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Monitoring the pulse: data-driven collection management: the more specifically librarians can organize and manage circulation data, the more they can hone collection development and strategize to improve usage.

Libraries have a definite, measurable pulse: circulation statistics. When circulation increases, the library is objectively healthy. When circulation decreases, the library needs a checkup. Fortunately, librarians today have the software tools to accurately measure and quantify a library's health. Circulation figures are often available through a library's automation software, and spreadsheet programs--such as Microsoft's Excel-allow librarians to chart and visualize this data.

The skills necessary to read the circulation pulse are not overly complicated, and the tasks are not unnecessarily time-consuming. Similar to many skills, data management, at first, seems complicated or highly specialized, but after the user becomes familiar with the software, the tasks reveal themselves to be remarkably simple. The image in Figure 1 appears complicated, but it is merely data that has been pulled from library automation software and placed into an Excel spreadsheet. Library automation systems often allow for circulation data to be exported into an .xls file, which is an Excel file. Excel is your friend. This program allows librarians to monitor the library's pulse.

Data, Data, Data

Excel is to numbers what Word is to letters. Librarians have everything to gain by getting cozy with Excel. The I software gives librarians the ability to really see what is going on in the library. It allows for a comprehensive examination of circulation, giving librarians an insight into specific usage trends over specific periods of time.

It is important to monitor generalities in library circulation, but it is even more helpful to see specific collection circulations. General concepts (such as "Library circulation is up" or "Library circulation is down") are useful for understanding basic usage. But there are--beneath this single, general dimension--many different layers of specific information that better reveal library usage. For instance, what materials are "up" or "down"? How are children's chapter books circulations compared to adult fiction? Are graphic novel circulations rising fast enough to warrant expansion? The more specifically librarians can organize and manage circulation data, the more they can hone collection development and strategize to improve usage.

Libraries are made up of many different material collections. Each collection's circulation--no matter its size--should be monitored. For instance, a children's graphic novel collection may be very small, but its circulation might be very high. One might find that a collection of 200 children's graphic novels is circulating more than 100 materials each month. It may be time to acquire more children's graphic novels. Identifying high-interest small collections can tip the scale in favor of increased overall circulations.

Data management allows librarians to see exactly what is circulating during specific periods of time. A librarian who keeps an Excel spreadsheet--updated each month and sorted by material type--can easily evaluate how much (or little) specific collections are circulating. Let's examine the DVD collection between July 2012 and February 2015. We simply open our spreadsheet and highlight the row containing the DVD figures (see Figure 2).

Here's where Excel becomes your best friend. The software is going to do the math for you, providing you with three important calculations for the highlighted data. In the bottom-right corner of the screen (see Figure 3), we observe that DVDs have a monthly average circulation of 1,361 materials. In addition, there is a count of 32 data figures in the highlighted sample, and the total sum of highlighted figures is 42,202.

Just by highlighting the DVD data, Excel showed that during a period of 32 months, we averaged 1,361 DVD circulations each month, accumulating a total of 42,202 circulations over that period. We can now compare the current month's circulation with the average monthly circulation to obtain a better context of current usage.

Excel also gives librarians the opportunity to display data in easy-to-read visual formats. With the same DVD information highlighted, simply select the Insert tab and choose the Line graph button (see Figure 4). Select one of the graph styles that appears.

Excel converts the highlighted data into a line graph (see Figure 5).

The graph charts DVD circulation during the past 32 months. Excel also makes it easy to cut through the noise of a graph and identify usage trends. While the graph is selected, the user will find the Trendline options in the Layout tab (see Figure 6).

After the Trendline feature is activated, a dotted trendline appears on the graph, giving evidence to the rate of increasing usage (see Figure 7). Trendlines are very helpful to identify if highly fluctuating collections have general upward or downward circulation trajectories.

Managers can also use data spreadsheets to compare and contrast specific collections, such as adult nonfiction, board books, and audiobooks. Excel allows the user to select multiple datasets and graph them together. With the Control key held down, users may select various rows of data for comparison. For instance, a librarian can compare circulation statistics for junior fiction, picture books, large-print fiction, and adult fiction (see Figure 8).

