Transaction Logs and Focus Groups as Data Collection Methods

Research in Library Science is conducted in many areas covering multiple questions, but one thing shared is data collection. Qualitative and quantitative information to support the question at hand are necessary to validate the needs or phenomenon or trends (Wildemuth, 2009). Transaction logs and focus groups are two valuable data collection techniques.

Transaction Logs

Whenever a person logs onto and begins to use a computer in the library, different kinds of information are automatically collected into transaction logs (Jansen, 2006). Sullenger (1997) recommends transaction logs “be examined by librarians to analyze how patrons use the catalog, what features they are using, and to see what areas of searching are problematic” (p. 21).  Data can also be collected on “items viewed, sessions, site penetration; time online, users (trace evidence of, not individual information), navigational information” (Nicholas, Huntington, Jamali & Tenopir, 2006, p. 121).  These data pieces provide useful information on usage patterns (Das & Turkoglu, 2009).

Transaction logs can be generated in two ways. The first is from the server’s side. These logs include data typically already collected in-house. Data can also originate client-side using a specifically-written program to collect from the participants’ computers (Wildemuth, 2009). The former is more often used due to the abundance of data and less-costly features.  Jansen (2006) describes a three step process for using transaction logs: data collection for a given period of time, preparing the data, and data analysis. He further breaks analysis into three parts: term, query, and session.

A major benefit to using transaction logs is that this is data already collected and waiting to be analyzed. This data is also free of biases that humans may interject (Jansen, 2006).  Programs have been developed to help with data analysis, and when information is uniform, data from multiple systems can be compared (Sullenger, 1997).

Quite a few challenges to using transaction logs exist. The first is the extreme amount of data available that must be gone through. The data have to be cleaned to rid the files of extraneous and incomplete information (Das & Turkoglu, 2009; Sullenger, 1997). The data are complex and take a great deal of time and effort to analyze (Jansen, 2006).  Coding has to be developed and applied to see the patterns (Wildemuth, 2009). Due to these complexities, researchers need to carefully define terms and measuring devices (Jansen).

Transaction logs can be used in a variety of ways but some common ones are developing useful web page design (Das & Turkoglu, 2009), search engine usage (Jansen & Spike, 2006; Sullenger, 1997), as well as searching digital libraries and identifying browsing patterns (Nicholas, Huntington, Jarnali & Tenopir). Overall, the researcher is looking for algorithms and patterns that naturally generate from computer or system usage in the library. If a topic involves human interaction with the computer or library system, without knowledge needed of why the interaction occurred, then using transaction logs is a good choice.

Transaction Logs Example

Boter and Wedel (2005) used transaction logs to analyze library collection organization in a section of libraries in the Netherlands. Their specific focus was “fiction books aimed at adults” (p. 192) with the intent that application could be made to other areas like non-fiction at a later time. They chose a region of five public libraries that had transaction log information providing “a customer number; a title number and full title details; date and time of borrowing; and age and gender of borrower” (p. 191). Customer numbers were encrypted so that names and addresses would not be revealed.

In stage one, transaction logs were used to section books by title in hierarchical groupings. Books were then organized into “a limited number of consumer-based categories” (Boter & Wedel, 2005, p. 193) before finally being organized into ultrametric trees. In the second stage, the top 500 titles were used to identify seven categories of books.  The research showed that patrons do look for other attributes in addition to the broad categories assigned. Subgroups such as medical or courtroom thrillers rather than just thrillers were discovered.  Boter and Wedel concluded that library materials are more accessible when books are categorized in ways that match user perceptions.

This study provided a good example of transaction logs. Boter and Wedel used server-side transaction logs from a system of libraries collected over a specific period of time. While they only addressed one category of books, they made note of application to other categories. Ethical issues were addressed in using encrypted data to ensure user privacy. The great amount of data provided in the transaction logs was mentioned, and they summarized ways they cleaned the data to make it usable. In addition to detailed explanation of analysis, they used logs from across a system for a stronger synthesis of information. Statistical analysis was performed and detail was given to explanation of measures.

Focus Groups

Focus groups provide a variation to the group interview and can be conducted face-to-face or online (Chase  & Alveraz, 2000). They have been used with a great deal of success in library science (Morrison, 1997). The goal is frequently customer service related and provides an opportunity to gain deeper understanding (Kruger & Casey, 2008). Focus groups seem to work best when the “participants feel comfortable, respected and free to give their opinion without judgment” (Kruger & Casey, p. 4). Each focus group has three basic parts: preparation, focus group meetings, and analyzing the final report (Shoaf, 2003).

