A dollar a week? Actual public library spending

Most of Give Us a Dollar and We’ll Give You Back Four (2012-13)* is about the effectiveness of spending money on public libraries–how various metrics relate to expenditures per capita. But there’s also the base issue of whether libraries are reasonably funded to begin with.

As with all the other metrics in this book, I based expenditure-per-capita brackets (eight to ten of them per metric) on what’s actually in the 2010 IMLS database, not what might be desirable. Given that, consider the base numbers (on page 20) for the 8,659 libraries studied–noting that a few libraries were excluded for being too well-funded ($400 or more per capita) and more than a hundred were excluded for being too poorly-funded (less than $5 per capita).

A dime a day or a dollar a week?

Way back in 1995, Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality used “a dime a day” as an expenditure measure for robust public libraries and “a nickel a day” for good libraries, in both cases using 1990 data.

But that was then. A nickel a day–$18.25 per year–in 1990 dollars is $30.46 in 2010 dollars. A dime a day–$36.50 per year–in 1990 dollars is $60.92 in 2010 dollars.

More recently, I used “a buck a week” as a reasonable target figure. That may not be equal to robust 1990 funding, but it’s better than “good” funding.

So what do we see for FY2010?

  • Just under 20% of public libraries exceeded a buck a week–that is, 1,706 (19.75) had expenditures per capita between $53 and $399.99. Roughly half of those spent between $73 and $399.99; half spent $53 to $72.99
  • Nearly half of the libraries–4,240, or 49%–spent at least $31 per weekyear, thus exceeding the 2010 equivalent of a nickel a day.
  • I’ve informally thought of the two top brackets as being “well funded” and the next three ($43-$52.99, $36-$42.99, $31-$35.99, each with almost exactly 10% of libraries) as being “reasonably well funded.” But, of course, that doesn’t take into account state and local variations in costs.
  • Unfortunately, that leaves just over half of the libraries below $31 per week.
  • I’m inclined to think of the bottom two brackets (807 libraries spending $5 to $11.99) and 881 spending $12 to $16.99) as being badly funded, and the next three (756 libraries spending $17 to $20.99, 942 spending $21 to $25.99 and 954 spending $26 to $30.99) as having mediocre funding.

Looking at the median benefit ratio for each spending bracket, you see–as you’d expect–that benefit ratios go up as spending goes down, but certainly not in a linear fashion.

If libraries that can only spend $5 to $11.99 per capita did not have unusually high benefit ratios, they’d be in even worse shape than they are–these libraries of necessity make each dollar go absurdly far, most likely relying heavily on volunteers and hoping to keep less-adequate collections going a little further. Libraries that serve their communities very well and are funded to do so–especially those spending $73 or more per capita–should have lower benefit ratios, as more of their funding is likely to go to things that don’t show up in IMLS reports (adult literacy, ESL, makerspaces, etc., etc.)

But it’s not linear. The median benefit ratio for the best-funded libraries is 3.49, while for the worst-funded (which spend one-seventh as much per capita, roughly) is 7.26, just over twice as much. In between, the range is even narrower: from 4.45 for libraries spending $55-$72.99 to 6.29 for libraries spending $12-$16.99.

Added a little later: Maybe this will make the point more clearly:

  • The midpoint for the third lowest spending bracket ($17-$20) is $18.50 per capita spending. The median benefit ratio for that bracket is 6.17, meaning that a “typical” library with that level of funding would provide $114 per capita in countable benefits.
  • The midpoint for the third highest spending bracket ($43-$52) is $47.50 and the median benefit ratio for that bracket is 4.82, meaning that a “typical” library with that level of funding would provide $229 per capita in countable benefits. The library’s spending 2.6 times as much per capita–and yielding twice as much in IMLS-reported countable benefits. That’s a really good return for vastly improved funding.

The bottom line: Libraries that are better funded continue to yield superlative value, even as better funding reduces the strain on employees and collections and allows for special programs and other features that aren’t readily countable.

It’s not possible for all public libraries to be above average. In the real world, it’s probably not feasible for all libraries to be well-funded. But with good advocacy and improving economic conditions, more libraries should be able to move up a buck per year or even to a better bracket!

But that’s the overall national picture

The table on page 20 is interesting–but in some ways the similar tables that begin each size-of-library chapter and each state section are more interesting, as they bring things down to more comparable groups.

You’ll see those (and, of course, much more) in the book. And, after you send me an email request, you’ll have your library’s FY2010 metrics in a convenient email summary to help you make best use of those and all the other tables.


*The link is for the $21.95 trade paperback. You can also buy the $11.99 PDF or $31.50 hardbound version. The PDF–identical page images to the print versions–should be easy to read on most e-devices (pages are 6×9 with wide margins).

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