November 16, 2017

LJ Index 2016: What is E-Circ and Why Did We Add It?

Historically, the four measures included in the Library Journal Index of Public Library Service (sponsored by Baker & Taylor’s Bibliostat) have been circulation, library visits, program attendance, and public Internet computer use. Now, the design of the LJ Index is beginning to evolve. The stars have finally aligned to add a fifth statistical measure to the scoring—circulation of electronic materials, or e-circ for short. Because the LJ Index is based on data collected by the Public Libraries Survey (PLS)—a federal-state cooperative project of IMLS and the state library agencies—the Index could not add new measures until PLS did.

What is E-Circ And Why did We Add It?

The definition of circulation of electronic materials (e-circ) for PLS appears clear and stable. E-circ involves ebooks and downloadable audio and video but not licensed databases or what PLS now calls electronic collections. While database use is important, it is notoriously difficult to measure owing to the variety of databases and different ways in which their usage is counted. Apart from adding a couple of sentences to underscore that e-circ is limited to ebooks and downloadable audio and video, the definition remains essentially unchanged, including the explicit exclusion of databases.

We did not add e-circ to the LJ Index in 2015 because ten states had not yet begun to collect the requisite data. This was owing to a built-in delay in the PLS; because of survey scheduling variations, it takes some states a year longer than others to report a new item. This year, with only one state (Maryland) not yet reporting e-circ data, we decided that it was time to add it to the index. Unfortunately, this resulted in excluding Maryland libraries from the LJ Index this year. We hope to see them return in 2017 and encourage all states to be as early adopters as possible of new PLS data elements.

The PLS definition of total circulation is straightforward: the total annual circulation of all library materials of all types, including renewals. Not only was that definition unchanged between 2014 and 2015, this deliberately all-inclusive definition has been unchanged for at least two decades. Since 2014, ebooks and downloadable audio and video files have been explicitly defined as “materials,” and nothing in the total circulation definition excluded electronic materials. The definition has long said “materials of all types” and “in all formats.” Consequently, e-circ should be a subset of total circulation and thus already included in that long-standing service output. But, in practice, is it?

A thorough review of the 2014 PLS data set suggests the likelihood that there are still a few public libraries out there that do not understand that e-circ should be included in total circulation. Or perhaps the electronic materials landscape is so varied from state to state that some states—or perhaps even local libraries—have a built-in advantage because of their particular arrangements. Our hope is that adding e-circ to the LJ Index will help reveal the sources of this data variability—and potential inconsistency—so that the reporting of these two figures by libraries nationwide will become more accurate and stable. Our strongly held belief is that data is improved by being used and exposed to the light of day.

Interestingly, the consensus of opinion among decision-makers about state and national public library data on library materials and their circulation is somewhat disjointed: so far, separate data have been collected about public library holdings in various physical formats (print books and physical audio and video materials, like CDs and DVDs) as well as, more recently, in digital formats (ebooks, streaming audio and video), yet when it comes to circulating items in these disparate formats, everything is combined. Since the 2013 data set—the one on which 2015 LJ Index scores were based—a separate count of e-circ has been requested.

So, not only is e-circ a newly established data element, it also raises questions about reporting practices in recent years for total circulation. Our hope is that seeing these two figures interact in the LJ Index scoring process will help to improve the quality of both elements.

The question remains: If e-circ is a subset of total circulation, should e-circ have been considered for inclusion in the LJ Index? No other PLS figures that are subsumed in existing LJ Index statistics have been used in the Index, e.g., circulation of children’s materials and attendance at children’s programs. However, we now include e-circ because it represents a new kind of public library use, which—like as-yet-unmeasured database use—no longer requires most users to visit a physical library. The assumption that the overwhelming majority of public library use is connected with in-person visits is no longer tenable.

How E-Circ Changes the LJ Index

When we first designed the LJ Index of Public Library Service in 2008, it was based on IMLS data from FY06. At that time, most public library use was in-person, building-based activity. If someone wanted something to read or needed information, they went to a library and checked out a book or a CD, video, or DVD; attended a program event; or used a library computer. Consequently, when designing the LJ Index, we expected to see fairly strong correlations between each of the four variables that contributed to the Index score.

