Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Analyzing analytics and their role in the future of librarianship

(c) iStockPhoto

The word “analytics” is increasingly appearing in library literature, library product and marketing brochures and in library conference topics.   A quick search for the term in Google might result in you thinking analytics is solely about websites and something invented by Google since their Analytics product is one of the most frequently cited.   (This is because it is free to use and countless websites do use it to determine the success of the website in reaching end-users and how much time they spend their and countless other details).   

However, analytics is actually a much bigger field than that would imply and is truly an important field for librarians to understand.  Why?  Because in a time when libraries are being economically squeezed, asked to show value and to do things more efficiently and effectively, analytics are a very powerful tool for achieving those goals.  (For a quick overview of the basics of analytics, this article in SASCOM Magazine, 1st Qtr. 2010, gives a good quick summary of some of the major components).  

Analytics will allow us to both understand where we are currently being efficient and effective with our services and for understanding how we can increase the demand for those services in order to increase our efficiency and effectiveness.  Furthermore, using analytics will allow us to build a relationship with the members of our libraries and to modify their habits to result in the library and librarianship being seen as the primary place to go for high quality information and knowledge related services. 

Real Life Possibilities

This past Sunday’s (Februrary 16, 20122) New York Times contained a very interesting article entitled: How Companies Learn Your Secrets. The article covers the use of analytics and how they’re being used to influence our purchasing habits.    While the article is very enlightening purely from that point of view, what it brought to the forefront of my thinking was the importance of analytics for librarianship and the future of our profession.  For instance, if you read that article and just substitute “library” for the word “Target” and various information services for the products sold by Target, you find some amazing parallels.  For instance, I quote the following paragraph where I’ve substituted library terms [in brackets] for the original article shopping terms, and when you do, you get:  
“Most [members] don’t [get] everything they need at one [location]. Instead, they [get information from Facebook or Google] and [advice from friends], and they visit [libraries] only when they need certain items they associate with [libraries] — [books], say, or [videos] or a [magazine]. But [libraries offer] everything from [datasets] to [articles] to [analysis] to [counter-viewpoints], so one of the [library’s] primary goals is convincing [members] that the only [location] they need is [the Library]. But it’s a tough message to get across, even with the most ingenious ad campaigns, because once [members’] habits are ingrained, it’s incredibly difficult to change them.”
You can do this in large part, with the entire article.  Which applies, not only to the descriptions of the problem analytics are trying to solve, but the way they’re being used to solve the problems.   Again, let’s borrow the wording from the article and substitute some words to demonstrate this point:
“We knew that if we could identify them [as children], there’s a good chance we could capture them for years, as soon as we get them [using information resources] from us, they’re going to start [using] everything else too.”
“[Libraries or library organizations] can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own.”
“Almost every [library could have] a “predictive analytics” department devoted to understanding not just [members’ usage] habits but also their personal habits, so as to more efficiently [offer services to] them. We’re living through a golden age of behavioral research. It’s amazing how much we can figure out about how people think now.”
“When some [members] were going through a major life event, like [entering or] graduating from college or getting a new job or moving to a new town, their [information usage] habits became flexible in ways that were both predictable and potential [opportunity for librarians]. The study found that when someone [enters college], he or she is more likely to start [needing authoritative information].[Members] going through major life events often don’t notice, or care, that their [information needs] have shifted, but [librarians can] notice, and they [should] care quite a bit. At those unique moments, customers are “vulnerable to intervention by [information] marketers.” In other words, a precisely timed [suggestion about an information source], can change someone’s [information usage] patterns for years.” 
“We’ve developed a number of research tools that allow us to gain insights into trends and preferences within different demographic segments of our [member] population.”
What I think this exercise and argument suggests is that if we were to perform the same kind of analysis that companies are doing to anticipate our purchasing needs and behaviors, and then applied our findings to our library member needs for information, we could provide a new level of pro-active services to those library members that would help ensure the value of librarianship in their minds. 

