Just about every week, Abe Alk steps up to the circulation desk at St. Paul's Rondo Library with a big stack of movies. Documentaries are his favorite.
"I have learned a lot of history from libraries, because sometimes I get like 12 DVDs," he said. "So I am probably [their] No. 1 user."
Alk has been coming to this library since he moved to St. Paul three years ago. But the library knows almost nothing about him — probably just his name, his address and his birthday.
Library director Kit Hadley says that lack of data has left her with lots of unanswered questions: "Are we seeing more activity around households with children and children's literature? Are we seeing more activity in higher income neighborhoods versus lower-income neighborhoods and what can we do about that?"
St. Paul Public Library plans to start testing new software to help find some answers. The program connects the data libraries have — like addresses — to other databases. It then creates a demographic profile of patrons. Hadley says new information will give her a better idea of who's using the library and who isn't.
"The reason we want to do this is so we can better get out information, communicate in different ways to different audiences depending on their interests and to affect our programming in a way that's more responsive to people in the city," Hadley said. The data mining application, called Analytics on Demand, will cost St. Paul about $20,000 a year. Gale, a company that specializes in library software, launched application a year ago.
David Ziembiec is overseeing the rollout for Gale. Libraries, he said, are trying to understand who uses their services, because media consumers have so many other choices today.
"There are a lot of competitors, so to speak, in the marketplace. You've probably got to work a little bit harder to get that message out amongst all the noise," Ziembiec said.
About 70 library systems around the country have signed up to use the program so far. St. Paul would be the first one in Minnesota.
In Missouri, the St. Louis Public Library started using Analytics on Demand last year at the urging of its marketing director. Cathy Heimberger used to work for the pet grooming product manufacturer FURminator, and she was used to knowing everything about her customers.
"I knew their level of education," she said. "I knew their income. I could tell what political campaign they would vote for most likely. I know what colors resonated with them. We were just very intimate with our customer and our demographic."
Even with the new software, Heimberger can't get to that level of detail on library patrons, but she knows a lot more than she used to. She knows that people in their 20s and early 30s are using the library in higher numbers than expected, while low-income residents are under-represented.
"It seems, in one instance, the very population that could benefit the most from us right now is not using us to the extent that they could or should," she said.
Knowing that, Heimberger said, will allow the library to address the problem. But even if it could help libraries work more effectively, some patrons don't like the idea of their data being analyzed.
"The library has always said we protect your information. Now they're deciding to use the information for themselves," said Rich Neumeister, a St. Paul resident who has long advocated at the state Capitol for government transparency and individual privacy.
The library says it will take steps to protect the anonymity of users, and it will look only at the genres of eBooks and audio books associated with a library card number — not the specific titles. Gale, the software company, says it doesn't retain any data after it's analyzed.
Nancy Sims, a librarian at the University of Minnesota and an attorney who specializes in the legal, ethical and civil liberties issues surrounding libraries, said libraries need to take special care when they start analyzing data about their patrons.
"There is on the one hand, I believe very strongly, some wonderful value to not tracking the individuals, because it leaves people comfortable to do things like find that book about that kind of sex they don't want to talk to anybody else about," she said. "But on the other hand, libraries are like every service increasingly under pressure to demonstrate that they're doing good stuff."
The University of Minnesota has actually been doing its own library data analysis project for the last four years. It's found that students who use the library get better grades and are less likely to drop out that those who don't. But researchers only tracked whether students used their library cards — not how they used them.