October 19, 2017

LJ Index 2016: Next Year’s New Statistic: Wi-Fi

Although IMLS has begun collecting data on Wi-Fi access usage, we did not include Wi-Fi use this year because there are ten states whose data reporting schedules mean that they will always be one year behind the other 41 in reporting any new data element. While we reluctantly excluded libraries from one state this year in order to introduce e-circ to the LJ Index, excluding libraries in ten was unthinkable.

However, we can give a brief preview. As we did for e-circ last year, let’s take a first look at Wi-Fi access usage data reported for FY14.

The Wi-Fi access usage measure has been adopted by libraries and states very quickly. For FY14, 46 states—excluding only Illinois, Maryland, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia—reported Wi-Fi access usage. However, not every library in those 46 states reported this new measure. Nationwide, 5,593 libraries reported Wi-Fi usage. Excluding the 19 reports from Maryland libraries, which were left out of the LJ Index this year over missing e-circ data, this means that more than three out of four (76.1%) of the libraries that received LJ Index scores this year also reported Wi-Fi access usage.

With the addition of the late-adopting states next year, we are confident that the tenth edition of the LJ Index will include Wi-Fi access usage as its sixth measure of public library service output. This is another overdue addition to the PLS data set as, for many years, public library patrons have been bringing their own devices—notebook computers, computer tablets, and smartphones—into libraries and accessing e-materials and collections directly. While it is very important for public libraries to continue to serve as public computing centers by providing free access to public Internet computers, the bring-your-own-device practice of more and more patrons means we have been missing this burgeoning type of in-library virtual use, and, as a result, declines in reported computer usage numbers present a misleading picture of patron priorities.

What’s Still Missing?

With the addition of e-circ to the LJ Index this year and the likely addition of Wi-Fi access usage next year, what is still missing?

Of the long-standing virtual services provided by most public libraries, the most conspicuously unmeasured use is of licensed databases—or, as the PLS now refers to them, electronic collections. The category of electronic collections is probably the broadest, most diverse concept addressed by the PLS.

In addition to the definitional changes moving from licensed databases to electronic collections, we also face an uphill battle in obtaining comparable usage statistics across vendors. Since January 2014, Project COUNTER (Counting Online Use of NeTworked Electronic Resources) has provided a register of COUNTER-compliant publishers and vendors. Inclusion in this registry indicates that a publisher or vendor provides usage reports that have been audited and found to be in compliance with COUNTER’s Code of Practice. The problem, of course, is that not all publishers and vendors and all of their database products are COUNTER-compliant.

If we are to make significant progress toward being able to collect usage data for electronic collections, public library officials who make purchasing decisions should insist that vendors with whom they do business become COUNTER-compliant. Until that, or some other standard, prevails, it will likely be impossible to collect comparable and meaningful data about the use of electronic collections. We encourage IMLS, Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA), and individual state library agencies to collaborate on finding a way to resolve this pressing issue. Despite the absence of data, there can be little doubt that millions of items from electronic collections are delivered to public library patrons every day. And despite the level of investment in these products such access has required of most public libraries for several decades, we still lack even one definitive measure of the extent of their use. Surely, this must be the most conspicuously missing data about public library service output. We look forward to the day when database/electronic collection use can become the seventh measure in the LJ Index.

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Ray Lyons & Keith Curry Lance About Ray Lyons & Keith Curry Lance

Ray Lyons (raylyons@gmail.com) is an independent consultant and statistical programmer in Cleveland. His articles on library statistics and assessment have also appeared in Public Library Quarterly, Public Libraries, and Evidence Based Library and Information Practice. He blogs on library statistics and assessment at libperformance.com.
Keith Curry Lance (keithlance@comcast.net) is an independent consultant based in suburban Denver. He also consults with the Colorado-based RSL Research Group. In both capacities, he conducts research on libraries of all types for state library agencies, state library associations, and other library-related organizations. For more information, visit http://www.KeithCurryLance.com.

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