April 23, 2018

A Toolkit for Taking Stock: Libraries Leverage New Metrics Driven by Data from collectionHQ


Since its introduction to the North American market in 2010, collectionHQ (CHQ), a collection-analysis technology created by the six-year-old Scottish firm Bridgeall Libraries, has taken root in 153 public library systems, including such prominent ones as New York Public Library (NYPL), San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), and San Diego County Library (SDCL) (LJ’s 2012 Library of the Year).

The software application, known as smartsm in the UK, may penetrate even further here not only because librarians are giving it high marks but also because Baker & Taylor (B&T) acquired Bridgeall last December, putting the clout of its considerable distribution network behind the product (which has 268 library system customers worldwide).

“Since the B&T acquisition, we have added eight employees and still have some new positions to fill,” says Scott Crawford, CHQ’s VP and general manager. “We now have a sales and support footprint in the UK, North America, and Australia, where prior to the acquisition all of our employees have been based in the UK.” The company will soon have 31 employees in all.

CHQ can extract data from any integrated library system (ILS) and then, through a suite of web-based modules, create a data-driven plan to build and deploy a library’s physical collection. CHQ makes clear what materials to buy and in what quantity to meet patron demand. It also makes transfers among branches and weeding quick, evidence-based activities.

“Quite simply put, it is demand analysis to assist with future supply decisions but with a workflow that is driven by an SaaS [software as a service] solution that will make this process as efficient as each mutual customer wants it to be,” Crawford says.

Power to the branches

The 27-branch SFPL began using CHQ at seven locations last fall, at a cost of $34,500, and it is still in a testing phase. (The annual subscription for collectionHQ is based on the population served by the library and ranges from under $10K for smaller libraries to over $40K for larger systems.)

“We now have access to amazingly detailed metrics about our collections and their usage that was unavailable to us because of either the work involved in extracting the data or the impossibility of extracting it,” says Shellie Cocking, SFPL collections and cataloging manager.

Cocking says extracting reports from the library’s ILS was complicated, and SFPL wanted to allow all the staff (not just staff at the central library) to run weeding reports, pull paging lists, and ascertain the most popular subject areas or authors at their location.

CHQ provides a way to implement ongoing inventory control rather than relying on time-consuming occasional collection inventories, which the library almost never had the resources to do, according to Cocking.

“It allows for more oversight of the collection, and it increases the control individual branches have over their collections,” Cocking says. “With a large system, we often saw one branch weed a book while another branch was requesting that a copy of the same title be purchased. Our practices of trying to catch these were so time-consuming that financially they were not reasonable to perform.”

In the past, branch staff would try emailing out the list of books that they were weeding to offer to other branches, which was ineffective and slow.

“The transfer option in collectionHQ makes this simple,” Cocking says. “Once we have all 27 branches up, each book will have had many chances at finding a home before it is ultimately weeded.”

In addition to generating lists based on popular subject areas or authors, CHQ lets the library set parameters for designating “grubby” items that may need replacing.

“It has saved us money in purchasing replacement titles,” Cocking says. “We ran the Grubby Replace, Popular Author, and Popular Subject transfer lists once already, and the branches requested that 80 fiction and 348 nonfiction titles be sent their way.”

COLLECTION MANAGEMENT IS REFRESHING Valerie Reichert (l.), a children’s librarian at SFPL’s Bernal Heights Branch, and Terry Carlson, branch manager at the West Portal Branch, discuss
a “Grubby Items Refresh” report generated by collectionHQ. Photo by David Schwabe.

Setting parameters

CHQ allows librarians to set and track various parameters, such as acceptable levels of dead material in the branches or a minimum level of availability for a popular author. For example, the administrator could decide that her branch should always have 25 percent of the total holdings for a particular author available for loan. So if a branch had 16 copies of a Stieg Larsson novel and only three were available for loan (18.8 percent of the total holdings), then CHQ would redline that to make the branch aware that it needs to boost what’s available on the shelves.

SDCL, which fully rolled out CHQ in spring 2011, similarly reported that the software has put a lot of power back into the hands of branch librarians, allowing them to get data about their collection for which they previously had to ask headquarters.

“Being able to pull together a weeding list on a quiet Sunday is something they could never do before,” says Jenny Hanson, San Diego’s collection development librarian for adult and electronic materials. “And everyone loves being able to create top lists—Top 10 movies, Top 25 kids’ authors, anything just about!”

A survey showed that 80 percent of the staff in San Diego think the collection is in better shape because of CHQ, Hanson says, and the library reported the following numbers from the past year:

  • 3,817 items were moved to new homes
  • these items, on average, had not been checked out for 23 months
  • they have, on average been in their new locations six months
  • these “dead items” have since circulated 6,885 times
  • the library has saved $95,000 by using materials already in the collection instead of purchasing new items.

CHQ, which is basically wrapped around the Evidence Based Stock Management (EBSM) methodology developed by public librarians in the UK over the past 15 years, has built-in BISAC categories, which allow for greater granularity when analyzing demand. “It also offers a standard subject assignment that lets us compare collections of all collectionHQ users, so that we are comparing apples to apples when recommending titles for purchase,” Crawford says.

Using such detailed analysis to find a more productive home for a book or some other physical library item has been particularly useful for libraries that float their collections, since floating often leads to pooling and requires rebalancing.

