Invisible Patrons Haunting Our Libraries!

No, not ghosts.  (If your library has ghosts: pictures, please!)  I’m talking about our 2 A.M. visitors: the procrastinators, dedicated researchers, and ‘just checking’ types.

Back in the day, the library’s doors were the only point of entry to information held in the collection.   Now, with the Internet, the Google machine, and a new wave of digital natives, the game has been rewritten.  The library’s humble website has become a portal and a powerful marketing tool for invisible users, and patron services means something altogether new.

Sitting on the desk, we don’t see these ghostly inhabitants of our library’s virtual stacks.  We want to get the word out about our services, but how can we chat with someone that never comes into the library? How can we make sure that our hard work on webpages and online guides is helping patrons?

Data! Data! and more data!  There are free applications out there that will:

1.)  Track users accessing your website, and

2.) Provide information about user location, time spent on a page, and lots of other goodies, and

3.) Analyze this data to help draw a bigger picture for anyone responsible for the look, feel, and content of the website.

This is no small thing.  This data can help you make decisions about browser compatibility, tell you which pages are being viewed most often, let you know where your users are accessing the site from, and more.  Many of these applications offer customizable reports, and some offer wonderful visual tools like graphs, charts, and maps showing usage in different ways.  (Great for pitching changes or updates to others!)  There are many different services that require minimal start-up; at its most basic, a tracking code is embedded in the website pages, and the analytics program will then track those pages.  (Oftentimes, we don’t have code-level access to websites, but contact your webmaster about installation.)

There are a few options for free analytic applications that I found while digging for this post:

1.) Piwik: open source, hosted on your web server.  (All your data belong to you!)  Tracks users, clicks; has maps, graphs, charts.

2.) Sitemeter: housed on Sitemeter’s servers.  Tracks details for the last 100 users (up to 4,000 with a paid account), domain names, IP addresses, browser, visit length and more.  For a tour, click here.

3.) Google Anaytics: housed on Google’s servers and they own statistics pulled from your site.  Tracks users, clicks; has maps, graphs, bounce rates, charts.  Saves data over long periods of time for comparison reports.

My institution is using Google Analytics right now.  With no endorsement of Google implied, here are some screen shots of my faculty services blog page:

A chart of number of views during the last 30 days by source.

There are a lot of neat ways to play with this information: matching up class schedules with number of views (Vacation and bridge sessions* are always light.), seeing what type of browsers people are using, figuring out where people are accessing information from (Someone in Australia was viewing a newsletter I’d posted! Who knew!), and watching the number of ‘returning visitors’ grow.

Different data options for viewing

My blog is new to the world, and its numbers are low.  But it is inspiring to track its progress and growth using analytics, to put up a post and see what happens, and to watch the bounce rate decrease over time.

The ability to make changes based on usage statistics and to compare ‘where we were’ to ‘where we are’ empowers me to make better decisions about the library’s faculty services web presence.  It adds to the larger picture of the habits, needs, and preferences of the patron group and optimizes a transitory interaction.

Although not the face-to-face contact we are used to, our invisible patrons let their opinions be known through a series of mouse clicks, and, in many ways, their preferences are made visible once more using analytics.

[*Bridge session: short class session between fall and spring semesters for upper class members.  Often a one credit course.]

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