Getting the Most Out of Online Usage Reports

(This article is based on a talk that I gave at this year’s Canadian Association of Law Libraries conference.)

With online services accounting for an ever-increasing percentage of libraries’ budgets, it is important to be able to keep an eye on the usage of these services. Fortunately, a number of these online services offer usage reports. These reports allow the account administrators to get a clearer picture of how these services are used and how to get the most out of them.

Where to get usage reports

The availability of usage reports varies greatly from publisher to publisher, and from product to product. Some services have fairly sophisticated online usage reporting systems which allow you to set up automatically generated reports and to slice-and-dice the data according to your needs (e.g. Quicklaw’s PowerInvoice, Westlaw Canada’s Reporting System). Some products deliver their usage reports as paper printouts or the PDF equivalent. Other products require you to specifically request usage reports from the vendor as they are not automatically generated. Finally there are those services that do not offer usage reports; in order to gauge usage of those services, you either have to rely on self-reporting by the user group or buy a third party service.

Third party services which monitor usage have been growing in popularity. Some of the better known products include iTS OneLog, Research Monitor and Lookup Precision. These products may also integrate password management systems and/or include verification of client/matter numbers.

What information do vendor reports contain?

Again, this varies wildly based on the publisher and the product. Generally these reports contain information on who used the product (assuming that you have set up individual user accounts), how often the product was accessed and how long the access lasted. Some reports may give you more details such as the specific databases used, the IP addresses that were used to access the service, the search terms used, or the number of pages printed.

What can you use this information for?

Recovering costs. For private law firms, a key use for usage reports is to aid in the recovery of costs from clients. For pay-as-you-go services, calculating the costs to be charged back is fairly straightforward. For services where you are paying a “flat fee” which is independent of the actual usage, it can get a bit more complicated. Westlaw Canada and Quicklaw provide what are referred to as “notional charges”; generally these charges are based on what would have been charged if the searches had been done on a pay-as-you-go basis.

When and which costs should be charged back to clients rather than treated as overhead is a separate and complex discussion. Nina Platt has written a very interesting column on precisely this issue: “Cost Recovery of Online Legal Research: When is Overhead NOT Overhead“.

Deciding whether to renew contracts or not. Being able to see if a resource is actually being used and if so how much is important information. While lawyer feedback on a resource is useful, from personal experience I have discovered that there can be quite a difference between self-reported usage and actual usage. A number of online services allow you to add or subtract modules as you see fit; it is important to get the most out of your library budget by paying only for modules that are being used.

Targeting training. It is not unusual for articling students who have had free access to Quicklaw and Westlaw Canada at law school to aggressively use the firm’s databases, sometimes resulting in a very large bill. My firm carries out cost-effective training for all new students but I have found that it also helps to keep an eye on the usage report and, should the numbers start to rise, to gently suggest some one-on-one training. Teaching students to search effectively not only reduces database charges to the client but also reduces the amount of time spent searching.

Marketing the service. For librarians it can be immensely frustrating to have a wonderful resource and see that few people are using it. Usage statistics allow us to see who is using a resource and who isn’t (but ought to); this information allows us to target our marketing efforts at the non-users. Usage reports can also be used as a way of measuring the effectiveness of the marketing for a specific product.

When trying to get the most out of your usage reports, keep in mind that your account representatives are one of your most valuable resources. They can tell you what your options are for a given product and some even offer training on their automated report systems.

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