These four datasets are converted into a graph (see Figure 9). The graph shows that picture books account for the most popular book type, spiking high in the summer months. Junior fiction books are rising in usage. However, adult fiction seems to be up and down, its circulation appearing slightly lower in more recent months. Large-print fiction also seems to have come down from a high plateau. In an instant, the software compares different collections during a set period of time. The ability to monitor circulation allows librarians to detect ailing collections and plan a healing strategy.

Data for Circulation Enhancement

Detailed circulation reports, mined from data spreadsheets, reveal specific trends. It is critical to compare circulations of like materials through time, in order to identify which collections are increasing in usage, which collections are decreasing in usage, and which collections are stagnant. Monthly reports are helpful in analyzing numerous data channels. An example report is illustrated in Figure 10.

This report lists a library's various collections and their respective circulations. In the example report, we see that overall circulation in this library improved in January 2015 by 197 circulations as compared to January 2014. The fiscal year-to-date figures show a marginal increase during the previous year. This general information is a good start, but in order to really see what is going on in the library, a librarian must go deeper than the overall figures.

A single data report can answer many questions about library usage. Data reports reveal relationships between different collections. For instance, it is important to know exactly what proportion audiobook circulations hold compared to other materials in the library. Such information assists with collection development decisions. In the example report, picture books maintain a solid edge over other collections in the library. Thus, children's storybooks should receive priority for material replacement and repair. Heavy DVD usage is objective evidence that the library should acquire new episodes of popular TV series. Collections with decreasing circulations may need a makeover.

But another factor necessary for data analysis is time. Time gives context to collection circulation. The example report compares collection circulation over 3 fiscal years. The last column provides a percentage change, comparing the current year's circulation with the previous year's. The librarian will instantly see that junior fiction, graphic novels, and junior graphic novels are growing at explosive rates. On the other end of the spectrum, large-print collections decreased sharply since the previous year.

Librarians can respond to these figures. For instance, it is unlikely that large-print materials were all the rage in 2014 but are suddenly passe in 2015. Although the 2015 large-print numbers are down substantially from 2014, they are rather similar to the numbers from 2013. What happened last year that is not happening this year? A librarian may remember that the large-print collection expanded dramatically in 2014, and a surge of circulations ensued. Is the same factor also true for the explosive growth of graphic novels? Did new shelving or public programs result in material growth?

Detailed collection statistics act as critical diagnostic data for improving circulation. Identifying materials with decreasing usage is just as important as recognizing materials with increasing usage. Data reports that show usage over time provide additional context. Having at least 3 years of data gives the librarian a chance to identify trends. It's OK if a collection is down one year, but if the downward trends occur over multiple years, the collection requires attention. How can a librarian strategize for improved circulation?

The example report shows that children's nonfiction is down substantially from the previous year. Specifically, children's nonfiction circulated 527 fewer materials in the current year. If children's nonfiction can make up that circulation downfall, then total library circulation will increase too, and the "buffer" over the previous year's circulation will grow more comfortable. A creative dinosaur display or a pet program with book bundles can improve those nonfiction numbers.

Sometimes, a collection just needs face time. Designate shelving in highly visible spaces for rotating theme collections, marketing and promoting a specific collection. For instance, if a library wants to improve adult nonfiction circulation, find high-interest materials (on World War II, cooking, and weight loss, etc.) and give them the spotlight for a month. After a month, check the circulation figures for those highlighted materials. Did they circulate? If so, which materials specifically? How did adult nonfiction increase that month as opposed to the same month a year previously? Monitor the circulation pulse. If a strategy does not work, try a new one. Monitor and measure.

In Summary

Libraries today have the software to compile targeted circulation figures. These figures reveal the specific collections that are circulating and those that require assistance. Librarians can chart specific material usage trends. They can also graph how collections circulate over specific periods of time. Thus, raw circulation data, when systematically collected, provides useful information to identify circulation trends and enhance usage. Fortunately, widely accessible programs--including popular library automation software and Excel--make the critical task of data management possible for even the most simple computer systems. Data provides information, and information opens the door to knowledge. But it all starts with organizing numbers.

Jeffrey Meyer ( is the director of Mount Pleasant Public Library. He has been a manager in Iowa libraries for several years. Meyer developed an appreciation for statistics while working in a university laboratory.
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Author:Meyer, Jeffrey
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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