This year’s addition of e-circ is a game-changer in more than the obvious way. Certainly, adding a fifth measure to the index design alters it in purely statistical terms; however, it also changes the index conceptually. We are no longer working on the old assumptions about most public library use being in-person and building-based. While someone could download an ebook or an audio or video file at a library, it is probably at least as likely that they would do it remotely from their home, workplace, or elsewhere. This raises an intriguing conceptual question: What relationship, if any, should we expect between output measures that are at least somewhat tied to physical use versus measures that are more virtual?

To answer this question, we conducted a correlation analysis similar to the one on which the LJ Index was based originally. Only this time, we added e-circ into the equation (see Table 1).

ljx161101webstarlibs2016table1ecirc

What we found is that, while e-circ is positively and significantly correlated with the four long-standing LJ Index measures, the strength of its correlations with those other measures is weaker, below .25. Considering that e-circ does not require a physical library visit and isn’t necessarily strongly tied to program attendance or computer use, this was not surprising. What might surprise some is that the correlation between total circulation and e-circ—which is supposed to be a subset of it—is also relatively weak by previous LJ Index standards, though the strongest of e-circ’s correlations with other measures.

If e-circ had been any measure of library use associated with physical library visits, such weak correlations might have led us to question the appropriateness of including it at all. Given what we know about e-circ’s key difference from other measures, though, we consider it an appropriate and timely addition. This is particularly so, given what we know about the foreseeable future of the LJ Index: more new output measures are coming, and, more likely than not, they, too, will focus more attention on virtual use of public libraries.

This year the addition of just one virtual output measure means that 20 percent of a library’s final LJ Index score is dependent on virtual use. With the addition of another virtual output measure next year (Wi-Fi access usage), 40 percent of a library’s LJ Index score will depend on virtual use. We hope the evolution of the LJ Index along these lines will encourage IMLS and the state library agencies to facilitate the development of other virtual output measures to reflect more fully the range of ways Americans use their public libraries today.

The addition of e-circ to the LJ Index this year undoubtedly had an impact on which libraries achieved Star Library status. Most obviously, libraries that did not report e-circ for FY14 were not even scored this year. Similar exclusions were made early in the LJ Index’s history, when late adopters took a few years to begin reporting use of public Internet computers. It is a certainty that some libraries have been enthusiastic early adopters of ebooks and streaming audio and video; those libraries gained an edge in the LJ Index scoring process as well as the recognition of Star Libraries. It is also quite likely that some libraries, perhaps some states, developed a dramatically stronger capacity for e-circ activity than others. And, of course, we must also recognize that as e-circ is still a relatively new data element (this being its second year of reporting for most libraries), it is likely that some libraries reported more generous e-circ statistics than other libraries generating comparable output. We hope that including them in the LJ Index will encourage those who report and use the data to examine their own data and that of their peers more closely. We believe this provides a powerful incentive for improving data quality.

What Star Libraries Say about E-Circ

Beyond the bird’s-eye view, which the PLS data provides, we asked a dozen Star Libraries whose e-circ statistics were highest in their expenditure groups about their experiences and observations about circulation of electronic materials and collated the insights below.


Arapahoe Libraries, CO

Cindy Phillips, manager of library materials services for Arapahoe Libraries, called attention to particular electronic materials formats and how patrons are responding differently to them. Like many libraries with high e-circ, Arapahoe Libraries offer a diversity of materials: ebooks, e-audiobooks, downloadable and streaming music, streaming video, and so on. The staff are also responding to the evolution of e-media by exploring the addition of downloadable games. Asked about patron response to electronic materials, she reported that those who use them love them, though they wish some of the interfaces were easier.


Hudson Library & Historical Society, OH

Ohio’s Hudson Library and Historical Society has been offering electronic materials since joining the Clevenet consortium in 2003. Today, it offers ebooks and e-audiobooks through OverDrive, One Click Digital, Freading, and Tumblebooks; downloadable music through Freegal and hoopla; streaming video through hoopla, OverDrive, and InstantFlix; and digital magazines through Zinio and Flipster. No doubt, the variety of e-materials and platforms contributes to the library’s high level of e-circ.

