ST 19/10: Observation data: getting started


Observation takes time.

A medium sized library that wants to collect statistical data by observation must be prepared to invest at least one full week – and preferably two – on the data collection itself.

By medium sized I mean a library that has a few hundred visitors every day.

Full-time observation is rather concentrated work.The observers will need breaks. Observation should therefore be shared among two or more persons .

You must also expect to spend two or three days on

  • coding the data
  • entering the coded data into spreadsheets
  • calculating tables and diagrams
  • discussing and interpreting tables and diagrams
  • comparing your results with other libraries
  • publishing your results on the web

Doing it for the first time, things will move slowly. After the first year, the process can be speeded up.

Data processing will usually go much faster the second time.  Once the libary has a first data set, it may reduce data collection to one weekly cycle rather than two.

The total time cost will probably be about three person weeks during the first observation year. For updates in later years, six to eight days may be sufficient.

A small practical test

If you like the idea of such a project, I recommend doing a very brief pilot study before you decide whether to “jump into the water”.  That can be done very simply:

  • select one hour to carry out the pilot test
  • find a place where you can sit down and observe the entrance while making notes (without being too conspicuous)
  • bring a small stack of paper
  • whenever a person or a small group (friends, parent + child, etc) enters the library, make a numbered note that shows
    • the time of arrival
    • sex and age (roughly)
    • something that can identify the person
  • do the same whenever a a person or a small group leaves the library

If you have enough time and can watch most of the library, you may also make some notes on what the persons do inside the library.

Note on privacy

What people do openly in public spaces is seldom very sensitive information. But systematic observation is still a bit different from occasional and random observation.

So I would like to add that librarians are professionally obliged to respect the privacy of users. Data about single individuals should not be shared, whether they come from the books they borrow or from observation studies.



Observation sheets

An observation sheet may look like this.


  • Place: XX public library
  • Date: June 2, 2010
  • Time: 0930-1030
  • Observer: NN

Observation notes

  • 1. 0932. Young girl (10?) arrives. Blue dress.  Returns two books. Goes to the children’s area (CA)
  • 2. 0935. Adult woman (brown glasses) with small boy (blue shorts) arrive.   Mother leaves boy in CA. She reads newspaper.
  • 3. 0940.  Two teenage boys come together (blue sneakers; Spiderman T-shirt).  Use computer for gaming.
  • 4. 0945. The blue dress girl (1) goes out
  • 5. 0947. The blue dress girl (1) returns
  • 6. 0948. Older woman arrives. Black dress. Returns a book. Browses fiction shelves.
  • 7. 0954. Older woman (6) borrows two books and leaves.
  • 8. 1001. Older man arrives. Beige jacket. Returns several books.
  • 9. 1010. Three girls around twelve arrive together (ponytail; green skirt; red satchel). Work together at a table.
  • 10. 1011. Blue sneaker boy (3) leaves
  • 12. 1012. Man in beige jacket (8) leaves without borrowing anything.
  • 11. 1015. Blue dress girl (1) borrows some books and leaves.
  • 12. 1017. Adult male (light blue shirt) arrives. Goes to computer.
  • 13. 1024. Spiderman (3) leaves
  • 14. 1025. Older man (8) leaves
  • 15. 1029. Woman and boy (2) leave.

    Processed observations

    Observation notes are raw materials. They have to be processed to be of value. First we must extract the basic results about each visitor:

    • Young girl (1) spent 43 minutes in the library.
      • Returned books. Read in CA. Borrowed books.
    • Adult woman (2) spent 54 minutes in the library.
      • Came with somebody. Read newspapers
    • Young boy (2) spent 54 minutes in the library.
      • Came with somebody. Used CA.
    • Teenage boy (3) spent 31 minutes.
      • Came with somebody. Played computer games.
    • Teenage boy (3) spent 44 minutes.
      • Came with somebody. Played computer games.
    • Older woman (6) spent 6 minutes.
      • Returned book. Borrowed two books.
    • Adult man (8) spent 11 minutes

    Three young girls (9) and adult man (21) and were still in the library when observation stopped at 1030.

      Afterwards we code the data and enter them into spreadsheets. These operations will be described elsewhere – and are not necessary for the test itself.


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