I am taking an amazing course this summer at Simmons SLIS called Library Test Kitchen. It’s a version of a course that has been offered at the Harvard Design School. I am working on a project that I’ll be excited to share later this year, but today I want to talk about another course topic: the story of statistics. Librarians keep all sorts of statistics. We’re good at it. And we use those statistics to demonstrate our worth, to track our growth, create programs, and to influence our purchasing decisions. The problem, especially with those last two, is that, without understanding the story behind the statistics, we might make mistakes in our decisions. For example, if you are a public librarian who offers an Anime club and it’s your most popular program, you might think your collection and your programming should include more anime. But what if the most popular program for your community is actually one you are not offering?
In terms of circulation statistics, it’s always interesting to take a look at the top circulating items. I worked at two schools this year. Minecraft ruled at both of them. In one, Diary of a Wimpy Kid books took 5 of the remaining top ten slots, while Mo Willems had a similar monopoly at the other school. It would be really easy for me to read these statistics and say, “More funny, more comics-style, and forget the rest.” But if I did that, I would be missing a big part of the story. I was curious if Diary of a Wimpy Kid was really the most popular. That is, did those check outs cover the majority of my total check outs. The answer was no. I decided to look at one school’s fiction circulations. I added up the total number of books that circulated just once or two times, the total number of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Big Nate circulations, and then subtracted the total of these to get the number of circs that fell somewhere in between. Graphed as percentages, it looks like this:
Books in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series made up ten percent of my total circulations. That’s a lot! But see what’s more: the total of individual titles that each circulated only one time (22%). Essentially, for every circulation of a Wimpy Kid book, two other books also circulated. That’s two other readers reached. If I said, “My kids like funny books with simple comic drawings,” then that would be true, but it would also be missing everything else that they like. And if I ignore that in my purchasing decisions, then I am missing those readers.
Librarians have a responsibility to buy what is popular, but we also have a responsibility to purchase books that will connect with a smaller number of readers. The story of the numbers is that those books, grouped together, actually reach more readers. It always makes me sad to see books dismissed because “Kids don’t like XYZ,” or “Boys won’t read books like that.” That’s reading the story of the data without any nuance or details. It’s the sound bite or headline, not the whole story. Worst of all, it’s dismissive of kids, whose tastes are varied and wide and who are capable of liking all sorts of books as long as those books are offered to them.