Do Statistics Matter?

I’ve been asking myself that question a lot recently. I wish I could say yes or no. My answer, however, is yes and no.

Like most organizations, my library has to justify its existence on a regular basis. We are always counting. Questions asked, items circulated, people walking through the door. You name it. We count it. It is something that is encouraged and expected.

We have to count things so we can prove we are being used and should continue being funded. It’s how things work. It makes sense. If we can quantify our usage then we are able to point to positive numbers and say, “Look! People use our services. You can’t cut or funding.”

I wonder:

  • Are we counting the right things?
  • Can we quantify what we do?
  • Does our dependence on statistics keep us from experimenting and trying new things?

Do statistics like circulation, door count and questions answered paint a good picture of what we do?

I don’t know.

If we want to measure ourselves by the number of things moved and personal interactions I guess they do. They don’t really show what I think are important.

I wish there were a way to quantify lives improved. Lives improved by:

  • Becoming a better reader.
  • A successful job hunt.
  • Staying in touch with distant family and friends.
  • Meeting friends.
  • Making new friends.

These are just a few examples I could think of. There are more. These things are not quantifiable but they happen every day.

I’m worried about the day when our standard statistics really decline. What will we do? Will we increase our budget for bestsellers and other popular content so our circulation numbers stay up?

I think we will. That bothers me. The money spend to keep our statistics high will reduce our funding for literacy, job help and other things I can’t imagine. We may not attempt to implement some ideas because they are experimental and may not result in high statistics. They could be seen as a waste of money.

Will we let what we count make our decisions for us? Will our reliance on statistics to justify our existence stifle innovation?

I hope, when the day comes and our budget is extremely tight, we will choose to improve lives, not improve our statistics. That will be a very difficult choice.

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