ER&L 2010: Beyond Log-ons and Downloads – meaningful measures of e-resource use

Speaker: Rachel A. Flemming-May

What is “use”? Is it an event? Something that can be measured (with numbers)? Why does it matter?

We spend a lot of money on these resources, and use is frequently treated as an objective for evaluating the value of the resource. But, we don’t really understand what use is.

A primitive concept is something that can’t be boiled down to anything smaller – we just know what it is. Use is frequently treated like a primitive concept – we know it when we see it. To measure use we focus on inputs and outputs, but what do those really say about the nature/value of the library?

This gets more complicated with electronic resources that can be accessed remotely. Patrons often don’t understand that they are using library resources when they use them. “I don’t use the library anymore, I get most of what I need from JSTOR.” D’oh.

Funds are based on assessments and outcomes – how do we show that? The money we spend on electronic resources is not going to get any smaller. ROI is focused more on funded research, but not electronic resources as a whole.

Use is not a primitive concept. When we talk about use, it can be an abstract concept that covers all use of library resources (physical and virtual). Our research often doesn’t specify what we are measuring as use.

Use as a process is the total experience of using the library, from asking reference questions to finding a quiet place to work to accessing resources from home. It is the application of library resources/materials to complete a complex/multi-stage process. We can do observational studies of the physical space, but it’s hard to do them for virtual resources.

Most of our research tends to focus on use as a transaction – things that can be recorded and quantified, but are removed from the user. When we look only at the transaction data, we don’t know anything about why the user viewed/downloaded/searched the resource. Because they are easy to quantify, we over-rely on vendor-supplied usage statistics. We think that COUNTER assures some consistency in measures, but there are still many grey areas (i.e. database time-outs equal more sessions).

We need to shift from focusing on isolated instances of downloads and ref desk questions, but focus on the aggregate of the process from the user perspective. Stats are only one component of this. This is where public services and technical services need to work together to gain a better understanding of the whole. This will require administrative support.

John Law’s study of undergraduate use of resources is a good example of how we need to approach this. Flemming-May thinks that the findings from that study have generated more progress than previous studies that were focused on more specific aspects of use.

How do we do all of this without invading on the privacy of the user? Make sure that your studies are thought-out and pass approval from your institution’s review board.

Transactional data needs to be combined with other information to make it valuable. We can see that a resource is being used or not used, but we need to look deeper to see why and what that means.

As a profession, are we prepared to do the kind of analysis we need to do? Some places are using anthropologists for this. A few LIS programs are requiring a research methods course, but it’s only one class and many don’t get it. This is a great continuing education opportunity for LIS programs.