How focusing on data can help the Calgary Public Library tackle inequity

·3 min read
The Calgary Public Library wants to focus on how its vast database can underline where there are inequities in the system. (Helen Pike/CBC - image credit)
The Calgary Public Library wants to focus on how its vast database can underline where there are inequities in the system. (Helen Pike/CBC - image credit)

Statistics used to form a story of the library's success, touting the number of visits, or the number of books from the digital and physical collections in circulation. Now, the Calgary Public Library wants to focus on how its vast database can underline where there are inequities in the system to better serve its users.

"We're one of the largest library systems in North America, and we're proud of the impact we have," said Mary Kapusta, director of communications.

"The pandemic has shown us [that] we have to look beyond the big numbers. We have to understand the gaps."

That work is being led by Library Business Analyst Trevor Myers, who is helping the library take advantage of the millions of data points it collects every year.

"I look at the data side, the statistics here at the library, taking that information and trying to add meaning to those big aggregate numbers," Myers said. "I try to contextualize it so that … we can enhance the services that we offer."

Digital circulation exploded with pandemic

On March 15, 2020, when then-Mayor Naheed Nenshi enacted a State of Local Emergency, he said the decision to close Calgary Public Library branches was particularly heartbreaking because they are a lifeline to many in the city.

The effect of the closures was immediate. Many users flooded online for books and movies, and the library quickly adapted and began offering certain services, like storytime for kids, digitally.

"Our digital circulation has exploded," said Kapusta. "Almost 30 per cent of all circulation is digital. But that depends on your devices in your home. That depends on maybe the flexibility in your schedule."

But before the pandemic, some of the system's busiest locations weren't bustling because of book circulation. They were spaces users gathered to study, work on resumes, play cards and get reliable internet access.

So when the pandemic forced locations to close, Myers said those users had nowhere to go — and the data was showing him they didn't make the jump to access services online.

Helen Pike/CBC
Helen Pike/CBC

To address an immediate inequity, the library launched a Chromebook lending program. Pre-pandemic, the laptops had to stay inside library branches, but now users can sign them out and take them home for up to eight weeks. And for those who don't have internet access at home, there's a new WiFi lending service.

"It really speaks to the importance of us targeting specific in-person activities and activation of those spaces in those neighbourhoods," Myers said.

These types of adjustments are because of the data the library has access to. And as Calgary, and the world, falls into a new normal, the library can come out of the pandemic stronger with this new focus.

"As we utilize these data tools, we can get more and more granular," Myers said.

"I can break it down not only by the number of visits at a location, but the number of visits on each day of the year, and average that out to find out that for whatever odd reason, Tuesdays at 11 o'clock are the busiest time for a specific location."

Kapusta said this type of granular information has told the library that teens have been coming back sooner than other library users.

It's told them that some locations, like Signal Hill, are serving more as a place to pop in and grab a hold, whereas branches like Forest Lawn reach capacity every day because of the number of users looking to sit down and stay awhile.

As the system continues to grow with the city, she added, it can tell them where to put what services and open new library branches.

"At the Calgary Public Library our power is that we can reflect the city back to itself, and data is the way to kind of go deeper into that," Kapusta said.

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