Saturday 7 January 2023

Public libraries and KPI culture

 I'm putting my head above the parapet here, but since my last post about what I want out of a public library, I've read quite a few articles by librarians working in public libraries.

Public libraries are clearly under pressure to justify their costs and in the course of attempting to justify their existence, have copped a nasty bout of the KPI disease.

KPI's, key performance indicators, are not intrinsically bad but they can have a distorting effect on what a service does.

KPI's are usually based on counting things, simply because counting things is easy to do and produces an unambiguous numerical result.

So in a library context KPI's are things like

  • year on year membership growth (or not)
  • books borrowed
  • ebooks borrowed
  • problematically, the number of distinct public wifi users
which are perfectly sensible in themselves, but they do have the problem that once in place they tend to drive library activities, such as book clubs and reader groups to increase footfall (nothing bad in that), while concentrating on particular activities means that a disproportionate amount of limited resources (budgets are always too small to do everything) are put into satisfying the KPI requirements.

Equally, as often habitual library users are drawn from older segments of the population the buying policy tends to be conservative and reflect the tastes of the current user base, not what might appeal to other segments of the population.

And that's a problem. Keeping the current user base takes priority over outreach activities to other segments of the population who may want to use the library in different ways, such as a place to study rather than a place to borrow books from.

So things like study space of HSC and TAFE students tends not to be seen as helping meet KPIs. After all students  probably won't use the library as a resource because most of resources they need are online, and anyway,  library reference collections have been hollowed out over the years.

Yes, you can make them register to use the wifi rather than make it open access, but that starts putting barriers in the way of their use of the library.

Counting distinct MAC addresses might help, but can you tell easily between someone using the wifi to upload some pictures from someone studying? I think not.

So what to do?

You could offer people an inducement to register - 50 free pages of printing for registered users, access to a secure storage locker so they don't have to take material home with them, are my first thoughts. I really don't know what to suggest other than an outreach  programme of some sort, even something as simple as putting a flyer in student packs for HSC students and TAFE students.

If it's successful, the idea of using the library will probably spread by word of mouth, if it's not, well it's back to book clubs ...

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