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“Every day I wake up and ask, ‘how can I flow data better, manage data better, analyse data better?”

Rollin Ford, the CIO of Wal-Mart

Quoted in A special report on managing information: Data, data everywhere
Economist, The (London, England) – February 27, 2010 Page: 71

Libraries and their attitude to user activity data.
In the commercial world there are countless examples of how the private sector uses the data about their customers, from Wal-Mart’s CIO (quoted above) through to supermarkets use of loyalty cards and to the recommendations that are commonplace in websites such as Amazon.  But examples of libraries use of this type of data are still quite rare and libraries have been very slow to take advantage of the vast pool of data they have about the behaviour of their users.  Libraries have long been used to using systems to count how many item have been borrowed or bought, but have been strangely reluctant to look in detail about what people are borrowing and use that data to help users make better informed choices.

Some work has been done through the TILE and MOSAIC projects, and the latter included anonymised circulation data made available by Huddersfield University and used to run a competition to encourage ideas around the use of that data.  JISC also ran an event earlier in the year about this area ‘Gaining Business Intelligence from User Activity Data’ which has been written up here and in the ALT newsletter.     Dave Pattern at Huddersfield is probably furthest along in working with this area and his blog is a good source for ideas about what can be achieved with user activity data.

Following on from the event in the Summer JISC have clearly been thinking about how to increase the pool of examples of how user activity data can be used so have included it as one of the strands in their recently announced Funding Call 15/10.   With £500k available for 7/10 six month projects to take place in the early part of 2011, there’s the opportunity for libraries to get involved in developing new ideas about how to use user activity data.

User Activity Data is a particularly interesting area for me as a good deal of the work that has been done so far has been around the use of loan data.  Working in a library where students don’t borrow books from us, or even visit the library, we’ve got to look at other areas of data.  Most of our users engage with us through using our e-resources and that’s an area that we are looking to see how we can collect, analyse, and use that data to improve services and offer recommendations to help users get more out of their e-resource usage.

This week’s staff development session gave the opportunity to hear from Hazel Woodward, Cranfield University Librarian talking about the impact of the economic downturn on academic libraries.  The session was based on her presentation at the Association of Subscription Agents Conference earlier this year (the slides from the presentation are available at

Surveying the landscape and prospects for HE, taking in the 2010/11 Hefce budget cut of £449 million, through key points from the Higher Ambition report and then turning to the CIBER report ‘Challenges for academic libraries in difficult economic times’ there is a clear picture of change for HE libraries.  With standstill or reducing budgets and with e-resource budgets taking up an ever-increasing proportion of library budgets it is clear that there are major challenges over the next few years.

Woodwood slide economic downturn and libraries

Slide from Hazel Woodward presentation to ASA

As someone fairly new to academic libraries but with some experience of reducing budgets from a public library perspective it is interesting (to me at least!) to compare how the different sectors are approaching the challenges of reducing budgets.

The details of the CIBER survey indicate that academic libraries are more likely to react to budget pressures by reducing staffing (than public libraries) although I’d suspect that this may be because academic library staffing establishments have been rising across the past few years while public libraries have been reducing their staff year on year so may have less scope now for reductions.

69% of survey respondents also expect to spend the same or less on resources and with resource prices rising at higher than inflation a standstill budget represents a reduction in real terms.  It seems clear that there is a growing disquiet with the way that resource budgets are consuming an increasing proportion of library budgets, with e-resources from the major suppliers being a large part of that budget and with concern at how much print stock is inactive.

What I do find intriguing is the slide from the survey that looks at the trade-off analysis and shows that senior librarians would prefer to cut resources or services rather than cut staff.   It would be interesting to see what answer academics and users might give to this question as it goes to the heart of how much of the value of a library is tied up in its collections, services and expertise.

Slide from CIBER report Making Cutbacks

Within the public library sphere library budgets have seen frequent reductions for much of the past decade and the approach has been one where discretionary spending has been cut, where opening hours have reduced, libraries have closed and book funds have reduced.  Where possible income-generating and children’s library stock budgets have often been protected at the expense of other stock such as adult non-fiction.

