Sunday, 7 December 2014

"Not everything that can be counted counts,

and not everything that counts can be counted." [Einstein]

Statistics are bread-and-butter to politicians, and public servants spend a lot of time accumulating them. Many pages in Annual Reports of governments and businesses are devoted to the numbers illustrating that they are still worthy of investment. While they are not that straight-forward to find, they are always dutifully made available as part of accountability and transparency requirements, and frequently updated tallies are always a pleasure to report to keen constituencies.
The Libraries Australia service hosted by the National Library has reported its growth, in a very similar format, for more than 30 years.

However, with the advent of Trove, a new approach was developed to put statistics directly into the hands of people contributing to the service.

Statistics are often the last functional component of a new service to be developed, so this outcome was a breakthrough for public accountability. They are generated regularly, they are easy to locate and use, and they keep tabs on the exchange between Trove and an individual or an agency, especially useful for those maximising Trove for their own productivity.

However, this ease also seemed to mean that the statistics could be ignored by those who might derive some value from them. Parliament still prefers a one-size-fits-all model: number of visits to the website,, p.43

not how a service might make a difference to the lives of Australians.

It was bemusing therefore to read the recent article by Jeff Kennett describing the importance of art: "People will always argue over any money spent on the arts, and insist it would have been better spent on education, health or some other service that already receives billions of dollars in annual recurrent expenditure. But I have always argued that you cannot have a cosmopolitan city without it having a strong cultural heart. That heart includes all forms of art, music, dance, theatre, architecture, sculpture and, importantly, colleges and places of learning." About the new art for Sydney, he went on to say "Sydney will be a better place for these three installations, and if they can encourage just one citizen to pursue an artistic career the sculptures will have done their job." Weekend Australian, August 2-3, 2014, p.8.

$million of dollars = three outstanding works of art = one citizen?

Is that a good return on investment? Do those statistics illustrate a difference has been made? Fortunately it isn't 'an economic measure'. While this expenditure on art is not begrudged at all, what about library services, created in Australia, which reach out to millions every day? Services which provide culture, heritage and learning to 'ropolitan, rural, regional, remote Australians equally, currently having their government funding reduced so that they need to seek dollars in other ways.

This year, the government funded an Innovation Study of Australian Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums. It made only one mention of the increase in productivity encouraged by the heritage sector. [p.22] A lost opportunity?

Here's a self-measured statistic about Trove: "What five years ago was a month-long project at the State Library (if you could get a microfilm reader before everyone else) is now literally a five-minute exercise from home and an extra hour enables you to find and link information on a scale that could never previously have been imagined." Trove Evaluation Survey. [p.4]

Does it also measure:
  • proactive use of the NBN
  • reduced stress on transport infrastructure
  • saving of funds expended on depreciating government equipment
  • redirection of librarianship skills and resources to more meaningful work?
Trove has not yet reached its boundaries for growth. Make sure to keep using it, so its value continues to be counted as part of the rich heritage and productivity of the nation,
even if that value is only measured in the ever growing visits to the National Library's website. 


This entry marks the day 34 years ago when I became a full-time public servant, but I am no longer counting.