A good public library is at the heart of any healthy community, and the true value provided by a good library is hard to measure. That value includes children whose road to literacy begins at the library; newly employed workers who use the library to improve their skills and find jobs; every patron who learns something new or enriches their life using library resources; and the myriad ways a good public library strengthens its community as a community center and resource.
Those anecdotes and uncounted benefits make up the flesh and blood of a public library’s story—but there are also the bones: countable benefits, including those reported every year. Even including only those countable benefits, public libraries offer excellent value: by my conservative calculation, most provide more than $4 in benefits for every $1 in spending.
So this: Public libraries with better funding continue to show a high ratio of benefits to cost. That’s significant, especially as communities recover economically and libraries seek an appropriate share of improved community revenues.
Those are the first four paragraphs of $4 to $1: Public Library Benefits and Budgets. Here’s a little more that relates directly to the book:
This book and the companion state-by-state study have two purposes:
- To offer a detailed overview of public library benefits in 2011 and how they changed from 2009
- To help librarians, Friends and other library supporters tell your library’s story, seeing how it compares to similar libraries on a range of countable measures.
These two volumes grow out of the earlier Give Us a Dollar and We’ll Give You Back Four (2012-13), based in 2010 data and consisting primarily of tables. I recommend either The Incompleat Give Us a Dollar… as a print book or the two ebook volumes of The Compleat Give Us a Dollar…, still available from Lulu, which combine graphs, tables and commentary and provide a more extensive background for this book.
By comparison to the earlier book, this book includes more libraries, breaks library sizes down into fewer groups, simplifies other measures somewhat and reports fewer measures. But it also adds 2009-2011 changes, graphs where appropriate, more detailed tables and textual commentary on what’s in the graphs and tables. Because all of that requires considerably more space, what was a single book is now two volumes: one by library size, one by state. (Most of this chapter and all of Chapter 2 are common to both so that the two books are each complete without reference to the other. The second volume may or may not appear, and if so will appear later.)
No more quotations. You may or may not know that the book is off to a slow start. (That overstates the success of the book, actually…) I don’t know whether this will help, but I thought I’d provide a quick example of what a library could determine from the book—and how it might or might not help the Friends or the librarians tell the library’s story to funding agencies.
Erewhon Community Library
This mythical library, in Erewhon, Alabama, is the average of two actual libraries, each having the median library service area population for 2011: 7,092 potential patrons. In most ways, the two libraries are quite different, so this profile doesn’t represent either of them. (Neither one is in Alabama: I’ve moved Erewhon there so that I can offer notes on what Volume 2 could offer, if it ever happens.)
Here’s what Erewhon Community Library received when they sent me email (or what they already knew):
I suspect the labels are easy enough to unravel, but just in case, they are: LSA (legal service area), spending per capita, change in spending per capita (from 2009 to 2011), circulation per capita, change in circulation per capita, patron visits per capita, change in patron visits per capita, reference transactions per capita, change in reference transactions per capita, program attendance per capita, change in program attendance per capita, visits per hour, change in visits per hour.
Here’s how Erewhon compares to public libraries across the board:
- Spending is actually about average—that is, below the average but well above the median. It’s in the $30 to $39.99 bracket, the middle bracket. 34% of libraries are in higher spending brackets; 49% are in lower brackets.
- The change in spending is better than most, in the third of six brackets (2% to 8% increases)—with 32% in higher brackets, 49% lower.
- Circulation per capita is lower than most, in the fourth of six brackets (and near the bottom of that bracket). Half of libraries do significantly better; 35% do worse. There’s a strong correlation between spending and circulation, and that’s probably the most important and demonstrable correlation in the book. For its spending level, it’s in the bottom quarter of circulation per capita, but not in the bottom tenth.
- Circulation dropped substantially, more than in most libraries—it’s in the bottom bracket, with 83% of libraries doing better. For its spending level, it’s not in the bottom tenth but it is in the bottom quartile.
- Visits per capita are also below most, in the fourth of six categories (and near the bottom of that bracket), with 51% doing significantly better and 25% doing worse. For its spending category, it’s in the bottom 10%: 90% of libraries spending $30 to $39.99 per capita do better.
- But at least it’s improving, quite nicely, in fact. It’s not in the top bracket for changes in visits per capita (20% and up), but it’s in the top half of the second (7% to 19%), with 17% of libraries doing better and 67% doing worse. For its spending category, it’s in the top quarter but not the top tenth.
- Reference transactions per capita are very good—near the top of the second of six brackets (0.8 to 1.29), with 17% doing better and 68% doing worse. For its spending category, it’s in the top quarter but not the top tenth.
- On the other hand, reference transactions are dropping; Erewhon is slightly worse than most libraries in this regard, in the fourth of six brackets (48% significantly better, 33% worse). For its spending category, it’s in the second quarter (that is, below the median but above the first quartile).
- Program attendance per capita is mediocre, in the fourth of six brackets, with 54% doing significantly better and 32% doing worse. For its spending category, Erewhon is just into the second quartile—that is, about 25% of libraries have lower program attendance.
- As with visits, change is in the right direction, in the third of six brackets (32% doing better, 50% doing worse). For its spending category, it’s in the third quartile—better than most, but not in the top 25%.
- PC use per capita is very low, in the fifth of six brackets, with 64% of libraries doing significantly better and 15% doing worse. For its spending category, it’s not in the bottom 10% but it’s definitely in the bottom quarter.
- Ah, but PC use is improving fast—it’s near the top of the second of six brackets, with 17% of libraries doing even better and 68% doing worse. For its spending category, it’s not in the top 10% but it’s definitely in the top quarter.
