Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Journal Usage Measurement - Why Bother?

I found today's picture on a Google image search for "Why Bother" and it stuck. But what's it got to do with today's post? Nothing, that's what. And for that matter why the negative title? Surely measuring journals usage is a good thing to do? Well, no. I've always found it to be a bit pointless and especially so in my current role. There are three ways that I know of to conduct a journals usage survey. Measuring citations is fairly accurate and widely used in academic libraries (there's a good article on the background and use of this method at http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/publications/crlnews/2007/may07/eigenfactor.cfm). Unfortunately, the users of my library (and most libraries outside of academia) don't write many research papers so measuring citations is out. I'm not convinced that this (on it's own at least) is a good measure even in Uni Libraries. From my own experience as a student I read stuff that added to my background knowledge but wasn't directly related to an assignment or worthy of a credit in a bibliography.

The second method is to withdraw journals and count the number of requests for them. This is the method that was used when I worked in public libraries. IMHO this method is not only innacurate (as most people can't be bothered to ask for a journal if it's not there) it also disrupts (what in my view) is the prime directive for libraries: connecting people with information. If you take journals away (even for the purpose of measuring their use) you are damaging the quality of the user experience. Why would I want to annoy the people who use my library for the sake of an innacurate measure? Good librarianship is about increasing access, not reducing it (or withdrawing it).

The third method is a kind of voluntary indication of usage - asking users to tick a sheet to say that they have read the journal. This method is better but still prone to inaccuracy. How many people forget to tick? Even worse is when someone ensures that their particular read is kept by adding extra ticks - it doesn't take a genius to work this one out now does it? Other variations of this are more qualitative, interviewing readers or sending out written surveys but they basically all boil down to asking the readers which journals they use - which is fundamentally prone to measurement bias.

Dispite the flipant title I do believe that journal usage surveys are an essential part of collection management. So, because of the measurement biases of the explicit methods described above I've decided to resort to unobtrusive methods. Does this mean I'll be spending my days hiding behind the journals shelving with a pair of binoculars doing a kind of warped Bill Odie impersonation? Tempting. If only I had the time. Luckily, the wonders of modern technology are available and I borrowed some RFID kit today which I'm hoping will allow me to count the number of times a journal is picked up from the shelf. I still need to work out sampling and get the technology working but fingers crossed! Even if it doesn't work it should be good fun trying.

*Note to self: If you think that journals usage surveys are fun then you really need to get out more...

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