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Data innovation helps librarians stay ahead of the game

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Ben Showers takes a look at how libraries – and their users – can benefit from innovating with library data

Internationally, data is driving decision-making in libraries, helping managers work out what their users are doing and then cleverly updating users’ day-to-day experiences without them even noticing. Libraries spend millions of pounds on electronic journals each year, but gathering statistics about their use hasn't always been easy. Previously, collecting usage data about a library’s resources involved visits to multiple publisher websites and numerous spreadsheets. The collection of statistics took up the majority of the librarian’s time, with little leftover for acting on that intelligence.

In the UK, JISC has been working to change this situation dramatically. You can now analyse log files to bring you usage statistics for any e-resource, not just journals. For example, the Journal Usage Statistics Portal (JUSP) enables libraries to view, download and analyse in one place their usage reports from NESLi2 publishers. Meanwhile, Raptor, a project from the University of Cardiff, provides broad e-resource usage data using institutional authentication as a way to collect data about resources being used.

What once took days is now out of the way in an hour. More importantly, library managers are using this data to generate those all-important comparative usage statistics that help evaluate the impact of e-resources and can therefore inform future purchasing decisions.

The next step for librarians who have got their activity data in order is to ensure that they tap into what’s going on elsewhere, to make even better use of that data. Interested librarians can get involved with their commercial suppliers user group where libraries come together and work on the data themselves, improve it and upload it back to the suppliers knowledgebase.

Back-office systems impact on front-facing services. The two can’t be thought of as separate anymore. Back-office efficiency makes the libraries’ decisions smarter, better and more efficient. That has a knock on effect for the user and makes the collections that the library has even more tailored to the user.

What most students want to know is: ‘what is the strongest student in my class reading? What is my tutor recommending?’ As the systems and services that libraries provide get better at utilising and exploiting the data they generate, students will begin to be offered answers to these kinds of questions, transforming the experience of interacting with the library. Already, there are examples of initiatives that are changing the experience of using the library for students.

The University of Huddersfield, UK, has, for example, made using the library into a game: students earn points for entering and using the library, and can then compare themselves to their friends and fellow students. The Lemon Tree project is encouraging more students to use the library and raising its profile; it works through making the administrative data visible to students in a way they can interact with. They’ve taken something that doesn’t have much value in itself – the student activity data - and they’ve turned it into an experience for the student. I think that this points to the future for libraries. Amazon has turned user interaction data into a science of engagement – every time you visit the site it gets better, but you’re not even aware that you’re interacting with it at that level. That’s the kind of experience we hope students and staff will be able to enjoy from their academic libraries in the future.

For the moment, concerns about who owns the data are keeping these kinds of experiments on a local level – but libraries can still learn from these examples. Many universities I’ve spoken to about this have started by doing an audit of their library activity data: what they have, where it’s coming from and how comparable it is. Diminishing budgets must demonstrate value for money, so gleaning reliable data is already at the top of the to-do list for most librarians. JISC has produced a guide to using activity data which can help you assess not only how well your resources are used but also provide you with business intelligence on many other aspects of your institution's activity to help you make better decisions.

I used to talk about reduction of effort in the library for back-office systems. But it’s increasingly about redistribution of effort; redeploying it to the front end. This is where staff can make a real difference, and it is here that the data can be transformed into action. I recommend developing an entrepreneurial spirit among library staff to recognise and develop the potential of the library’s data, and to respond to opportunities that may emerge beyond the library’s traditional boundaries.

It shouldn’t really matter if it’s the library or a student who’s developing a mobile app to search library content. Ideally universities and colleges will be in a position to exploit ideas, wherever innovation happens to flourish on the campus; this is what I mean by an entrepreneurial spirit. It’s an often repeated cliché, but someone else will think of the most amazing things to do with your data – if you allow them to. This is how companies like Twitter and Facebook become so successful - through enabling innovation to emerge outside of the company’s walls. In an academic context, one might imagine researchers developing tools and applications, based on library catalogue data that support very niche use cases but nevertheless help make those researchers work more effective and efficient.

We still think in terms of the library developing services for the user. In the future what we’ll find more and more is that the user starts developing services for the library. The library has to ensure that it has the skills and capacity to take those on board and work with them. JISC is already helping libraries to develop a more agile, ‘start-up’ approach by supporting events like Dev8D and funding projects that support this innovation. You can take advantage of events like mashlibraries, Dev8D and Dev8Lib which are all about enabling this kind of innovation.

Ben Showers is a programme manager at JISC in the UK