all. No noses were cut off or faces spited in the course of my study.


  2. Two observations I’d like to make:

    I wonder if controlling for collection size makes any difference. Perhaps in the calculation of use per student it doesn’t. But when thinking about use per volumes held, it would tell us whether a library is getting value from its print collection.

    It would be interesting to see some longitudinal data like this for electronic usage. It seems intuitively obvious that the decline in print usage is triggered by the increase in electronic availability. But, hey, it wouldn’t be the first time intuition was wrong. And again, I think a control for size of electronic collection would be a valuable data point.