Evaluation and Statistics


We've discussed problems with defining terms, and we have learned that much effort has been expended into standardizing them. We have also seen that the topics that we've covered---technologies, standards, access, usability, workflow, markets, licensing---are linked in some way. All this complexity makes the measurement of usage that much more complicated. The complication arises when electronic resources (or basically all activity on the web and internet) are accessed from client machines, a computer server somewhere keeps a log of that access. Having logs available makes it seem that we can have accurate data about usage, but it's not a guarantee, and the insight we may glean is always difficult to acquire no matter how much data is available to us.

999.999.999.999 - - [18/Nov/2022:04:40:38 +0000] "GET /index.html HTTP/1.1" 200 494 "-" "Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Ubuntu; Linux x86_64; rv:107.0) Gecko/20100101 Firefox/107.0"

Example web server access log entry, with obfuscated IP address. Simply by visiting a site, the web server is able to log the client's IP address, the timestamp, the page the client requested, the client's operating system type and version, and the client's web browser type and version.

Access log data like above can be good data to explore, but we have to be mindful that all data has limitations, and that there are different ways to define what usage means. For example, the log snippet above indicates that I visited that a page named index.html on that server, but does that mean that I really used that website even though I accessed it? Even if we can claim that I did, what kind of use was it? Can we tell? (We can actually learn quite a lot from web server access logs, and there is software, like Google Analytics, that would be able to collect additional usage data.)

As with other things we have discussed, there have been efforts to standardize electronic resource usage. It's an important process because usage data informs collection development and benefits the library in other ways. Discussions about usage do belong to the domain of electronic resource librarianship, but it also overlaps with other areas of librarianship, such as systems librarianship or collection development. Here we might see job titles like library systems administrator.

Project Counter

Project Counter is the primary attempt to standardize how usage is defined, measured, collected, and shared. It is a Code of Practice that provides informative and consistent reporting of electronic resource usage. From Project Counter:

Since its inception in 2002, COUNTER has been focused on providing a code of practice that helps ensure librarians have access to consistent, comparable, and credible usage reporting for their online scholarly information. COUNTER serves librarians, content providers, and others by facilitating the recording and exchange of online usage statistics. The COUNTER Code of Practice provides guidance on data elements to be measured and definitions of these data elements, as well as guidelines for output report content and formatting and requirements for data processing and auditing. To have their usage statistics and reports designated COUNTER compliant, content providers MUST provide usage statistics that conform to the current Code of Practice.

These reports were designed to solve a problem that will likely never completely be solved, but it's still an important and useful effort. The main goal of Counter is to provide usage reports, and the reports, for version 5 of Counter, cover four major areas:

  • Platforms
  • Databases
  • Titles
  • Items

And you can see which reports these four replace in a table in Appendix B of the Code of Practice.

Counter 5 was designed to include better reporting consistency, better clarity of metrics that measure usage activity, better views of the data, and more. In order to clarify the purpose of Counter, let's review the introduction to the Code of Practice, which articulates the purpose, scope, application, and more of Counter.

Pesch (2017) provides a helpful introduction to the history of Project Counter and the migration from Counter version 4 to version 5. Table 1 in Pesch describes the four major reports. Most of the reports are self-explanatory. Database, Title, and Item reports cover what they describe, but Platform reports might be less obvious. These reports include usage metrics at the broadest level and of things like EBSCOhost databases, ProQuest databases, SAGE resources, Web of Science databases, and so on. These reports come into play when users/patrons search in the overall platform but not in any single database provided by the platform. For example, UK Libraries subscribes to the ProQuest Databases and for us, that includes 35 primary databases. Users can search many at the same time or search any single one. The same holds for platforms like EBSCOhost, Web of Science, and others. This is the platform level.

Scott (2016) illustrates a nice use case for how Counter reports can inform collection development. We've addressed the Big Deal packages that more libraries are trying to move away from because such deals often include access to titles that are not used or not relevant to a library community. Here Scott shows that it might be possible to avoid subscribing to some services using this data, but it's also important to closely read through and understand the problems associated with interlibrary loan, the metrics, and other limitations described in the Conclusion section of this article.

