Public library data needs

2 minute read

Imagine you are coming into the public library sector, in a data role, but are unaware of the current state of library data.

You could easily very quickly hear people say all of the following:

  • Data on library usage is amazingly interesting
  • Data on library usage doesn’t tell us anything
  • We need more hard facts
  • We need qualitative data not spreadsheets
  • Libraries don’t use data enough
  • Libraries collect too much data
  • We need more open data and transparency
  • Libraries need to be more privacy-conscious with their data
  • We need more detailed figures
  • We need to measure impact not numbers
  • We need ways of comparing and benchmarking library services
  • Library services are all different and can’t be compared
  • We need library performance standards
  • Staff spend too much time collecting data and bean counting
  • We don’t spend enough time on data
  • The data is all wrong anyway
  • Data should be collected by one agency and held in one place
  • All services should be publishing data
  • Everyone needs to complete CIPFA returns so we have a complete picture
  • We shouldn’t be involving CIPFA in library data

All of these things are true in their way. But you would forgive someone thinking they’re a little contrary and confused.

The difference is user need. They are all correct, but driven by different contextual needs. For example, I:

  • Am a member of the public: I need data to be openly licensed and easily available to me
  • Am a software developer: I need data in computer readable formats (e.g. CSV files)
  • Want to build library software applications for the public: I need ‘traditional’ library data such as the catalogue, issues, library locations, etc.
  • Need as much data as possible: Annual or even monthly data isn’t useful to me, I need real-time or detailed data such as each item in the library catalogue, or up-to-date opening hours for every library

Maybe a local councillor would have different needs. They:

  • Are internal to the local authority: They can request any data that the library service holds
  • Aren’t data analysts: They would like data to be provided in either reports, or possibly easy to use data dashboards
  • Would like to understand performance: They have a duty to assess the quality of service they are providing to residents
  • Want to consider value for money: They would like to see how much the library service costs and what value is returned

Public library services would benefit from everyone having their data needs met by the service. This blog is intentionally focussed on need for the public in technical roles. But that’s the stated aim of Libraries Hacked: ‘Promoting open data in libraries and creating digital prototypes from that data’. There is an immense amount of potential benefit in that audience. Reusing data to create practical and useful things.

All other data users have their own benefits as well though. But perhaps some get more of a look-in than others. Or have stronger voices. We need to understand all the different needs, that shouldn’t be competing. Clear a bit of confusion over what seems like contrary opinions, and realise that they are all valid needs that can be met.

Could we map out all those data users? What do they need and how do we provide it?