While Reference Stats Decline, Oregon surges +51%. A glimpse at some ARL outliers

December 18, 2008, 12:29 pm

I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers this week and it is a great book… but I like all his stuff. The section on Asian students and math/work ethic is really good and I really liked his analysis on sports and age limit deadlines. There is also some good parenting advice in there as well.

Anyway, my colleague Jon Bodnar and I are working on a handful of writing projects and this theme of outliers started to standout for me. We are currently processing a ton of ARL stats and I became very interested in the idea of who is outperforming the overall trends. This post is in no why authoritative, statistically valid, or what have you—just something I found interesting and that wanted to share. Jon’s office is right beside mine and so we’ve been discovering these types of epiphanies all week long.  It has been a good week.

Reference Questions
Overall the trend is downward. Nothing new here, we’ve all been hearing that for years. When you look at 1995 to 2005 the ARL average drops about 47%. That is a lot fewer questions!

Ah, but not at Oregon. The Ducks report a +51% increase in reference queries during this time period. Interesting, but why? Did they add service points? Did they renovate or change the layout? Did they alter the way they record stats? I am sure there are many variables, but I just found it fascinating that while everyone else declined they surged so much.

Other Reference Outliers:

  • Columbia (+46%)
  • Toronto (+40%)
  • Washington (+38%)
  • Cincinnati  (+36)

There were a total of 12 libraries that saw an increase during this period, the other 83 saw a decline.
NOTE: Not all member libraries provided data.

Total Circulation
Total circulation is another area that has seen an overall decline. From 1995 – 2005 the average total circ count per ARL library is down 11%. Not bad really. The steepest drop is -68%, but overall -11% seems decent. I would have suspected about -30 or -40%, but what do I know? One think I do know is that patrons at Ohio State love to borrow books! During this same period OSU saw a +110% increase in circulation. I didn’t believe it at first but visited their website to double check—indeed it is true. So again, why? They have been building a new library for years, but I would think that would hurt circulation. Are they circulating more DVDs? More reserves? Why are they busting the overall trend? That is a substantial increase!

Other Circulation Outliers:
Columbia (+66%)
Harvard (+59%)
Southern Illinois (+52%)
Utah (+40%)

There were a total of 32 libraries that saw an increase during this period, the other 73 saw a decline.
NOTE: Not all member libraries provided data.

Last but not least: instruction. ARL asks for groups as well as total participants involved with instruction. My feeling is that there is some inconsistency here. I mean, do you only count classroom sessions? What about orientations? What about tours?  This is very subjective. If I help four students working together on an assignment does that count as a group or is that four reference queries?  Maybe both? Or maybe just one query? In other words, take this section with a grain of salt. I doubt all 100+ libraries are following the same counting practices.

From 1995 to 2005 there has been a significant rise with instruction or at least in attendance.  The stat for “presentation participants” went up +40%. That’s huge.

And who saw the largest increase? Toronto with +392%. That’s right they taught just over 6,000 students in 1996 and then reached over 30,000 in 2005. Texas gets the top honor for most participants in 2005 with 61,042, but how did Toronto surge so much in such a short time? What’s the story? Did they get new classrooms? More librarians? A change in the curriculum?

Yale was another top outlier with a +361% increase. In 2005 they had over 10,000 people participate in instruction sessions— that is pretty good for a school with just 5,300 undergraduates.
In fact, there were 22 libraries that saw triple digital percentage increases during this 10 year period. Only 19 schools saw a decrease with instruction, while the bulk was somewhere between 20% and 90%. Here is a quick trend line:

So again that question: why did Toronto (+392), Yale (+361), Boston (+276), Columbia (+259), and Emory (+227) pull far ahead of everyone else? Did these organizations decide to really push instruction? Did the faculty really embrace information literacy? Did they all start counting the ten minute overviews that librarians give at new student orientation events as “instructional” sessions? Who knows? Columbia ended up in the top five of all three catagories– why? Why them instead of Cornell or Harvard or Wisconsin or UCLA?

As I mentioned, Jon and I are hacking at some data that really has nothing to do with this topic— this is my tangent. I just find it incredibly fascinating to look at the data and piece together stories. Gladwell of course would go three levels deeper and rationalize what happened at each place and could tell us why Columbia was so successful. I am just aiming for an entertaining winter break blog post.

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