The Value of Metrics

We move away from Project Counter with the Stone and Ramsden (2013). I introduce this article because it highlights how metrics can be used to assess the value of a library, which is often underestimated by administration but constantly required in order to garner the resources needed to improve or sustain a library's resources. Here Stone and Ramsden investigate the correlation (not causation) between library usage and student retention. Increasing the latter is the Holy Grail of college and universities. If this were a public library report, it might be interesting to see how well electronic library usage correlates to continued usage and how such a correlation might result in various outcomes defined by the library. One nice thing about the Stone and Ramsden article is that it does not depend on quantitative metrics alone but supports its findings through qualitative research. There's only so much a usage metric can say.

Using Metrics

I would like you to be aware of the code{4}lib journal and this article by Zou is pretty cool. Although this article overlaps with some security issues, a topic that we'll cover in the final section, the article also provides a way of thinking outside the box about the metrics that you have access to as an electronic resource librarian. Here, Zou describes a process of taking EZproxy logs (compare the example entry with the web server entry I included above) and turning them into something useful and dynamic by incorporating some additional technologies. Recall that EZproxy is software that authenticates users and provides access given that authentication. We use EZproxy at UK whenever we access a paywalled journal article. That is, you've noticed the ezproxy.uky.edu string in any URL for a journal that you've accessed via UK Libraries' installation of EZproxy, and the URL https://login.ezproxy.uky.edu/login is the log in URL. Zou specifically references the standard way of analyzing these logs (take a look at the page at that link), which can be insightful and helpful, but Zou's method makes the analysis of these logs more visual and real-time. The main weakness with Zou's method is that it seems to me to be highly dependent on Zou doing the work. If Zou leaves their library, then this customized analysis might not last. Still, it's good to know that if you have an interest in developing skills with systems administration, with various other technologies, and with some basic scripting language, this kind of thing, and more, is possible.

Getting Creative

Smith & Arneson (2017) detail very creative and fun ways to collect usage data about resource usage when vendors do not provide usage data. In the first part of this article, Smith describes how they analyzed their link resolver reports to infer what users were accessing in their collections. Arneson's section describes using a Linux file search utility called grep to construct search queries of the EZproxy logs and deduce usage of specific electronic resources. Since both methods require sifting through log entries like the one I highlighted above, the process requires some sleuthing, testing, time, and patience. However, once figured out, the process and reports can easily be automated.


Librarians used a variety of techniques to collect usage data in the print era, but like many things we've learned about, electronic resources have complicated things. First, because more data is available about usage with electronic resources, before that data can be used, it has to be defined. Project Counter is an attempt to define what usage means and how to report it.

Quantitative metrics should will never be able to provide a complete picture of how a library's collections are used, but they are an important part. Not only do they help librarians manage their collections, they also help librarians show proof of their collection's importance to their communities. Furthermore, with a little skill, practice, and creativity, usage logs can also be used to build cool apps (Zou, 2015) or help fill in the gaps when vendors fall short in their requirements (Smith & Arneson, 2017).

Readings / References

Pesch, O. (2017). COUNTER Release 5: What’s New and What It Means to Libraries. The Serials Librarian, 73(3–4), 195–207. https://doi.org/10.1080/0361526X.2017.1391153

Scott, M. (2016). Predicting Use: COUNTER Usage Data Found to be Predictive of ILL Use and ILL Use to be Predictive of COUNTER Use. Serials Librarian, 71(1), 20–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/0361526X.2016.1165783

Stone, G., & Ramsden, B. (2013). Library impact data project: Looking for the link between library usage and student attainment. College & Research Libraries, 74(6). http://doi.org/10.5860/crl12-406

Zou, Q. (2015). A novel open source approach to monitor Ezproxy Users’ activities. code{4}lib Journal, 29. http://journal.code4lib.org/articles/10589

Smith, K., & Arneson, J. (2017). Determining usage when vendors do not provide data. Serials Review, 43(1), 46–50. https://doi.org/10.1080/00987913.2017.1281788