Why Do Libraries Use Patron Counters?

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Our last blog concerning retail counters generated quite a few phone calls and emails from folks interested in how People Counters could be used in their library.   They were able to see the benefits in for a retail store,  but could not see the justification to spend money to count patrons.  

Libraries attract high volume of visitors on a daily basis.  More people may visit a specific library than visit a specific retail store in a given day, week, month or year.  Just like every retailer, proper information can play a vital role in visitor satisfaction. To achieve the ultimate visitor satisfaction and repeated visits, every facility manager requires accurate data of the floor activities.   Managers of public buildings like libraries and town halls benefit from accurately knowing their visitor numbers.


·         Understand which branches receive the most traffic.

·         Determine staffing levels for maintenance, security, and other service personnel throughout the library to address changing traffic patterns.

·         Evaluate the performance of marketing campaigns and promotional activities.

·         Establish performance benchmarks for each location.

·         Improve the visitor experience by allocating more staff at busy times.

·         Reduce costs by cutting staff at quiet times.

·         Understand which doors/entryways patrons enter most/least frequently and at what times during the day.

·         Understand which areas of the library are the busiest and when they are the busiest.

·         Help justify funding measures.

·         Determine if it is necessary to modify the hours and days of operation.

For library administrators to make plans and set goals, they must have a clear picture of the current performance of their library.  Patron counters are one tool they can use to serve their users better and to increase library excellence. Patron counters can help determine “library visits per capita,” which is the number of library visits per person in the community served, and is calculated by dividing the annual number of library visits by the population service area. 

Patron count data is necessary for grants and government funding which are based on usage of the facility.  Automated counting decreases the burden on staff members and increases the accuracy reported to management and financial funding committees.   Overall, data that provides information about library use is extremely important if a library is trying to justify their existence in the community. If they can prove that the facility is being utilized, funding should remain constant.

If the analysis shows that numbers of visits per capita are lower than expected, a library can take measures to increase patron use by reviewing such things as the collection development policy, library hours, and staffing levels.   In the event of financial difficulty, traffic monitoring can help staff and boards determine if the correct operations hours are being used and if certain operating hours during the week can be trimmed back.

Knowing the trend of when patrons use the library measures the extent to which the library is reaching its potential user population. This is important to know when staff is deciding on what and how much to order, as well as the number of workers needed to anticipate user requests.   Patron counts are used to help determine how a particular library is being utilized by the public, and can get as specific as a library would like. For instance, a Director may want to know how busy their libraries are during 11:00 and 2:00 so they can schedule staff lunch hours.

If materials or service is lacking, it could be reflected in decreased facility use, so it is very important numbers to know visit rates.   Additionally, if a library knows the overall use, it may be able to determine program attendance during specific events and to plan these events better or use them to increase library use among specific user groups.

Reliability and validity are increased if a library can break down the visits by time of day.   Another possibility is to determine how many people are using specific library services and how those numbers compare with staff and materials actually provided.  This may mean using Patron Counters in hallways and the entryways to computer rooms, conference rooms, media centers and Children’s Libraries to determine traffic areas within the library.   Using the patron count data to measure visitor movement and peak time congestion helps identify which areas of the library are most used and helps maximize the funding for that specific program or area.

Many libraries elect to take a sample count a few times during the year and extrapolate that count for the total year.  But there are many factors that might affect the reliability of this measure, and these may include: sample size being too small; choosing a week in the library’s schedule that has numerous guest speakers; restricting counting to the library’s peak time; or using a person to manually perform the count.

Using a person to manually count can lead to a number of reliability issues.  One risk is using an inefficient or unconscientious person to do the counting.   Even if he or she is competent, they could get tired or become distracted or one who is also busy answering patron questions or performing check out duties.  Many of these influencing factors can be minimized with the use of a patron counter, even if it means just renting a counter for the survey period. 

Without a patron count, libraries only can identify the number of borrowers and not include people who came to read a newspaper or surf the internet or use the job search facilities.  Placing a patron counter at the entrance can give a valuable insight into times and volumes of people using the library.

I hope you found this information to be of value.  I know that I have not covered all of the possible uses and benefits of patron counters.  For example, facility management personnel know it is very important to keep patrons comfortable during their visit, and we did not even discuss this area of use.   Please send an email to to share how you are using and benefiting from the use of a patron counter at your facility.   It would be great if you would include a picture of your patron counter in use!

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