“We have put collectionHQ at the center of our collection management practices, and it has completely replaced the manual process we devised,” says Aimee Fifarek, the technologies and content manager at the Scottsdale Public Library, AZ.

“Since we began floating we have been really moving from being a group of five branches to being a five-library system, and CHQ has been a big part of that process,” says Fifarek. “The thing we never had before was the refresh piece—take items that are underperforming at one library and move them to another library where similar items are circulating better.”

The staff in Scottsdale are now running refresh lists on a monthly basis, which encourages everyone to think about the collection as a whole rather than just what lives in their own branch, and Fifarek says this can be done with a couple of mouse clicks—a plus in a time of staff cuts.

“We have certainly saved staff time,” Fifarek says. “Previously, we had one person running lists for the entire system and distributing them via email. Now, one email goes out to the involved staff when a new data set is ready that tells them what lists to run for which parts of the collection. It is a big ­improvement.”

She says there was little need to tinker with the lists, as had been the case in the past.

“The really important thing is that it is using our data,” she says. “The performance of items is unambiguous. It is so easy to just open up reports in Excel and go.”

Crawford says that using the libraries’ own data is a key ­element.

“It is not about reporting, it is about improving,” Crawford says. “Improving performance is something that many libraries are working to do on a daily basis. We just provide the structure and routine for them to be able to achieve their goals.”

DIGGING FOR BEST SELLERS Phoenix Public Library collection development staff Jeriann Thacker (seated) and Elsa Black execute a search with CHQ to evaluate best seller circulation. Photo courtesy of Phoenix Public Library

Working on ebooks

However, a significant element not yet in place is the handling of ebooks, which presents an entirely different set of challenges since many ebook transactions are not performed within the ILS but on third-party platforms. But Crawford says CHQ is working on that.

“We have started our development specifications on our ­ebook module and will be releasing phase one of this in the next few months,” Crawford says. “We want to be able to analyze demand regardless of format, and certainly ebooks are part of the demand equation at most if not all public libraries in North America.”

Scottsdale subscribed to CHQ in August 2010 for $22,500, and the first year also had a $2500 setup fee. The system has given Scottsdale more analytics than it has ever had before, although Fifarek could not say yet if it has saved the library money.

“At this point we are just starting to feel like we are in a place where we can begin to assess its performance,” she says.

But she found the budgeting feature of CHQ promising since it allows CHQ to parcel out collection monies based on the previous performance of a collection area.

“Each budget year it felt like we were applying a certain amount of educated guesswork when deciding what to spend on fiction or nonfiction,” Fifarek says. “This tool gives us the feeling that we are using actual data to make informed ­decisions.”

SDCL uses a formula called Bang for the Buck to calculate its materials budget: if picture books got 25 percent of the total circulation, then picture books got 25 percent of the budget.

“In years past we did it by hand, and it took a good week or two of a librarian’s time,” says Hanson. “CHQ uses basically the same formula and does it all for us in a few minutes.”

Phoenix rising

The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) awarded the city of Phoenix and the Phoenix Public Library a certificate of excellence award in performance management because of the library’s implementation of CHQ.

The 17-branch library system last year received $410,000 from the Maricopa County Library District (MCLD) to purchase and catalog nearly 20,000 replacement library books within nine months (Phoenix residents pay the lion’s share of the property taxes that go into MCLD, and MCLD returns some of that tax revenue to Phoenix Public Library).

Phoenix has a circulating collection of 1.3 million items, and there were 13 million items checked out in FY11. A project to replace 20,000 items with only two collection development librarians available to do the ordering and no additional technical staff to catalog and process the items was a daunting task.

Kathleen Sullivan, the collection development manager, says the implementation of CHQ in May 2011 made a crucial difference. It allowed a systemwide overview of material usage statistics in minutes, which the library’s ILS cannot produce. Even a more basic view of collection data from the ILS would have required 80 hours over four weeks to produce, Sullivan says.

All the books, approximately 25,000 items, were received by late May 2012, a month ahead of the purchase deadline. Selecting and ordering the materials previously took two librarians 250–300 hours over eight months as opposed to 140 hours over three months using CHQ. The entire project—selection, ordering, and fulfillment—was completed in nine months, instead of the 20 it previously would have required.

Phoenix is also using the data to market the collection.

For example, one of the smallest branches saw that James Patterson was the most popular author in its collection. This information prompted staff to check system holdings for Patterson books that were in other branches and move the titles into their branch’s collection. Staff then created a display of the titles and received kudos from customers who were happy to see older Patterson books they had not yet read. Staff also created a readalikes display with other authors who appeal to Patterson fans.

All the librarians interviewed say that learning CHQ, which is accessible via a web browser on a standard PC, is relatively easy, although it takes time to roll out fully.

“The interface is very simple, and anyone can get up and running with very little training,” says Cocking at SFPL. “The product does so much, you do have to take on just a couple of things at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed.”

Most of the training is done via webinars with the Glasgow-based company’s staff. The time difference was an initial concern for the West Coast libraries, but the firm proved responsive and supportive.

The company launched in August an “Academy” function where the webinar training is available on demand. CHQ is also a sponsor of LJ’s Lead the Change leadership program.

“The partnership that we have entered into with LJ around Lead the Change is of key importance to raise the level of awareness to public libraries in North America about data-driven decision-making,” Crawford says.

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

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley (mkelley@mediasourceinc.com) is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.

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