Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In digital age, library finds difficulty attaching numbers to its value

Traditional methods don't work across modern platforms

by: Samantha Foster

Librarians at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library have a problem unique to the modern age — attaching numbers to the myriad services the library provides across varied platforms.

While library CEO Gina Millsap estimates that for every tax dollar provided to the library for operation, $4 in value is returned to the community in such terms as literacy and school achievement, she says that value is difficult to prove without numbers to back up those claims.

So, the library tries to provide statistics that show an accurate picture of how city and county residents are using its services. But the desired accuracy seems impossible to attain. The library’s recently released 2012 annual report, for example, shows a decrease in the number of cardholders that looks startling — an 8.6 percent decrease from 2011, to about 88,000 — but reflects a much more complex reality.

Millsap on Tuesday said the drop reflects a purge of inactive library cards. Of the 7,000 eliminated, about 3,000 were those of young students who used the Adventuremobile. Cards issued for its use are seasonal and therefore temporary. The other 4,000 users whose cards were removed from the system showed as inactive in the library’s system for the three years before their deletion.

Many users with inactive cards have moved away or died — but others simply weren’t checking out materials.

That is where the library encountered a problem.

While traditional methods of counting the number of people who check out tangible items, such as books or films, provides a circulation count, the library doesn’t receive statistics about how many cardholders use their cards to access data from vendors.

“I could be an exclusive ebook user, and it’s like I don’t use the library at all,” Millsap said.

Some cardholders whose cards were canceled for inactivity have contacted the library claiming they do use its services, Millsap said. She said she hopes the problem will be corrected when ebook vendor Overdrive finally starts allowing the library access to the barcodes of its cardholders who use the service.

The vendor previously wasn’t willing to share that information with the library despite the fact the library had issued the cards for access, Millsap said, claiming a confidentiality issue. She said she now hopes to have access to the data by the end of the summer.

The library will in coming months add more vendors — for magazines, film streaming, e-audio books and music — to its platforms, further increasing the number of services it provides. But even if those vendors also agreed to provide information to the library, many other services don’t require the use of a card.

It is possible, Millsap said, that in the future the library will need to find a way to require library cards in some way for the full library experience — including accessing the Alice C. Sabatini Art Gallery, interacting with librarians, taking computer classes, attending programs — something she said they have resisted through fear of creating a hassle for library patrons.

“We have to find a way to do this without creating barriers for people,” Millsap said, “because if it creates barriers, we’re not going to do it.”

The goal is to make it easy to use the library, she said, “because it will make your life better.”

Although the library issues between 1,000 and 1,200 new cards each month, only 50 percent of cards are still active after three years, Millsap said. The library’s goal is to increase that retention rate to 75 percent. If that happens, she said, the library would easily have more than 100,000 cardholders — high membership for a county with an estimated population of 178,991 as of July 2012.

Millsap said the library is one of just a few nationwide developing a marketing plan to increase cardholder retention rates.

from: Topeka-Capital Journal

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