Providing Access to Library Analytics: John McDonald Joins EBSCO to Help Libraries Thrive

Librarianship | June 30, 2017

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The ability to utilize big data and analytics is key for libraries to service their patrons and tell their stories to the community — and to their funders.

One of the major challenges faced by libraries is the inability to collect and analyze their own data. Earlier this month, EBSCO brought John McDonald onboard as Director of Product Management, Analytics and Assessment to help our library partners access information that will improve their decision-making abilities and ultimately, optimize their performance. We sat down with John to hear more about what he’ll be doing in his role and why he’s so passionate about helping libraries thrive.

You have a strong background in academia and library services. What is EBSCO doing that intrigued you and encouraged you to make the move from academia to working for a library vendor?

During my career as an academic librarian, I was always interested in building and maintaining relationships with our vendors. Academic libraries are reliant on their vendor communities to provide services and content, and EBSCO is a large part of that community. I’ve wanted to explore this relationship further for the past year and leverage my strengths in order to help expand the library/vendor relationship. One of my focus areas, and one of the things that I’ve done well while working in academic libraries, is to collect big data and use that data to make decisions. The transition into this role seemed like the perfect next step.

Your role, which is centered on working with libraries to discover opportunities for delivering the best services to their patrons, is part of a larger overall approach for EBSCO. Can you speak to the need for this type of support in academia and libraries?

Libraries need this type of support in order to tell their stories and prove their value to funders. Decision-makers want to know they’re supporting something that provides value to its constituents — students, faculty, researchers, the public. Funders need to know that if they’re investing in library services, they’re investing well. There’s a general perception that libraries are a good investment, but no strong analysis on what that return on investment should be. Decision-makers, funders — they need to have data in order to justify their investment and in a best case scenario, increase it.

As a librarian, what are the core challenges you faced related to analytics and assessment, and what are you most excited to work on at EBSCO?

One of the major challenges I’ve faced in libraries are the variety of different software platforms and information services available. This makes it challenging to collect, collate, and clean up data so it can be analyzed. If libraries don’t have strong interoperability and standardization, they won’t have robust methods for data collection and management, leading to a challenge in building succinct analytical reports. Secondly, since we haven’t had a robust culture of data analytics in the past, not all of our librarians and staff are equipped with skills that are necessary to analyze and visualize data. Vendors like EBSCO can really help with this. If EBSCO can provide services that help librarians collect, manage and store data, librarians will be able to spend more of their time on the fun part of library analytics — reports, analysis and visualizations that help tell their stories.

As we have more refined data on which to base decisions, we can showcase this value in new and better ways. For example, we look to data often to determine if our purchases were the right ones, but we don’t often spend the time understanding the value of what we could have (or should have) brought into our collections.   

As libraries continue to extend their mission to support their users, what can analytics and assessment do to uncover patterns, surface needs and outline solutions?

It really depends on the individual library or institution and its needs. A data point can mean different things to different libraries. Where EBSCO can lend a hand is to help libraries understand where they stand amongst their peers and benchmark their successes, based on data. Do they need to add to their collections, increase their staffing, promote themselves more, improve their interfaces, or update their websites? These are all questions that we can help answer, helping libraries deliver their mission.

Your background includes working at institutions including Caltech, University of Southern California and the Claremont Colleges. How will this experience help support your work at EBSCO?

Because of my experience, I’m fully aware of what libraries need to provide when it comes to reporting big data and the types of questions they may have while compiling these reports. I have a sense of the services and systems that are needed and can really speak their language. My broad perspective can help translate what libraries are asking for and hopefully help bridge the gap of what they should be asking for, especially if they are not aware of what’s possible. I also have some great experience working with my local public library as a trustee, so I understand the challenges that public libraries face.

You seem to have a passion for supporting the field of library services. How does the move to digital (content, services, etc.) impact libraries and academic institutions overall?

Most libraries have nearly completed the transition to digital. This transition makes data collection easy and more straightforward. If you’re providing a resource online rather than in print, it’s far easier to track how many people use it. However, just because we can count something, doesn’t mean we can make sense of its effect on users. That’s where EBSCO can help provide greater insight into the resources and their full range of use. In this position, I’m trying to take a broad perspective and understand how we can not only measure online services, but understand the value of print collections, reference or instruction sessions, and any of the other services provided by libraries. How much money, for example, was spent on books and journals and what was the result? Does the academic library now have more faculty publications, improved student theses, or better grades for students?

Where do you see libraries in five years and what current services or technologies do you believe will influence or drive those changes?

As an industry, libraries are fundamentally behind others in terms of the prevailing technologies that we use to support our institutions, as well as the available data that can be leveraged to maximize library value. As walls dissolve and give way to more open, interoperable technologies and micro-services infrastructure, the future value of libraries will grow. As we have more refined data on which to base decisions, we can showcase this value in new and better ways. For example, we look to data often to determine if our purchases were the right ones, but we don’t often spend the time understanding the value of what we could have (or should have) brought into our collections. As we move forward, we can start to assess not just what was used, but the critical insights into “why” the resources were used and what the outcomes were from that usage. Strong analysis in this fashion can truly show the impact that libraries have on the larger academy — taking us into areas that depict the direct relationship between library usage and improved student or research outcomes.

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