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Survey Says…

February 1, 2002

The editor for a major Central Colorado magazine recently wrote about the questionable nature of opinion polls. In part, she didn’t like the manipulatively incomplete set of options offered for answers.

This reminded me of our “Simple Library Hours Survey” of a year and a half ago. It was a very simple survey form that explained our current hours and then offered four choices for how they might be increased, plus a blank for “other.”

The simplicity of the survey invited participation, but the same simplicity also invited carelessness and incompleteness, which one wants to avoid in a rigorous survey.

News polls are not rigorous. I think they’re especially absurd when they take the place of news, i.e., when news media get into the business of creating news through their own polls.

The most impressive use of the opinion poll I’ve seen is a fax scam. We receive faxes now and then at the library inviting us to participate in a “poll.” In the middle of the page is a single question, usually something broad and useless, but incendiary, such as “Should handguns be outlawed? Yes or no.”

“Is abortion right? Yes or no.” “Should America go to war? Yes or no.” We are then invited to fax our vote back — as often as we like! — to a 900 number. In fine print, it is revealed that we vote at the rate of $3.95 per minute.

Our votes will be tallied, they say, with those of other Voting Americans and sent to the President, Congress, and other important people.

I have to chuckle every time we get one. It’s a brilliantly cynical business. You can bet the fax connection is not a fast one.

But legitimate surveys are a difficult undertaking. They can be tricky to design, trickier yet to interpret. Even our little survey raised questions afterwards.

In the survey, I offered four choices plus a blank for “other.” But I didn’t offer the choice of “no change,” although one was free to write it in. Several people did, but how many more might have checked it if it had been an option?

It didn’t matter for us. We had a good idea that additional hours would be used, and we were willing to try. The survey served as both advertising, PR, and a check against a complete misunderstanding on our part.

We were surprised to find that Friday evening came in a close second to Sunday afternoon in the poll. In practice, however, it has turned out that while Sunday afternoons are very popular, Friday evenings are very quiet. People must have liked the idea of the library being open on Friday night, but they usually have other things to do.

We sampled only current library users; that is, our survey was made readily available to people who were already in the library. While we certainly were interested in serving these library users better, there may very well be potential users, who don’ t currently come in, who might have had something to say about library hours.

Sampling is a big concern for pollsters. It is very easy collect the responses of a biased sample, especially when surveys are collected in a passive and voluntary way. Polls seem democratic in that they’re similar to voting, but in fact their purposes and consequences are quite different.

For one, elections are usually unequivocal. Usually.

In case you’re wondering: Yes, the library has a book, “How to conduct your own survey.” Read it and poll.

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