Careful planning precedes successful focus groups.  Five to ten participants are chosen to share their likes and dislikes as well as reasoning information (Kruger & Casey, 2008; Merton, 1987). A moderator is a necessary component and can come from in-house staff, out-of-house staff or a professional organization (Shoaf, 2003). A moderator’s guide is carefully written and provided for the meetings. Shoaf mentions that choosing the right moderator is a key component to the group’s discussion. Groups need to be able to open up honestly but stay on topic since the goal is to “elicit in-depth information” (Chase & Alveraz, 2000). Group information is recorded in some fashion for the writing of a final report that includes impressions and major themes that were presented (Chase & Alveraz). Focus groups are generally used as part of a total data collection package. They are frequently used as follow-up to clarify specific issues arising from another form of data collection (Shoaf, 2003; Wildemuth, 2009), but Chase and Alvarez suggest that focus groups may also be used on the front end of research to help determine information needed for questionnaires (2000).

A major benefit to using focus groups is the discussion that allows for clarifying questions and additional probing that can provide better qualitative data (Kruger & Casey, 2008). Costs for focus groups can be kept low if planned properly, and in-house staff can be used exclusively (Merton, 1987). Several practical guides exist to prepare for focus group research (Shoaf, 2003).

While focus groups can be conducted at a low cost, they can also become quite costly especially when multiple groups meet (Shoaf, 2003). Merton (1987) suggests that rather than providing needed answers, they can also raise more questions. Timing appears to be a contributing factor in whether or not a group has enough participating members for success (Shoaf, 2003).

Focus groups are best used in conjunction with other data collection methods and may be used very well as follow up to previous research that needs to be better understood from a user’s perspective (Morrison, 1997). Service related topics seem particularly inclined to this data-collection method (Chase & Alvarez, 2000), but focus groups could be used with any topic that needed elaboration or clarification.

A Focus Group Example

In 1997, Brown University’s library used a focus group to enhance previous research conducted through surveys (Shoaf, 2003). They formed a User Needs Team (LUNT) of eight professionals. The team used previous surveys from faculty and graduate students to develop the Moderator’s Guide and to choose recruits for the group. The goal was to better understand user satisfaction with the library’s materials and services. LUNT decided to use a professional moderator to conduct the group meetings and write the final report.

Group sizes were between five and twelve participants over a period of three weeks in a private room at the library. Refreshments were contracted through an on-campus source and a book store gift certificate was given to participants. The first two meetings were in the evening, and smaller than expected numbers showed. Subsequent meetings were moved to afternoons for improved participation. All meetings were tape recorded. The final report showed dissatisfaction with the library collection and the physical environment. This information was used in conjunction with other findings to advocate for and receive greater funding for acquisitions and building enhancements.

Brown’s study provides an excellent example of the use of focus groups. A committee of was formed to share the work load, and an experience moderator was hired. LUNT considered the role of the moderator crucial. A Moderator’s Guide was written and used. Participants were purposely chosen from previous surveys, and LUNT worked diligently to retain participants. Meetings were tape-recorded. The findings were used in conjunction with other data collection methods. Multiple meetings were held with the moderator to fully understand the report.

Carefully choosing data collection methods will enhance the validity of the data collected for any research project. Transaction logs provide ways to use data that is already collected in-house to strengthen library structure and programs. Focus groups can provide information explaining how patrons feel and what they think about various services in the library.


Boter, J. & Wedel, M. (2005). User categorization of public library collections. Library & Information Science Research, 27 (2), 190-202.

Chase, L. & Alvarez, J. (2000). Internet research: The role of the focus group. Library & Information Science Research, 22 (4), 357-369.

Das, R. & Turkoglu, I. (2009). Creating meaningful data from web logs for improving the impressiveness of a website by using path analysis method. Expert Systems with Applications, 36 (3.2), 6635–6644.

Jansen, B. J. & Spink, A. (2006). How are we searching the World Wide Web? A comparison of nine search engine transaction logs. Information Processing and Management, 42, 248–263 .

Jansen, B. J. (2006). Search log analysis: What it is, what’s been done, how to do it.  Library & Information Science Research, 28, 407–432.

Kruger, R. A. & Casey, M. A. (2009). Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

Merton, R. K. (1987). The focused interview and focus groups: Continuities and discontinuities. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 51 (4), 550-566.

Morrison, H. (1997). Information literacy skills: An exploratory focus group study of student perceptions. Research Strategies, 15 (1), 4-17.

Nicholas, D., Huntington, P., Jamali, H. R.  & Tenopir, C. (2006). Finding information in (very large) digital libraries: A deep log approach to determining differences in use according to method of access. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32 (2), 119-126.

Shoaf, E. C. (2003). Using a professional moderator in library focus group research. Colleges & Research Libraries, 64 (2), 124-132.

Sullenger, P. (1997). A serials transaction log analysis. Serials Review, 23 (3), 21-26.

Wildemuth, B. M.  (2009). Applications of social research methods to questions in information and library science. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

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