Exploring Circulation Data: Who’s Checking Out What?

When I began as Collections Analysis Librarian at Temple last fall, I met with Subject Specialists to learn more about their work and to discuss how my work might help them. Several said they wanted to know more about how our library collection is being used. One librarian was curious to see how borrowing varies by user group, such as graduate students, undergraduates, or faculty. Several others wondered more generally if the items they order are getting used.

I had warned the Subject Specialists that I probably would not be able to immediately provide the information they were asking for, but that hearing from them would help me plan future projects. Usage was not only one of the most common metrics the Subject Specialists asked about, it was also the one for which I had the best access to data, as the Data Dashboard team had begun collecting circulation reports and information on user status before I started my position. One of the Dashboard Project’s goals is to provide metrics on library performance that allow Temple University’s Schools and Colleges to see how their constituents are using the library, and the data it contains can of course be relevant to us within the library as well. To answer my colleagues’ questions about usage, I began with data that others had collected for the Dashboard, and arranged it in a way that I thought would be most useful to Subject Specialists. I presented the data to a room full of librarians in February.

The Data

In the Data Dashboard, we have information on circulation transactions that includes the call number of each borrowed item and the status (graduate, undergraduate, faculty, ILL, etc.) and school of the person who borrowed it. For this presentation, I took a year’s worth of circulation data and added information on the subjects of the borrowed items. Using the call numbers, I mapped each item to a broad subject such as Art or Physics as well as a narrower subject like Drawing, Painting, Optics, or Thermodynamics. The mapping was based on the approval plans and the various call number ranges on each plan. This is more granular than the way the data is reported in the Dashboard, where it is sorted by college so that it can be reported to the colleges. For this audience, I wanted a more detailed look at specific subjects. The report I shared included 45 broad subjects and 380 narrower subjects.

With large tables, it can be hard to know where to start. I find it helpful to focus on a particular question so that I know which numbers to look at, and then make comparisons between numbers to see what stands out as unusually high or low. For instance, I suggested that one way to look at the data would be to pick a subject and ask if, within that subject, there are some sub-topics in which graduate students borrow more books than undergraduates and other sub-topics where undergraduates borrow more.

Some Examples of Findings

To take one example, Anthropology had the exact same number of books checked out by undergraduates as graduate students (318 each). There are more undergraduate majors than graduate students, but the latter probably borrow more books per student. Interestingly, though, the different groups of students seem to be borrowing books on different subjects. On ethnology, 27.52% of checkouts were to grad students compared to 10.32% to undergrads. For manners and customs, undergraduates borrow more books, making up 27.77% of checkouts compared to 10.66% for grad students. This might reflect a difference in the kinds of books found within each sub-topic. Books in the ethnology section probably contain more in-depth studies, which would be more relevant to graduate students, whereas books on manners & customs might be written for a more general audience. Looking at these numbers, therefore, not only tells us something about students’ needs but is also an inroad into understanding the sub-topics of a discipline.

Sometimes the checkout patterns raise additional questions about who is using the books. For Linguistics books, 34% of checkouts were to graduate students, although there are no graduate students in Linguistics. These numbers can make the case that books purchased for one program often benefit others as well. It is possible, for instance, that graduate students in Speech and Language Sciences are using Linguistics books.

Future Uses of Data

Most of the subject specialists who asked about usage statistics did not have a specific question but wanted to add to their general knowledge of the collection. Numbers can provide an entry point for looking at how our print collection is used, and this could prompt more specific questions about the curriculum, enrollment, or our holdings. The report I sent out after the presentation included the full list of titles that were checked out, so anyone who is curious about the usage of a particular section can dig deeper to see exact titles.

There are more questions that we will be able to answer with circulation data in the future.  For example, since we have information on what college the users are from, we could see whether some of the usage is coming from people we might not expect. Looking at undergraduates by year could show us if print monograph use increases as students progress through their careers. I had simplified the user information to make my presentation more digestible, but questions from the audience showed they would be interested in details. Another suggestion was to compare print usage to e-book usage for various subjects, which is also something I am starting to look into.

As the Data Dashboard comes together, I will continue to look for ways that the data can be useful to Subject Specialists, and I will of course have other collections analysis projects that serve this purpose as well. I hope this will be a beginning, with more information to come.

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