Virginia’s Newport News Public Library System (NNPLS) launched StatBase, an open-source usage statistics program that enables libraries to track and visualize data on circulation, patron registration, door counts, reference, acquisitions, instructor-led courses, and more. The application is available as a free download on SourceForge.
“We had a strong need to change the way that we did our data gathering in order to get better results and more visible outputs,” said Alexandria Payne, digital services manager for NNPLS and project manager for StatBase. “It’s a system-wide effort that probably affects every staff member. For that volume of work, we just felt that our 20-year legacy of spreadsheets wasn’t cutting it anymore.”
As with many libraries, usage data plays an essential role in the allocation of resources at NNPLS, as well as in discussions with stakeholders regarding funding and other issues. But spreadsheets, while adequate for tracking data, offered limited visualization tools for spotting trends or building narratives around those trends for stakeholders. Businesses and academic libraries might use commercial business analytics software suites, such as SPSS and SAS, to manage data, but Payne noted that institutional subscriptions for those products are expensive.
“There are very sophisticated options out there, but we knew right off the bat that the cost and the maintenance of those resources would be a little bit more than we could probably handle,” Payne said. “We wanted something small, something simple.”
After a “casual overview” of the market, NNPLS decided that there were no products that met its needs for both long-term affordability and simplicity. Facing a pressing need to streamline data collection workflow for staff and provide NNPLS leadership with better visualization tools, Payne, along with usability specialist John Curtis and developer Vanessa Carpenter, began developing StatBase in the summer of 2011. Later, after Carpenter left NNPLS, the team was joined by developer James Messimer.
“We wanted the ability to heavily customize and make it relevant for us as a small public library rather than as a large organization,” Payne said.
The group began by analyzing the pros and cons of three open-source content management systems (CMS) including WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla. They decided that WordPress would have the lowest learning curve for staff, but was better suited to blogging than data transport, and might have faced scalability limitations. Drupal was much more powerful, but would have presented more of a development challenge for the small team. Ultimately, they decided that Joomla was a happy medium, offering better flexibility and scalability than WordPress, while posing fewer complications than Drupal.
“We knew we wanted a scalable, open-source architecture with a WAMP [Windows operating system, Apache web server, MySQL database, and PHP scripting language] framework, because that’s something that we all had expertise in, and we knew we could support fairly easily in house with limited resources,” Payne said. “The framework and the CMS that met all of our core criteria and gave us extensive flexibility through contributor modules was Joomla.”
The team gave themselves one year to get a beta version up and running, and managed to meet their goal, with Payne, Carpenter, and Curtis working independently on the project whenever they had time, and also meeting together for at least 90 minutes each week for a year. StatBase launched for trial and internal use at NNPLS in July 2012, and after the library beta tested the system through 2012 and 2013, StatBase debuted in public release on SourceForge in late March of this year for other libraries to use.
StatBase features customizable, web-based data entry forms that libraries can use to track data at multiple branch locations, along with visualization tools that make it easy to convert that data into a variety of charts and graphs. The system can also ingest or export data from Microsoft Excel. And unlike NNPLS’s old spreadsheet system, multiple users can work within StatBase at once. StatBase also offers user permissioning by login or branch, should a system wish to limit what individuals or branches can input or view.
Payne is hoping that other developers within the library field take advantage of StatBase’s open source license and pick up where NNPLS leaves off, creating new modules for the library community and customizing the program to fit their needs.
“We developed this resource for us internally, but there’s only so much that you can dedicate to it before you have to kind of wrap it up in a bow and say ‘this is all we’re going to put into it,’” in terms of development and expansion, Payne said. “We really felt like it held strong promise for other organizations, and if other organizations could get a head start, and get a malleable tool that would give them the flexibility to be creative and be responsive, we really felt like the community would embrace it, and we hope that it will.”