The Challenges

Do we face some of the challenges in doing this?  Absolutely.  Here are several major ones that quickly come to mind:

  1. Privacy.  The cartoon character Pogo reminded us, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”  Anytime you start down the path of building detailed profiles of users, as librarians, we tend to dive behind the shield of being the super-protectionists of privacy.  Yet, as the article shows and the rephrasing above suggests, that information is readily available and is for sale to be used by organizations of all types.  Why not libraries?  Furthermore, our users provide information to companies like Amazon in return for convenience.  I’ve argued in a previous post that privacy is not a yes/no decision, it is a series of informed choices and I still believe that is the case.  We’re crippling our ability to give service because we don’t want to ask the members if they’re willing to give up some of their privacy in return for convenience (or easier, faster answers to some of their reference queries).  Yet in many, if not most cases, that’s a deal most members would willingly make (and already have with many organizations far less trustworthy than a library service organization).
  2. Data aggregation.  For analytics to work well, one requirement is that a truly massive body of data needs to be accumulated upon which the analytic tools can mine while looking for relationships upon which predictions can be made.  Cloud computing is going to facilitate this massively, as it inherently brings data together into a commons settings where it can be easily shared.   When you stop and think about it, we already have some fairly large collections of data hosted in the cloud with organizations like OCLC.   Furthermore, as their WorldShare system spins up, they will be in an even better position to use analytics to show some truly innovative ideas.  Other organizations like Ex Libris with their Alma system, and Serials Solutions with their Intota system will do the same.   Of course, the question is: Will libraries strongly support moving into the cloud and letting their data be used in this manner? Even if some libraries resist, other – often larger and busier research libraries – may start arraying data to make it easier to reclaim and use for individual organizational purpose. However, given the economic pressures of our times and the need to show value, my guess is that this will be an assured result, even if it takes some time to happen.  We need to remember that collaboration is something libraries have long done well and they will see that extending collaboration into this sphere will make a lot of sense.  Plus collaboration can often be very informal.  As new cloud data options occur, we should see many libraries adopt more formal collaboration on data rules of engagement.
  3. The Cost of Analytic Engineers/Statisticians.  As the NY Times article referenced above points out: “It’s like an arms race to hire statisticians nowadays. Mathematicians are suddenly sexy.” Furthermore, “As the ability to analyze data has grown more and more fine-grained, the push to understand how daily habits influence our decisions has become one of the most exciting topics in clinical research, even though most of us are hardly aware those patterns exist”.   Another article earlier this month in the NY Times, also talked about this new job area and the demand for people, in even greater detail.   We all know that most libraries struggle to pay existing IT staff enough money to retain them.   How in the world are they going to do that with a hot new profession that is in demand all over the country?!?  So, what are libraries to do here?  Again, I believe this is a place where collaboration is the answer.  This is the perfect place for libraries to work together, either in consortia or through other collaborative organizations (again OCLC would seem a very logical choice) in order to generate the financial wherewithal to fund the hiring of this kind of talent and to create a distribution system for readily sharing the results. 

If you’re not yet familiar with Analytics, starting with Google’s Analytic product is an excellent idea.   It’s free, lots of materials have been written about how to use and interpret the data and it provides a solid basis for understanding the capabilities of this kind of technology, at least at an introductory level.  Just remember however, that what is possible, given the emerging cloud computing solutions and accompanying data aggregations, is a far more complex and powerful set of possibilities and it will require people who’ve got both the training and understanding of data as well as the associated tools in order to exploit the possibilities more fully.   

Analytics are here to stay and they are already being fully embraced by businesses in their day-to-day operations.  As librarians, I don’t think this is a trend where we should be laggardly in our response. The aggregated data we need to drive the analytics will come as a result of the increasing move to cloud computing solutions.   We will need to get over our privacy concerns and give our library members choices in this area.  Plus we need to avail ourselves of the already existing resources that can be utilized or purchased in order to tailor member services (while always giving the member ultimate control over how the data is used).  We need to work through our collaborative organizations to find ways to hire the analytical engineers needed to help us push forward in building new innovative services; services that are pro-active and clearly establish that librarianship has meaning and value for our members by providing information that is authenticated, authoritative, appropriate, with context and without bias.   Analytics will ultimately give us the possibility of building new data-oriented relationships with individuals and groups of new members to benefit them, your library and you as a professional librarian.