Q&A: Nielsen BookData and Amy Stubbing talk Libraries and Data Driven Decisions

Data appears to be everywhere, but it isn't always easy to work out how best to use it. Nielsen BookData, the experts in data, are running a CILIP recognised short course for librarians to help harness the power of data, and they asked Amy Stubbing, author of Data Driven Decisions, some questions about data, libraries, and her new book!


Nielsen: It's great to meet someone as passionate about using data as we are! What first sparked your interest in data?

Amy: Necessity! I definitely never had an innate love for data or maths, not did I think of myself as particularly good with numbers. My first role (after my graduate traineeship) was at a school library. When I was there I noticed how little senior management knew about the library, and I felt that the library could be used in a different way to engage students more. So, I started my data journey by pulling together a report on how the library was currently used. From there, I starting looking into what we could change based on this data. And the rest is history! 


Nielsen: Did you have any training or do a course on data before you started using it? 

Amy: No, I dove in completely green - which in hindsight made things much more difficult than they needed to be at the start! 

When I moved into my next role I needed to make use of much more complicated data, so that's when I started watching online videos and courses on how to use Excel better and make better use of data. I was also very lucky to be surrounded by a few other data lovers (Helen Rimmer and David Morgan in particular) who were able to help me build my skills when I needed to get really creative. 


Nielsen: In your current role at the University of Westminster what sources of data do you rely on the most and why?

Amy: That's a great question!

I'm currently trying to review our data and build up a fuller picture to understand how our service is being used and how to continue developing the excellent teaching service provided by my team. As you'll see in my book, Data Driven Decisions, building up a full picture using data can take a long time, so I imagine I'll be working towards this for a while! Currently the key data I'm interested in is enquiry data, statistics on teaching, usage data on our resources, and feedback from users and staff. Moving forward, I'm really keen to see if we can collect data to understand the impact of our services on student outcomes - but that's a much bigger project. 


"The idea of using data and having to make use of Excel and other programmes is something many people do not see themselves as able to do or learn."



Nielsen: Your book, Data Driven Decisions, is a simple guide to using data to make decisions. In your experience do you think people are reluctant or put off using data? And if so, why?

Amy: I think there's absolutely a reluctance to use data (as a general rule) across the profession. The main reason in my experience is people are scared of data. The idea of using data and having to make use of Excel and other programmes is something many people do not see themselves as able to do or learn. And, admittedly, when I started out with data and started trying to get other colleagues using data I definitely found that the training materials available made it seem much more complicated and inaccessible than it actually was. 

I think there's also a fear of what using data for decision making means. I think for some people there's a feeling that data will replace human input or understanding, but really it's about having data alongside our intuition. And sometimes data tells us our gut feeling is wrong - which we need because gut feelings can often stop us moving forward when we need to. 


Nielsen: For someone just starting to use data, what are your top tips? Or what would be your one piece of advice?

Amy: Oh gosh, there's so much. The key tips that jumped into my head right now:

  • Start by doing some reading and watching some training on getting started with data
  • Make a plan. Identify what you want to use data for and what data you actually need. This will give you some clear steps to work through and that will help ground the work you're doing. 
  • Save everything! And make sure you use clear naming conventions. This tip comes from bitter experience. 

If I'm dropping in an unsolicited fourth tip, I'd say allow yourself time and space to get things wrong. That's how you learn. With all the new tools and techniques you'll need to make use of data then this is a particularly important part of the process of becoming data literate. 


Nielsen: What do you feel is your biggest achievement when it comes to using data?

Amy: Probably this toolkit! 

I have used data to help plan service decisions, staffing models and patterns, and map services for the future, all of which felt like big achievements at the time. But, I think the real achievement with data is putting it in place and being able to use it, as eventually understanding the outcomes just becomes part of the routine. 

So, creating the toolkit for me feels like the culmination of this, as hopefully I can help many services get to that point. 


"If everyone is fighting for more resources and funding, being able to shout about what we're doing well and back that up with really strong data is vital."


Nielsen: What benefits do you think using a data driven approach has had on the libraries you've worked in?

Amy: It's definitely helped us to make better use of our resources. It's also helped us decide how to deploy resources as needed. I would say there's a universal understanding of the pinch on resources (of all kinds) at the moment in the information professional world and universitites more generally, so being able to understand where resources are needed, how to use them best, and be able to argue for more is invaluable. 

Another key benefit has been helping to highlight our strengths. This is so important, particularly for ensuring that best practice can be emulated, and for growing our services. If everyone is fighting for more resources and funding, being able to shout about what we're doing well and back that up with really strong data is vital. 


Nielsen: Last year we ran a Data Driven Librarianship programme with CILIP to explain how our data can be used to inform library decision making and we had some great feedback. What do you think can be done, or needs to be done, to improve data literacy for current and future librarians?

Amy: I think we need to show that data can be accessible and can be harnessed by anyone. 

A lot of training jumps over some of the basics and can be guilty of assuming knowledge, or overwhelming with jargon. I think as trainers and as data literate individuals, it's our responsibility to make data easier to engage with. I hope that my book will be a tool which can help people who are completely new to data feel confident in using it, and help those who are already confident teach colleagues at different levels of literacy. 


Amy Stubbing has had a varied career across different sectors, and has held roles in areas including collection management, customer services, and library management. She is currently Academic Engagement Lead at University of Westminster where she is responsible for strategic planning and development of the learning support provision for the university, including academic liaison and academic learning development. Previous roles include Campus Library Manager at University of East London, and the Library Customer Care Collections Coordinator at Royal Holloway University.

Amy's interest in data and using it to inform service decisions and developments to improve user experience has been a core part of her career. She has a particular passion for developing data literacy and embedding data practices into all decision making, which led to her developing her Data Driven Decisions toolkit for libraries. She has worked with numerous university libraries to begin working towards embedding a culture of data-driven decisions, and has used her varied experience of teaching data literacy to further develop her toolkit, culminating in this book.

Get a copy of Data Driven Decisions


Dark green background with white text that reads CILIP recognised course on Data-Driven Librarianship Powered by Nielsen BookData with the CILIP and Nielsen logos underneath

Last year Nielsen BookData introduced a Data-Driven Librarianship course, curated for librarians and recognised by CILIP. This course, which includes 3 webinars, is designed to help librarians develop a greater understanding of metadata and the data elements available to libraries to better understand their users and inform their decision-making on buying and stock selection. In 2022, Nielsen BookData are running free top up webinars on Research (May) and Metadata (September), find out how you can continue to develop your data-driven skills and take part in the course here