Public libraries have also seen substantial changes in their staffing.  Flatter structures have been introduced by taking out tiers of middle managers.  Management Teams have reduced in size as managers are given broader ranges of responsibility.  Public libraries have also seen a very significant loss of more experienced staff in specialist roles.  Many have lost Music and Reference specialists, often losing staff with decades of irreplaceable experience.  Bibliographical services teams have seen the numbers of qualified librarians within them reducing, cataloguers becoming an endangered species and specialist Library IT roles reducing as Library IT roles are being taken over by Corporate IT services.

While some academic libraries have started doing this they maybe aren’t as far along the road of making these types of staffing changes and it will be interesting to see whether over the next few years academic libraries start to adopt similar approaches.

Both sectors are also looking at Shared Services, the concept of sharing services (often support services) between organisations as a way of reducing costs.  But there is a difference in that whilst the HE sector is a competitive environment public libraries aren’t (theoretically at least) competing with each other.  Although with benchmarking, CIPFA statistics, a universal library card and so on, I’m not sure that public libraries don’t actually compete with each other.  Certainly there is a long history of users on the margins of London boroughs using neighbouring boroughs library services.  With Shared Services opening up the possibility of library services (or elements of them) being delivered collaboratively or even taken over by other libraries that would seem to be an option that could be taken up in either sector.

It will be interesting to see over the next few years how academic libraries will respond to the economic pressures and whether they will take similar or different approaches to budget reductions whilst delivering relevant services to their users whose expectations are increasing and changing.

I’ve just realised that I’ve been working in the HE library sector for just over a year now.  In line with trying to be more reflective it seemed a good time to put together a blog post to think about some of the differences and similarities between HE libraries and the public library sector where I’ve spent much of my working life.

I think the first reflection is that in many ways I’m working in an HE library that is atypical.  Most students never visit the library building, print collections are mainly for academics and researchers and resources for students are electronic.  So a number of the differences are purely a reflection of that different service model.  It’s quite a change from working in a public library building where your users are always present and visible and their preoccupation is still overwhelmingly with your print collection.

Technology is one of the big differences. Ostensibly there are similarities in the systems being used.  Both public and academic have library management systems, library catalogues, user PCs, wifi and self-service.   But there are a whole layer of systems such as SFX, ezproxy and remote authentication systems that don’t really appear on the radar for public libraries as they don’t have large collections of electronic resources.   Public libraries are starting to look at new OPAC systems such as Aquabrowser that include federated search capabilities but HE libraries have been working with federated search for some years and are now moving to aggregated search systems such as Summon.

Many public libraries have started to offer e-books and downloads through services such as Overdrive but their collections are tiny in comparison with the tens of thousands of titles that HE libraries typically have available.   Many are reaching the stage where electronic acquisitions are higher than print acquisitions. 

There’s another area with library systems where public libraries and HE libraries seem to differ.  Developments for library management systems in the HE sector seem much more likely to be developed in house or by taking code available from elsewhere.  In public libraries changes are likely to be provided by suppliers or third-parties.  So there seems to be more willingness or technical ability to customise OPACs and the LMS.

RSS feeds, XML, moving data out of one system and into another seems much more common in HE libraries.  That isn’t to say that there is less innovation in public libraries with library management systems, but it tends to be more focused on management information, management information or implementing third-party innovations.

I was struck at one of the first HE seminars I went to that there’s a very different approach to conference attendance.  Almost everyone has their laptop/netbook or other mobile device.  They are checking emails, blogging and/or twittering throughout the day in a way that I’d never come across at any public library focused event.  That is something that took a bit of time to get used to and find a method that worked for me. 

Blogs, wikis and other social networking tools are pretty much ubiquitous and although there is some public library use, in my experience public libraries often find their efforts frustrated by corporate communications departments  seeing it as being something that is outside of their control and therefore not allowable.  

Reference management, information literacy and information management are all high up the priority list for academic libraries whereas for public libraries it is much more about literacy in its broadest sense and access to services (and not just library services).  Although both have education at their heart it is quite interesting to discover quite what that means in practice.

I started finsihing off by writing a list of the different technologies that I’ve learnt something about in the past year and realised that it was a longer list than I’d expected.  So rather than a boring list, a slightly less boring wordle Wordle of new things to me

(although I’ve now realised that I’ve missed Wordle off the list and because of the number of times Google appears on the list (for Apps, Custom Search Engines and suchlike) it makes it appear that I’d never heard of Google!)

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January 2021

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