ST 20/10: Watching people

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A librarian that wants to collect data by observing users, can basically do it in two different ways: by sitting down or walking around.

Libraries that lack electronic counters can do “manual counting”. This means that somebody from the staff sits down near the entrance and counts the number of people that enter the library.

Traditional head counts give very little information. In Observation data: getting started I have described how stationary observation can be improved, so that we get more interesting and useful data.

Couunt The Traffic

Another approach is to walk around at regular intervals and observe what people do inside the library. For some years I have been trying out a standardized method for “walking observations”. The method, which is called Count The Traffic (CTT), has been applied in about seventy libraries in Norway since 2006.

The results are encouraging. We have been able to produce new and interesting user statistics by methods that librarians and library students can apply on their own. Both public, sacademic and school libraries have been studied.

Read more

The method is fully documented on the web – in English as well as in Norwegian. Here you will also find links to several case studies as well as an article about the results from twenty public libraries.

Till now we have concentrated on gaining experience and getting reliable data. More work is definitely needed to interpret and apply the results. But interpretation and use is primarily a task for practitioners.

Acting on the results

‘The data may show that some parts of the library are too crowded, while other parts are underutilized.  In Norway many libraries find it hard to atttract teenagers. Reading rooms behind doors are seldom popular. people like to feel the flow of life, it seems. Computer queues are common – and many libraries still lack Wi-fi so people can bring their own portables.

Researchers and library teachers can participate in change processes. But only librarians can carry them out – and draw the right conclusions from their experiences.

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.

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