ALA Still Looking Back, Not Forward


Visit the ALA website and you’ll find the current issue, the Special Issue – ”The State of America’s Libraries, 2011”. It is apparently a “… report on the State of America’s Libraries, 2011… documented in a nationwide poll commissioned by the American Library Association (ALA) as part of a Harris Interactive telephone omnibus study conducted in January with a cross-section of 1,012 adults.” (Pg. ii)

Although it was announced in an ALA April 11 Press Release, it doesn’t seem to have received much buzz. It didn’t even get picked up by LISNews, as it was in previous years. Do an Internet search and the vast majority of references are ALA sites, with only five non-ALA cites. As usual, I have some thoughts on why.

Unfortunately, any nation-wide report on the “State of Libraries” that begins by admitting that only 1,012 adults were polled by telephone, begins on a disappointing chord. Of the almost 350 Million potential library users, how representative or accurate can responses from a thousand adults be? (See more survey and sampling technical discussion below.) Which says to me – nobody is taking the report seriously.

The second thing that stands out is that the survey data cited in this report is just more of the same.

Overall, the library’s most highly valued services pertain to the provision of free information and programs that promote education and lifelong learning. Ninety-one percent (up 5 percentage points from the previous year) place great value in the library’s provision of information for school and work.

And almost all Americans (93 percent) believe that it is important that library services are free.

What is surprising, useful or new about this data? What is the point? Seriously!

It reads very much like another Harris Omnibus Study survey for the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses that reports responses to similarly useless questions.

Harris Interactive conducted an omnibus study on behalf of Fleishman-Hillard.
A regionally representative sample of 1,039 Americans ages 18 or older were interviewed by telephone ….

Question: In your opinion, is it very important, somewhat important, not very important,
or not at all important for nurses who care for critically ill patients to regularly update their knowledge and skills through continuing education?

A remarkable 91% responded that it was Very Important! Seriously? Amazing! Overwhelmingly people actually prefer critical-care nurses to regularly update their knowledge and skills though continuing education. I’m stunned by the impact of this survey data! AND, “almost all Americans (93 percent) believe that it is important that library services are free.” Equally Amazing!

This latest ALA Report runs on and on with more of the same economic impact study results, horror stories about library funding cuts and closures, unexplainable data reporting librarian average salary increases, and on and on for 68 pages of more of the same DUH! information that ALA is known for producing.

More than two-thirds of adults responding to a January 2011 Harris Poll Quorum (PDF file) created for the American Library Association said that the library’s assistance in starting a business or finding a job was important to them. These figures were up from a year earlier, testament both to Americans’ entrepreneurial spirit and libraries’ role in nourishing that spirit.

Be sure to scan this ALA Report and the Harris Survey results linked above. It shows what ALA prefers not to report. Yes, 58% of those surveyed in 2011 said they owned a library card, but the 2010 survey results showed 62% had a library card – a decline of 4% – (or maybe that falls within the +/- 3% error). Is that 4% of the 1,012 survey respondents or 4% of the American population – 14 Million fewer library card holders? Which one is significant and really worth an ALA assessment of the impact?

The public library discussion began on Page 9, but not until Page 13 did the report address some contemporary issues – like librarian-less libraries, outsourcing library services to for-profit organizations – their conclusion was that both are bad ideas.

School libraries are addressed beginning on Page 16, and academic libraries on Page 22, and both get similar coverage and discussion of same ol’ same ol’ issues. Page 27 is interesting because it addresses that IMLS “organized a national campaign in 2010–2011 aimed at helping libraries, museums, and civic leaders assess and meet the learning needs of their communities and contribute to a shared vision for 21st-century learning.” In almost a full page about the IMLS initiative, ALA had nothing to say about being a part of this 21st Century initiative (I would think to their embarrassment). Hmmmm. Strategic Partnerships! Sound familiar?

Although to be fair, ALA has gotten into the technology issues of the 21st Century library (I guess) on Page 26.

The importance of these [technology] questions served as a major impetus for OITP [ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy] to create the Program on America’s Libraries for the 21st Century in 2008. Library experts and leaders are now exploring all aspects of the future of American libraries and developing recommendations for the library community and its stakeholders.

Anybody seen any results yet?

At least two pages are devoted to the eBook and recent publisher restrictions issues. News? No.
And, more digitization coverage. News? No.

Down on Page 49 the discussion of Intellectual Freedom begins four pages worth. Because? Obviously, that is still a major issue with ALA – freedom to read whatever you want to. That is well and good – if the very existence of libraries was not in jeopardy.

My apologies to readers, because I will admit that I was unable to “read” the entire report. It was simply too boring, useless and long. Hopefully I have addressed the major issues I have with this “State of American Libraries” report from ALA. I could find nothing of any value to help anybody save their library! As I first noted, it contains more of the same.

I for one think it’s far past time for ALA to begin looking forward instead of backward. The Report claims that “The Great Recession may have come to an end, but there’s no end to libraries’ key role in helping hard-pressed Americans find employment or launch a bootstraps venture. These and other key trends in the library community are detailed in this report on the State of America’s Libraries, 2011.” IF that is THE MOST important message ALA has for the profession, since it is the first sentence of the Executive Summary, it was a waste of reporting.

• There is CONSIDERABLE debate about whether the recession is really over.
• “[H]elping hard-pressed Americans find employment or launch a bootstraps venture” are key trends? These library service responses that have been being heralded for the past two years or more are key trends? SERIOUSLY?
• If the recession IS over, then there won’t be the vast number of “hard-pressed Americans” looking for employment, or needing the library to “launch a bootstraps venture” will there.

The demand for 20th Century library services is over if the economy has recovered. So, where does that leave libraries in this IMMEDIATE 21st Century future? Does ALA have any answers to that crucial question?

PS: On Page 67, the ALA Report lists a point of contact for feedback regarding this report, so I have sent him my feedback.
Mark Gould
Director, Public Information Office
American Library Association
mgould@ala.org

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Resources

Standard research practices project anywhere from 5% to at least 1% of the population to constitute a valid random sample. Bartlett, Kotrlik, & Higgins (2001, Pg. 48), provided Table 1, in their paper that shows a sample of at least 600 for a population of just 10,000, which translated to the US population would be 20Million people. Seems like somewhere between 1,000 and 20M would be a representative sample.

“The Harris Poll National Quorum is a cost-effective and timely tool that uses a cost sharing approach to enable several clients to use the same survey vehicle. Once a week we conduct telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adult Americans at least 18 years old. You can add one question or a dozen or more and pay only for the custom questions you add.

Our clients use these results to track communications efforts, generate media headlines and attention, and assist in public policy decisions, among other uses.” Reads to me like Harris has the same 1,000 adults they survey every week about “whatever” to generate headlines.

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