Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The fake library.

So I've been thinking, none too clearly, about the relationship between a digital branch of the library and the real branch of the library. Maybe you've heard about the trend to create digital branches where everything that is available from a real branch is also available through your library website.

Instead of just having a static web page filled with news items and library hours, you have, let me just gather my 2009 library buzzword list, "an online resource to empower the user to locate information and to create a transformative experience utilizing interactive social networking and a real time interface for knowledge and power."

There. Oh, God, now my fingers need to throw up.

And what I've learned is that there is no way to justify a digital branch using the old library parameters for success. (And not surprisingly, there also seems to be no way to justify the brick-and-mortar library, either.)

So once you've created a website or transformed your website into a digital branch, you must accept that it will always be a total failure in traditional library terms. So you need to create new terms.

Now, you might want to bail out right here. I can't guarantee that anything that follows will make a lick of sense.

For example, our library website gets 2,000,000 hits a month (it's actually higher, but my math skills work better if I keep it simple). Awesome, right?

You might think that's awesome, but if you remember that every computer in our library opens to our web page then you need to subtract all the public and staff usage or look at the "bounce" rate to see that 80-84% of visitors leave immediately. And even that's deceptive because I might open a browser window and leave it open to our library website for hours, anticipating a need. So how many other staff leave the browser open to our home page for hours waiting to do a search?

I compare our home page to our digital branch to our real branch facing the street. I don't have the figures, but what if 200 cars pass our library each minute? That would be 12,000 every hour. That seems high. So I just ran outside and did a quick check and counted 35 cars in one minute. That's 2,100 cars per hour. Or 50,400 per day. Or 1,562,400 cars pass by our library each month. Which is much closer to our statistics for visits to our website. So in my mind, this comparison is making sense, when to you, an objective reader, it's total crap.

But let's assume this is all accurate and not some crap I'm making up. If so, then how do I measure the success of my digital library? And how do I measure the success of my real library?

If I really had 1.5 million vehicles pass my library every month, would this number mean anything to my library? These are all potential customers. What can I do to draw more of them into the parking lot? And not just to score some crank or to score some time with our parking lot daytime hooker, but to actually enter the library building and use it for library stuff.

The same with my digital branch. How many of those 2 million hits can I convince to look at more of our website, like our incredibly expensive electronic databases? We spend more than $50K per month on electronic databases (again, assuming I'm not making this up). And we get around 15,000 monthly database users. I don't know if those are unique users, but they're users; and this is across all databases.

Is it fair to compare drive-bys with home page hits? Remember, the bounce rate is really high, meaning these people barely gave a look before they were off to another location. I can't know how many of my drive-bys actually looked at the library, but I can see that about 300,000 of my digital visitors (20% of 1.5 million that didn't bounce) stuck around for a minute or two. I might have time to do a head count for people or cars in the parking lot, but it isn't easy to guess the percent of our drive-bys who stop to visit.

So are any of these counting methods useful? I guess as potential customers, they could be useful. But that's not how libraries measure success. I don't know any library that uses potential customers to gauge the effectiveness of their marketing or publicity. Our library might print 1,000 flyers to promote a program that brings in 100 people. Maybe that's a great response, I don't know. But the library only cares that 100 people showed for the program. The cost of the marketing doesn't figure into whether the program was a success.

When I print 100 copies of something, I expect 100 people to show up. Anything less, and I feel like I failed. But libraries don't work that way.

Here are some new and old terms of library service compared, for example:

Our catalog allows for patrons to place holds on items. I haven't asked, but I don't think that you can insert a page counter into each "Place Hold" button in our catalog, so our statistical service for our website can't track a patron from our homepage into the catalog and then further into the form for placing the hold. All we can do is get a report from the catalog database showing how many holds were placed online, which is all of them. All holds are done online. There is no way to tell which were done by patrons visiting our catalog from home and which were placed by staff or by patrons within a branch.

But if the patron asks for assistance by telephone or in person, the staff assisting can add that request as a patron transaction to the daily stats, so there is a record. But it's not a record of any specific service, so again, we don't have a clue about how the hold was placed.

So all these stats and counts don't give me an accurate picture of how a digital visitor or even how a real visitor uses our library. Real patron transactions don't indicate the level of interaction or time spent, and digital statistics only go so far. Like I said before, I sometimes leave our home page open for hours just in case I need to check something.

Here is another example of the differences between our digital and real library. Our library started offering computer classes in 2000. We didn't post all of our class schedules online back then because I was the guy updating the website and I had better things to do. Now we have another guy doing it, so he posts all of our classes for each of our branches on our website.

But I can tell you from the drawerful of stat sheets that attendance rates haven't gone up as our library has become more digitally represented. In fact, I have two branches who don't want their classes promoted at all on our website because word-of-mouth attendance is more than enough for them.

So why isn't our digital branch producing more students for our computer classes? Why aren't more of those 300,000 signing up for classes?

I think the problem started for me when I would see hit counts for the website and I would say, "Wow." But then I would think, how come our other services aren't getting more use? How come only ten kids showed up to see that Barbie Princess movie bullshit we had last week?

And then I have to remember that libraries are free. Like roads. We maintain and sometimes expand the service. When we try to make libraries results-oriented in order to gauge success, we have to accept that those numbers won't work.

I think every reference librarian understands how bogus statistics are for patron transactions. Did that guy ask one complicated question or five small questions? Is walking the patron to the copier a statistic but not one when you just point to it?

So I guess my ultimate point is that if your library has or creates a digital branch, don't congratulate yourself too loudly because it really won't mean shit to the overall success of your library. But they are relatively cheap for the potential services they can provide. And unlike a real library, they are available from anywhere. Not like when you built a library in 1960 in a part of town that now, everyone is afraid to visit after dark.

Demographics around a real library change. But not for the digital branch. Unless you forget to buy enough domains and your library's (dot)com or (dot)org and your site gets confused with some ahole's (dot)net and your library patrons complain about all the porn on the library webpage.