Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Counting things ... that matter


"Confusion fosters frustration, the sense that this stuff is just too complicated, which in tern leads to surrender ... "
-- From More Lies and Statistics by Joel Best

Oh yeah, baby ... ain't it the truth! -- You're preachin' to the choir, Brother Joel ...

We're in the process of putting together our quarterly statistical report for our board and I'm trying to figure out the best way to count stuff. We learn to count in (or before) kindergarten, and yet when it comes to reporting what we count, we suddenly get all twitchy about it.

Take e-Audio books (known by many names including "downloadable audiobooks") ... We can count the number of downloads ... that seems pretty straight forward ... until you think about the fact that there might be turn-aways (due to lack of "copies") ... so we count those too, and we then compute the average number of downloads per total requests for the title (downloads plus turn-aways) ... And of course, a number is relatively meaningless unless measured over time, so we have to collect these items ... Oh, and then, since we actually expend $$ for the titles, we have figure out the value of our acquisitions -- you know, calculating the cost per item downloaded, cost per turn-away, cost per request, and then all of that as a function time ...

But that's not the real story, exactly, because we also need to spin the numbers and look at it from the perspective "For every dollar we put into e-Audio, how many N does that dollar yield" where N is the number of ... well, whatever you decide it is.

You see how this leads to confusion ... and eventually, frustration ... right?! And so, we give up. Too often we simply give up. We never even get to the point where we actually use the numbers for anything -- that's right, believe it or not, just reporting them is meaningless ... if we don't use them to predict, drive, or measure our effectiveness in our field of expertise, we're really just spending a lot of time doing half the job.

You see, I don't want to know this stuff 'cause it gives me warm fuzzies; I want to know it so I can tell my suppliers "we're spending too much on your stuff - there's a negative ROI" or "we love your stuff, and want more of it because we see a correlation between our users using it and satisfaction with local library service, and that is good for communities (academic or geographic)because of " whatever ... And I think our suppliers want to know the numbers and what they mean too -- it helps them help us help our users, and that's just good business.

Oh, and to not pay attention ... to not measure and report and use the numbers to drive our decisions ... that's just negligent.

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