ST 4/11: Levels of statistical development


The question how the statistical data will be gathered in the future is of vital importance.

This is the message from my IFLA colleagues Ulla Wimmer and Theo Bothman. Wimmer is secretary of the IFLA Statistics and Evaluation Committee. Bothman works with FAIFE and the IFLA world report.

  • By all experience, a survey on a global scale cannot be done by volunteer work (i.e. the Standing Committee) alone.
  • The project [“Global Statistics for IFLA World Report” ] was started on the assumption that it would be possible to gather the data as part of the World Report Survey with input by the Section SC.
  • As this option is no longer available, an alternative plan is needed, which combines resources by volunteers and a professional structure / paid workforce.
  • Suggestions by the Professional Committee are highly appreciated.

My answer would be:

At the moment, the quantity and quality of statistical information on libraries varies enormously between countries. A handful of countries run advanced statistical systems with comprehensive coverage of their public, academic and special libraries. School libraries, which tend to be small and poorly staffed, is still a statistical problem, however.

The most advanced countries (based on web information) seem to be Finland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and New Zealand. Sweden, Canada (some states) and Australia (some states)  could be added. Let me call them group 4.

The least developed countries have no available statistics whatsoever. In a few cases they publish some library data in statistical yearbooks or reports on cultural statistics. But people do not have time to visit the few big libraries that receive such publications in order to dig out a few numbers. Let me call this group 1.

Between the top and the bottom we find two intermediate groups.

Group 3 consists of countries with well-developed library systems and some good statistics at the national level, like Great Britain, Germany, Italy, much of Eastern Europe, the United States, Chile, Singapore and others. The main problem, seen from abroad, is the lack of extensive, user-oriented web publishing of the data.

Group 2 consists of countries with more uneven and fragmented library systems. The public library sector tends to have greater difficulties than academic and special libraries.  But even the latter library types may suffer from a lack of national-level coordination. The quality and quantity of library statistics depend heavily on the size and strength of library organizations at the national level.

Data must be collected, processed, published and applied by someone. That someone may for instance be

  • a specialized public agency (like the Institute of Museum and Library Services for public libraries and the National Center for Education Statistics for academic and school libraries in the United States)
  • the central bureau of statistics (like in Japan)
  • the relevant government ministries (public libraries in Finland)
  • the national library (academic libraries in Finland, all libraries in Norway from 2010)

In this situation information on Groups 1-3 must be gathered locally, by people who live in the country, who are familiar with its statistical system and who can follow the constant changes that are likely to occur. Alle these countries are trying to improve their systems, from wherever they happen to be.

Group 4 is different. Information from Group 4 is available on the web to all interested parties. There is just so much data available. What we find in these countries is not a lack of data per se, but a shortage of statistical analysis, debate and practical use. There is too little processing going on. Improving this situation, through workshops, lectures, publications, web debates, and so on, must also be done through local initiatives.  Each country has its own library community. It is possible and useful to visit the discussions that go on in neighbouring countries. But it is almost impossible to be an active participant in several discussion communities at the same time.

The strategy, or set of actions I believe in, are:

  • study the statistical system in your own country
  • share that information on the web
  • use a place that is easy to locate and easy to link to
  • report on current library statistics from time to time
  • interpret the data from time to time

I do not believe that a centralized approach, with one data base, standardized reports, a fixed set of indicators, an elected governing board, and so on is sustainable under today’s conditions. A distributed network of volunteers, with a tiny bit of coordination from the central node, would be viable, however. If two or ten or twenty people are willing to participate, I’ll be happy to do some coordination and networking.

Explore and process

The organization of library statistics differ from country to country.

Mapping, using and comparing such statistics is often time-consuming. Since I have an interest in comparative statistics, I have tried to document my own work in this field. The basic idea is simple. When I study Norwegian, or German, or Rumanian statistics, I must spend some time to explore the statistical system and additional time to process some of the data.

If I publish my map and my processed data on the web, others can build on that. The map may be sketchy and the data may be limited, but a small slice of the pizza is better than nothing. Some relevant statistics from neighbouring fields – like media, culture and education – may also be included. What I have done so far is available at Plinius Data.

I also write occasional blog posts on global statistics. Since 2007 about ninety posts have been written in English. You find links to these posts at Plinius on statistics.



Academic and special libraries

Public libraries

The KOSTRA data base is the main source of comparative municipal statistics in Norway. KOSTRA is a vast and technically advanced system run by Statistics Norway, our central statistical agency. It includes data on public libraries, which are funded and run by the municipalities.  The library field is represented by thirteen variables, which give a fair (but not full) coverage of its main aspects.

2010 KOSTRA data with indicators


The National Library released the complete public library spreadsheet for 2009 in mid-2011. Selected variables are presented here:




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: