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June 24, 2005

Something different

No sports today. So if you are looking for in depth Twins analysis ... well, you should never come here for that, but if you are looking for stadium news maybe another time. There just isn't anything to report. Today I'm going to write about libraries, or more specifically library catalogs.

You see, I work at a library. The University of Minnesota Libraries to be specific, so I think about library matters a lot. I am the webmaster at the University of Minnesota Libraries and it is my job to make sure faculty, staff, and students can get to the resources they need through our website. Now, there are a lot of resources that we provide access to. We provide access to well over 250 licensed indexes, over 25,000 online journals, and hundreds of online reference sources (dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc.). But any librarian will tell you that the lifeblood of any library is the catalog. Or is it?

At the University of Minnesota Libraries our catalog is called MNCAT. In our catalog we list, arrange, and make searchable everything we own including books (well over 6 million), journals and magazines (well over 35,000 subscriptions), videos, maps, archival resources (did you know the U of M Libraries have one of the largest collections of Sherlock Holmes manuscipts and ephemera?), and much, much more. Our catalog is huge and its complete contents make the U of M Libraries the 17th largest research library in America. However, I have noticed some interesting statistics that may suggest that our catalog is decreasing in importance for people doing research at the U.

Check this out. Way back in 2002 I ran some statistical analysis on our catalog. What I was trying to do was gauge how many on-campus users we have vs. off-campus users of the catalog. These are the stats I found:

Catalog use August 23, 2002 - November 1, 2002:

Total hits to the catalog242,375
Hits from on campus180,295
Of on campus hits, how many from in a library?66,176
Off campus hits62,080
Total hits to all other licensed indexes combined154,454

If you'll recall, I was looking for a statistic on how many people were using the catalog from off-campus. On a whim, I decided to look at how many people were using all our other licensed electronic resources combined (indexes and databases like LexisNexis, or Academic Search Premier) for the same time period. As you can see from the bolded statistics above, I was stunned to find that people used our catalog almost twice as much as people used all our other resources combined. Of course, the people who maintain our catalog were thrilled with this news. Back in 2002, it seems, our catalog was the resource of choice for the researchers at the U of M.

Are you still with me? Good. As you might imagine, I recently decided to run these statistics again to see if the pattern still held true. And what I found was equally as stunning (at least to me):

Catalog use December 8, 2004 -- February 25, 2005

Total hits to the catalog201,339
Hits from on campus134,451
Of on campus hits, how many from in a library?35,262
Off campus hits66,888
Total hits to all other licensed indexes combined236,881

See the difference? Catalog use has dropped, while licensed index use has increased by quite a large margin. This isn't so much troubling as it is interesting (For a librarian like me. Are you still with me?). Essentially this suggests, at least to me, that the nature of library research is changing to, of course, less of a reliance on our catalog, but also perhaps less of a reliance on physical materials held by the libraries. It also suggests that online journal and magazine articles (what most indexes and databases point to) are becoming more and more important for scholarly research. In essence, books are being used less, and online resources more.

Ah, but it isn't that simple. Circulation statistics for the same time periods show that we still are checking out roughly the same number of books. So, what does that tell us? Could be one of two things:

1. Back in 2002 we purchased new catalog software. It could be that our new catalog is so easy to use that people rarely have to visit it more than once to find what they are looking for. Hence the drop in catalog use. Or ...

2. People are no longer using the catalog for information discovery. They are using the catalog more to find a known item.

Personally, I am leaning more towards #2. People are no longer using the catalog (as much) to look for resources on a particular topic. They are using the catalog when they already know what items they are looking for. If a person knows what he or she is looking for, they pop into the catalog, search for the title, either find it or don't, and then leave. Where are they doing their information discovery then? How are they finding out about what items to look for?

The obvious answers are Google and Amazon. And in the case of books, especially Amazon. This is even true of me. Whenever I am looking for a new book to read, I go straight to Amazon. I look for a book I've enjoyed before and then I look for other books that people have purchased along with it. Or I look at the Listmania lists that include a book I've enjoyed and I look at the other books listed with it. The method is foolproof for finding a new book to read. Once I've found one, I then go to the library catalog to see if we own it. Do you see what this means? It means, at least in the case of books, that libraries are being used less for discovery and more as warehouses.

Amazon and Google are kicking our butts in terms of information discovery, and especially serendipitous information discovery. Does this spell doom and gloom for libraries? No, not necessarily. There is more to the information seeking process than discovery. There is still access and retrieval, and of course, Amazon and Google still do not give access to copyrighted and licensed material (the good stuff) that is so vital for scholarly research. As the statistics show above, people are using our licensed indexes and databases a lot more to find information. However, in the face of this competition from search engines and online bookstores, how can libraries reinvent themselves to account for this shift in information seeking behavior, and not just in terms of the resources we pour into our catalog? What kinds of new services and added value can we offer to make the entire process of finding information easier for our patrons and users? I expect we'll see some subtle changes in the coming months here at the University of Minnesota that try to answer these questions.

UPDATE: Now that I think about it, I messed this post up. The focus should have been on the increase in index usage, not the decrease in catalog usage. I'm going to run these stats again in August to see if they still hold true. The fact of the matter is, however, research strategies are changing. We'll see what August's statistics suggest.

Posted by snackeru at June 24, 2005 9:05 AM | Libraries


You may want to use the same dates but different years. You included Christmas and New Years in your 2nd study and those major holidays would skew the numbers, IMO. It may not change the numbers, but this way it is a total apples to apples comparison.

Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at June 24, 2005 10:20 AM

True CC. But December is the end of a semester and the libraries are typically the most full during these times. In fact, I would think we would get more library catalog use due to final papers and speeches. Plus, why the heck did we get so many more index and database use if you take the Christmas holidays into account? You would think everything would drop in use.

August 23 - Sept. 7 is also a time when no one is on campus. In fact, even less people than during Christmas.

But it is a fair critique. I plan on running these stats again in August. I guess maybe the most interesting thing about these stats is the extreme expanded use of our indexes during the two time periods.

Posted by: Shane at June 24, 2005 10:30 AM

What is a library?

Posted by: Brian Maas at June 24, 2005 11:11 AM

Brian 1
Shane 0

Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at June 24, 2005 11:18 AM

What? You're giving him a point for not knowing what a library is? Forgive me if I'm not impressed or if I don't feel "zinged."

Posted by: Shane at June 24, 2005 12:06 PM

What is a library?

Who is this Neanderthal and why have I been married to him for almost 14 years? God help me.

Shane, my Hennepin County Library card is the most important object in my billfold. I'm on their hclib.org site several times a week and I make at least 1-2 trips there a week to pick up or drop off materials. I have an entire shelf in our library at home dedicated to my summer reading list.

Graham often makes the trips with me and he even knows my "Items Waiting" ID number and can pick them out off the shelf. He has a favorite chair in the kids area to look at the books he's picked out and it's his job to scan the books out at the end of our visit.

You can bet your sweet bippy that I'll be in charge of term papers and English lit when he gets to school.

What is a library? Sheesh! Excuse me while I leave to go shave someone's unibrow....

Mrs. COD

Posted by: Jackie at June 24, 2005 12:13 PM

No wonder my supper is never on the table when it is suppose to be. You are at this "library" thing all day long.

Now then woman, get in the kitchen and make me some pies.

Posted by: Brian Maas at June 24, 2005 12:16 PM

Thanks Jackie. Nice to see someone who reads this site is a little more cultured. "Unibrow" ... now that is a zing!

Posted by: Shane at June 24, 2005 12:21 PM

Shane, Don't make me use my "bad oyster" threat again. And don't compliment The WifeŽ too much or it will go to her head. The next thing you know she'll be wanting you to catalog the library in our home. She can be quite demanding.


Posted by: Brian Maas at June 24, 2005 1:23 PM

Mrs. COD 1
Brian 1
Shane 0

Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at June 24, 2005 2:19 PM

To be honest, I'm surprised about the huge numbers. I hardly know how to work those systems and find information. And here is a secret, I work for the U libraries too! I always suggest reference.

Posted by: Sylvie Thao at June 24, 2005 10:45 PM

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