What the Numbers Say and Don’t Say

I am not a numbers person. Likely, due to my humanities background, I am unfamiliar with numbers and also suspicious of them. Yet, I find myself constantly thinking about numbers at work. I count: the number of classes I’ve taught, the number of consultations, the number of conferences I’m going to, the number of hours devoted to committees and service, etc. 

I stare at my current numbers and compare them to past and institutional numbers, which I use as a reference point (or in other words, a benchmark). For example, I noticed that the number of classes I’ve taught this year is less than the number taught in years prior. This drop in numbers bothered me. Am I not working hard enough, doing enough outreach, am I not supporting my colleagues enough, am I being a slacker? My goals as a librarian is focused on student learning and engagement, not increasing numbers, but I found it challenging to ignore what the numbers might say.

I think my preoccupation with numbers is somewhat due to the fact that I am a new librarian. I have no frame of reference, as I can’t draw on my previous experience. I do, however, have access to statistics that we gather about classes, workshops, and consultations, which are reported to the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). After every class, consultation, and reference interaction, I diligently enter stats into a form. I record things like how many students participated, the program/college associated with the interaction, and the duration of the interaction. 

While these numbers provide evidence of the work I’ve done in the past 7 months, in many ways they don’t say much. What is counted, documented, and recorded is limited. The statistics don’t capture the time and labour spent on preparing for and reflecting on a class. They don’t capture the often invisible, maintenance work that Veronica Arellano Douglas wrote about recently. While some qualitative information is recorded, the larger context surrounding a consultation, or a student’s learning journey within a class, or my own feelings and experience with a reference interaction is not accounted for. 

I’ve been getting to know and share the context of all these numbers through conversations with colleagues: sharing a quick anecdote from class, describing a new strategy or activity they tried, or discussing what’s been happening at the reference desk in weekly drop-in meetings. Even if these stories aren’t recorded or documented, they’ve given me a lot of insight into the work that’s happening, more so than the numbers have. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about a talk given by Donna Lanclos a couple months ago at my library about open-ended ethnographic research, and the problems of quantifying library work. In the talk, she points to how numbers are increasingly valued more than qualitative data, even though they provide an incomplete picture. Moreover, she mentions how these numbers are frequently used to make institutional decisions.

In fact, the province I’m located in has introduced a new government funding model based on performance metrics. Meaning numbers related to graduation, employability, skills and competencies, and other measurements will become increasingly important. 

I am not interested in librarianship and higher education that is governed solely by numbers. As I’ve gotten more settled into my work, I’ve spent less time worrying about numbers. I have a better idea of the ebbs and flows of an academic year, and I have my own experience to draw on as a guide. I’ve also been jotting down my experiences and reflections more. Currently, a lot of it is ad hoc, on various pages in my agenda, on sticky notes, and on these blog posts! Hopefully, by the time I write my annual report this summer, I’ll have amassed stories and narratives that will help me convey what the number’s don’t say.

One thought on “What the Numbers Say and Don’t Say”

  1. I think there is some benefit to keeping track of previous accomplishments, as without the data it’s hard to set new, achievable goals for the future. I get what you mean by it being frustrating sometimes, but overall knowing your numbers is a good thing.

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