Usage Data and the Evolution of Libraries

By michaelbeiser

The survival and utilization of libraries is in many ways interlinked with their visibility, or how much value and relevance they are seen as having within their wider communities. Proof of library value is in turn related to budgeting within institutions, how money is allocated, and to the general satisfaction of users at large. Digitization of records has created new issues for libraries, as circulation data can be used as an asset for demonstrating library value, or as a means for them to compete with other 21st century means of book/information retrieval. But as libraries find new ways to feel relevant to users, they must also face new challenges to their roles as centers of privacy.

Recently I did a field observation at the Humanities Campus Library at West 18th St, where I spoke with Campus Librarian Lisa Egan. Ms. Egan had been hired the previous school year, when the library re-opened after being closed for years. She has worked hard to develop the book collection almost entirely from scratch, a task complicated by the reality of the library being designated for serving the needs of six different schools, including Quest, James Baldwin, and Hudson- all different schools with varying age groups, curriculums, and teaching needs.
During a busy lunch period, as middle school aged students with lunch passes filed in, checked out books, and scrambled for computers, Ms. Egan explained the importance of circulation records. During the entirety of the first year it was re-opened, the number of books circulated by the library totaled 880, a fairly low number given the student population it serves numbers over 2,000, but this year it the number was already at 600. Although still low, this was a sign of higher student usage, and equally importantly, data that could be used to demonstrate the value of the library to the school and its community. And while Ms. Egan expressed gratitude for the funding and grants she received, she also said that she was struggling to attain what she considered to be a comprehensive non-fiction collection for the students.
Looking around the library, there was an impressive amount of students making use of its facilities (students have a choice during their post-lunch recess to go to the gym, hang out in a common area, or go to the library). Students of varying ages came to request books; some wanted dystopian novels like Hunger Games, some older students were looking for what Ms. Egan called “gritty urban romance novels.” Also in the library were parent volunteers, interested in getting involved and helping the library thrive. It seemed hard to imagine that there could be question marks surrounding the value of the library, but I as Joanna Fantozzi explained in “Clearing the Shelves,” at the moment there is lobbying in Albany to get waivers over the law necessitating libraries for all public schools in New York. I was also told that even if the importance of the library itself wasn’t in question, there were numerous other ways it could be encroached on, from giving up part of its space to a speech teacher, to principals using funds library funds to buy supplies for other teachers.

While it can be seen how circulation data is important to the visibility of the value of the library in the tough world of public schools and their funding, other ways in which libraries have attempted to use circulation data to increase visibility have been more problematic. In a November 5, 2012 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Parry described the backlash felt by librarians at Harvard after a social media experiment with Twitter went wrong. The idea had been to set up Twitter feeds with the names of books being checked out from libraries on campus, complete with links to the book’s library catalog entry. Despite precautionary measures to protect privacy (checkout times were randomized by the Twitter stream, and the identities of the people checking items out were not given), the practice was controversial and quickly suspended.
The Harvard Library’s Twitter incident is a good example of what privacy-and-social-media scholar Michael Zimmer calls “a Faustian bargain” facing libraries as they expand into digital services. In order to make use of the internet as it has come to be, with all of sharing of social and personal information, libraries will have to make use of and encourage greater degrees of personal information from users. In order to make library catalogs more similar to online services like Amazon, with its ability to provide recommendations based on personalized taste, libraries would also have to track the browsing and borrowing habits of customers.
The idea of tracking users and their borrowing habits in this way may seem a mere theoretical problem; sure, the ideal of “privacy” might be sacrificed but wouldn’t this be made up for by libraries appealing to more people who, to be honest, already face this lack of privacy throughout their lives? Is this much different from Ms. Egan, the school librarian, suggesting books to her high school students based on her knowledge of their past likes and dislikes, or from her gentle suggestions to younger students who find their way into books meant for the older and more “mature” teenagers that there might be other books they’d like better instead? These are important considerations, but the centrality of user privacy at libraries should not be turned over so lightly. In his article, Mr. Parry describes how states had to pass laws requiring libraries to keep data private in response to attempts in the 70s and 80s by the FBI to spy on scholars by enticing library clerks to disclose information on their reading and borrowing habits. In the culture of surveillance and information flow we live in, there is a strong argument for the continuing practice of privacy by libraries.

Despite these dilemmas, new solutions have been explored as well. Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab developed LibraryCloud as a means for libraries to share metadata, with the idea that with metadata collected from different libraries developers could use them in the development of new services. Another project called StackLife shows users how books have been used in their communities by measuring “importance”- quantified using information like how many libraries own the book, how often it’s been checked out, etc.
It is clear from these examples that digital records hold a lot of potential for libraries to develop and evolve. What form this evolution will take remains open.


Fantozzi, Joanna. 2013. Clearing the Shelves. (accessed November 28, 2013).

Parry, Marc. 2012. As Libraries Go Digital, Sharing of Data Is at Odds With Tradition of Privacy. (accessed November 28, 2013).

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