Behind the data at the library

I’m a big fan of Cambridge’s Central Library, and I particularly like the fact that it’s still open when I’m on my way home from work. So I was concerned to see that the County Council are proposing to close it an hour earlier, as a cost-cutting measure. Their consultation, which closed about a week ago, asked whether it would be better to open an hour later instead. It’ll be interesting to see what the results are, but I thought it would also be interesting to have a look at what time of day people are using the library at the moment.

I put in a Freedom of Information request using mySociety’s excellent WhatDoTheyKnow site, and in due course got back a lot of data, which I’ve done a bit of analysis on. At the moment the library’s opening hours are:

  • Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
  • Wednesday: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., staying open an hour later than usual. Wednesday is late night shopping in Cambridge, with many shops in the city centre open until 8 p.m.
  • Saturday: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., closing an hour earlier than most weekdays
  • Sunday: 12 noon to 4 p.m.

Here’s how the pattern of use looks at the moment. This graph shows the number of items checked out in each hour of the day, for each day of the week. This is from September 2009 when the library reopened after refurbishment, up to the end of May 2011. There were over 780,000 items checked out in this period. (Click the graph to see it full size.)

As you can see, Saturday is the busiest day by some way. On weekdays, things don’t really get busy until about 11:00, and they tail off a bit in the afternoons. Sunday is pretty busy too, particularly towards closing time. But what I really wanted to know was, how does the first hour of each day compare to the last hour? Should the library be opening later, or closing earlier? Are there more early birds hammering on the door first thing in the morning, or more people like me, nipping in just before closing time?

The Council’s proposal is to close an hour earlier on Monday to Saturday, keeping the same hours on Sunday. The alternative is to open an hour later Monday to Saturday. So here’s a comparison of the number of items checked out in the first and last hours of opening on each of those days.

Overall, it’s a big win for the last hour. Only on Monday are there more items checked out in the first hour of the day. It’s quite close on Wednesday, when evening opening means the final hour is 7 to 8 p.m. But Tuesday, Thursday and Friday have comfortable majorities for the last hour, and it’s a landslide on Saturday – nearly three items checked out in the last hour for each one in the first hour.

Of course, there are some caveats: not everyone who visits the library checks something out; people probably tend to check items out towards the end of their visit; the pattern of use may vary seasonally, and may have changed since the library reopened. But even so, I think this is pretty compelling evidence that opening later would be better than closing earlier.

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6 Responses to Behind the data at the library

  1. Did you get any data about items checked in as well as checked out? My son & I usually check items in on arrival, browse, and then check out, but all of that activity will generally be after 6pm on a weekday. Due to my job, it will be difficult for us to get to the library before 6pm on weekdays. I have other things to do on Wednesdays, and weekends are often taken up with family commitments so having a regular “library day” is not going to be possible if they close earlier.

    It’s also going to make it more likely I incur fines for late return. Yes I can renew online, but if someone else requests the item renewal is not permitted: this happens to me fairly frequently at the moment, but that’s ok because we have a regular library day and I can get there after work.

    In the long-term, closing earlier will probably result in my son & I dropping out of using the library at all.

  2. Phil Rodgers says:

    I do have data for returns as well, but there are about 50% more of these (1,185,856 returns versus 786,601 issues). According to the notes, this is because they include “automated batch processes run by staff for stock processing, and there is no way to disaggregate these from the figures”. So the time-of-day breakdown for the returns data probably isn’t very reliable – though I admit I’m rationalising a bit here, since the data do show more activity in the first hour of opening on weekdays compared to the last hour before closing.
    The main problem with the earlier closing is that it’s going to have a particularly bad impact on people like you & me who can’t get to the library during normal working hours. Losing the 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. slot instead would surely have a less bad effect on the people who currently use the library then, since they’re less likely to be as constrained in the times they can visit.
    I think my next FOI request will be to ask what, if any Equality Impact Assessment (http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/council/policies/equality/impact/) the council has done for the proposed changes.

  3. Richard J says:

    The interesting question is what happens to the people using the library during the hours that it is proposed it will be closed in future. Will the people using it 0900-1000 change to a different time or will they simply not use the library as much?

    Was there any point in the period for which you have data when the opening hours were different?

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