Asked how patrons are made aware of these bountiful options, Assistant Director Ellen Smith credited a number of strategies for publicizing the availability of electronic materials. “In addition to prominent placement of these materials on our website through our ‘Download It’ tab, the library places frequent press releases in our local paper, social media, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and email blasts as well as through frequent instructional sessions (daytime, evening, and weekends) on how to download library materials, [and] one-on-one tutorials by appointment. Librarians also ‘take the show on the road’ to the area’s assisted living facilities and senior centers, explaining all that is available through our virtual catalog and how to access it, and have appeared on local TV programs (in Cleveland), demonstrating how to download library e-media. For the last three years, the Hudson Library has also held a ‘TechFest’ to showcase all we have to offer regarding technology, and e-media is a big part of that demonstration.”


Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

Kim Fender, director of the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County (PLCHC), credits her library’s high e-circ to efforts that may not have yet been undertaken by other libraries that are newer to e-circ. “We have an e-branch on our website, we include ebooks in our features titles, we offer an e–Hot Author program that automatically notifies you when a new book by your favorite author is available, and we send emails to the cluster of cardholders who currently use or are likely to use digital content.”

Fender also calls attention to her library’s outreach efforts. “We provide iPads to some of our outreach customers. One cardholder had been receiving 50 audiobooks each month. It was difficult [for staff] to select 50 new titles [that often]. With her iPad, she can [now] choose and download her own titles, use social media and email, and access the Internet in general. If she doesn’t like a book, she can choose another without wondering if she’ll have enough books to last until the next outreach staff visit. She has also been able to read books again by enlarging the font.”

While electronic materials are popular at PLCHC, Fender sees some cause for concern. “Even with libraries lending hot spots, the digital divide could become wider for our cardholders without ereaders and Internet access.”


Seattle Public Library

Andrew Harbison, assistant director, collections and access, hears “great feedback on the convenience of e-content from our patrons who are increasingly expecting a high level of personalized, easy, on-demand access. Many of these patrons are accustomed to reading, watching, and listening on the go, across formats. The library’s collections are built for quality and relevance, but they are also designed to be delivered efficiently and conveniently.”

As a result, he is not surprised by his library’s statistical trajectory on e-circ. “Demand for ebooks and e-audiobooks continues to increase substantially every year, as evidenced by circulation figures that increased 24 percent from 2014 to 2015. The number of active ebook and e-audiobook users also continues to grow substantially, with a nearly 13 percent increase from 2014 to 2015. Interestingly, we are also seeing an increase in the average number of ebook and e-audiobook checkouts by individual users, [up] ten percent from 2014 to 2015.”


Tulsa City-County Library

Gary Shaffer, CEO of Tulsa City-County Library, attributes patron awareness of his library’s growing collections of electronic materials to something “a bit old-fashioned. Monthly, we print the Tulsa Book Review, which is distributed across our county in bookstores, coffee shops, student lounges, etc., as well as in our libraries. It only features advertising from the library (a lot regarding our e-circulating items, our programs, and our partnerships). The Tulsa Book Review is also available on the Zinio platform to our library customers. Thus it, too, is a digitally circulating item. It also happens to be available freely to the customers of other Zinio libraries across the country who wish to offer it to their customers.”

» Next page: “The Star Libraries by Expenditure Category”

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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.

Share
What is Design Thinking?
From space planning, redesigning services and staffing, to developing more user-centric approaches, design thinking can help you problem-solve through ingenuity and creativity, and better understand and serve your patrons. Our introductory online workshop, Demystifying Design Thinking is designed for library professionals who want to take a fresh approach to tackling their library’s challenges through human-centered design.

Comments

  1. With the addition of another virtual output measure next year (Wi-Fi access usage), 40 percent of a library’s LJ Index score will depend on virtual use.
    Might it be 33.33%?
    Thank you!

  2. Hello Billy

    Great question! Now I’m unsure of our thinking. Next year we expect 6 LJ Index measures:

    (in person) visits
    (in person) circulation
    (in person) program attendance
    (possibly-in person & electronic) e-circulation
    (in person & electronic) Internet computer use
    (in person & electronic) WiFi use

    I suspect we were mixing up the idea of electronic use with virtual use. In any case, for the article we mistakenly kept the measure count to 5 rather than the 6 measures expected for 2017. This led to the mistaken 40% figure.

    I see your figure, 33%, which would represent 2 virtual measures among 6 total. But now I’m wondering which measures are virtual and which electronic? We’ll definitely need ruminate on this before the next edition! But the idea we meant to present is that the Index is becoming more and more about electronic use, if not virtual!

    Thanks for catching that, Billy.

    Best regards,

    Ray L