Using GIS to Improve Library Services

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Want to know more about your library users? Map it! By harnessing geospatial information, you can learn more about your patrons and their library use habits in ways that can help you make decisions about everything from collection development to library space design to outreach services. You can also learn more about your own professional habits, as well as the habits of your colleagues.

Consider the following:

Where are your library users coming from?

Are most of them using the library due to proximity to the library (e.g. campus/community residence, classroom or cafeteria)? Gate counts don’t cut it here. Instead, depending on your library and/or campus, Facebook check-ins can provide some information. You can also draw conclusions from patron statistics or through patron surveys. By mapping where they’re coming from, this type of information can help you plan for outreach services. Who aren’t you reaching?

Are there location trends in the items your patrons check out?

For example, do items in convenient locations get the most circulation (e.g. displays, inside end of stack units, middle shelves vs top or bottom shelves)? Understanding these trends will help you make strategic decisions about such things as displays, shelf labeling, shelf organization and general library user-friendliness. You do need to create a catalog mapping system for this to work though. Check out what the Wayne State Library System did (to benefit their patrons).

How does your reference data map to the library collection (digital and physical)? How does it map to populations served?

This information gives you insight into both library staff and library user behavior, and can help drive decisions on ways to provide and/or improve reference services. For example, you might discover a need for more staff training or awareness of useful, but underutilized library sources. Or you might find that reference service is failing to reach certain populations that would benefit from it (e.g. specific department faculty). Who aren’t you serving through reference? Are there any unmet reference needs?

GIS is broad and complex and has a place in an enormous number of disciplines. But, if you are familiar with tools such as Access and Excel, jumping in isn’t so difficult. I see GIS tools as very useful in library analytics for analyzing, supporting, and improving  library services.

Mapping resources:

How Well Do You Know Your Students? How Well Do They Know You?

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This past week, I came across an article in The Atlantic that discussed a recent study about the importance of student-teacher relationships. When students and teachers find out they share interests in common, the entire educational experience improves.That got me thinking about the impact of librarian-student relationships on library and research skills.

How well do you know your students? Do they know you? From my own experience, I suspect there is quite a bit of room for improvement in that area.

This is what I know. When I asked my daughter about the librarian at her elementary school, she said, “you mean that lady who reads us stories?” Now that she’s in middle school, I’ve asked her about the librarian there. She doesn’t know the librarian’s name, she is not even sure what the librarian looks like (“is it the lady that checks out my books?”). This coming from the daughter of a librarian. This is not good.

I also know this. In my experience working as an academic librarian, the protocol for librarian-student interactions tended to be very business oriented. Not a lot of small talk. Even then, instinct and observation told me that was not a good thing. I always admired the way the circulation staff chatted up the students. Guess where the students tended to go to ask reference questions? Not the reference desk! I think the students were less intimidated to approach the circulation desk because of that friendliness.

I wonder, if librarians took the time to make small talk with students, were less business as usual, less “lecture-y” (there’s always that one librarian that enjoys the soap box), would more students be compelled to ask for help when they need it? Would they become more information literate as a result? This would make for an interesting research study. If it turns out that a correlation does exist — that librarian-student relationships play a central role in both literacy and information literacy development — then the entire trajectory of library space design might be turned upside down. It might even serve as a compelling argument to keep old library traditions, like the reference desk (alone or in combination with other service desks).