- The library isn’t especially busy, which is fairly typical for relatively small libraries. It’s in the fourth of six brackets, with 50% of libraries busier and 34% less busy. For its spending category, it’s in the second quarter—that is, more than 25% of libraries spending $30 to $39.99 per capita are less busy and more than 50% are busier.
- Finally, it’s getting busier, in the second of six brackets for change in visits per hour, with 16% higher and 68% lower. For its spending category, it’s in the top half but not quite in the top quarter.
Is that information useful? Will it help the library fine-tune its operations and improve funding? I can’t be sure. But let’s look at libraries of comparable size.
Libraries Serving 6,000 to 8,999 Patrons
This set of bullet points is based on Chapter 7 (noting that “patrons” counts people in the legal service area, not those who have registered with the library). The brackets are always going to be the same, so we’ll just look at percentages.
- 32% of these libraries spend more; 49% spend significantly less. Roughly one-third of libraries in this size category saw spending improve more than Erewhon, while 46% did worse.
- For circulation per capita, half the libraries in this size range did significantly better, while 34% didn’t do as well. In the spending category, Erewhon is a little below the 25%ile—that is, more than three-quarters of libraries had higher circulation per capita.
- For changes in circulation per capita, 34% did better and 52% did significantly worse. Erewhon is well into the third quartile for its spending category.
- More than half the libraries in this size range (52%) had significantly more patron visits per capita, while 24% had fewer. For its spending category, Erewhon is in the bottom 10%.
- When it comes to changes in patron visits, Erewhon did better than 65% of libraries in this size range, with 19% doing significantly better.
- Only 16% of libraries in this size range had more reference transactions; 68% had significantly fewer. Erewhon is in the top quarter for libraries in its spending category, but not in the top 10%.
- 47% of libraries in this size range showed either an increase or less decrease in reference per capita; 32% showed significantly more decrease.
- For program attendance per capita, 57% of libraries in this size range did significantly better and 30% worse; Erewhon is in the bottom quarter (but not the bottom 10%) for its spending category.
- Roughly one-third (32%) of similarly-sized libraries showed more growth in program attendance, while 49% did worse. Erewhon is in the third quarter for its spending category—more than half did worse, but more than a quarter did better.
- More than three out of five libraries of this size range (62%) had significantly more PC use per capita, and the library is in the first quarter for its spending category (that is, more than 75% did better). Only 14% showed significantly more improvement, however, with 68% doing worse.
- Finally, 56% of libraries in this size range are significantly busier, and Erewhon is in the least busy 10% for its spending category. But only 17% are getting busier at a significantly faster rate, while 66% are doing less.
Comparisons to Other Alabama Libraries
So how does Erewhon Community Library stack up against other Alabama libraries? It’s still in the middle as far as size is concerned—39% of Alabama’s libraries serve smaller groups while 38% serve larger groups. On the other hand, it spends more per capita than most Alabama libraries—only 13% spend significantly more while 76% spend substantially less. 24% of Alabama’s libraries improved spending more than Erewhon, and 61% didn’t do as well. As to the smaller set of metrics for state comparisons:
- Less than a quarter of Alabama’s libraries circulated significantly more items per capita (24%), and 67% circulated fewer. For its spending category, however, Erewhon was in the lowest quartile. More than three-quarters (76%) either gained circulation or lost less. (Alabama’s libraries show very strong correlation between spending and circulation.)
- Visits per capita are similar: 24% of Alabama’s libraries had significantly more, 51% fewer. In this case, Erewhon’s actually in the lowest 10% for libraries spending similar amounts. Only 22% had more improvement in visits per capita; 62% had less.
- Some 22% of Alabama’s libraries had more reference transactions per capita; 67% had fewer. For its spending category, Erewhon is in the third quartile—better than half the libraries but not as good as the top quarter. A full 58% of libraries showed more improvement (or less reduction) in reference transactions per capita; 27% did worse.
- Finally, just over half (52%) of Alabama libraries had more PC use per capita, while 20% had less; for its spending category, however, Erewhon was in the bottom quartile. On the other hand, while 36% of Alabama’s libraries saw even more increase in PC use per capita, 55% did worse—and Erewhon is in the top quartile for this measure in its spending category.
Are these facts helpful? Again, I’m not sure. In any case, barring a major and fairly rapid increase in sales of Volume 1 and Your Library Is…, Volume 2 won’t appear.
Understanding Your Story
I’ve thought of the books as providing help to libraries attempting to tell their stories to funding agencies, once they’ve fleshed out data comparisons with the real-world items that make libraries special. But maybe there’s another aspect: Understanding
your own story.
Looking at this off-the-cuff mythical example, I wonder why the usage numbers are (except for reference) not very good. Once a library knows that their resources are being underutilized, does that help them plan ways to improve the situation?
I looked at more numbers (again averaging two real libraries to create a mythical library). Erewhon spent $3.73 per capita on print materials in 2011: That’s a reasonably healthy amount, above the national average. The library’s open reasonably good hours for a small library (2,566—about 49 hours a week). There are 4.8 books per capita, which is also decent—and with 34,000 volumes, it shouldn’t be that there’s nothing worth borrowing. About 61% of the potential patrons are registered borrowers—which isn’t great, but isn’t terrible either. I do note that there aren’t many programs (86 total), and most of those programs are for kids or young adults (only 15 are for adults). Is that an issue?
So: Does all of this help, or is it just a distraction? I don’t know the answers.