Big-City Public Libraries vs. Statistics

I’m always skeptical of “data”, because I’ve seen enough data reporting to know it’s all about how one configures the parameters of the data collection that determine the outcome. It’s a commonly used quote from Samuel Clemens that “There’s liars, there’s damn liars, and then there’s statisticians”. (BTW: If you have 18 minutes to watch a fascinating TED Talk about reporting data, David McCandless has a great one.)

When ALA released its 2012 State of America’s Libraries Report last Monday, I was at first skeptical, then curious. ALA’s summary in american libraries pretty much confirmed that no one is certain just what the state of America’s libraries are 12 years into the 21st Century.

Some 5 percent more states reported decreased state funding for public libraries in 2011-2012 than in 2010–2011. Some 23 states reported cuts in state funding for public libraries, marking the third year in a row that more than 40 percent of participating states have reported decreased public library funding. (However, only nine states anticipate decreased funding for 2012-2013.)

For the second year, 42 percent of states report that local funding for public libraries probably declined for a majority of libraries in the state. However, only 12 states reported that they were aware of public library closures in their states in the past year, down from 17 the previous year. Only New Jersey and Michigan reported closures of more than five libraries. [Emphasis added.]

I would think everyone would celebrate that fact that only 5% more states reported decreased state funding last year, and only nine states think they might see further cuts in 2012. Apparently, 42% of states are unaware whether local funding is actually decreasing in their state. AND, it also sounds like good news that only two states reported closures of more than five libraries in their state. Are we celebrating yet?

What really struck me as important data from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative report that ALA used to cite some of the data in its report, and presumably draw some of its conclusions about the state we’re in, is that distilling data often leaves out the most important information. That and the fact that Pew reports it much better at their Our Work webpage – interactive charts – good stuff.

There appears to be an anomaly related to the data that Pew researchers compiled through their comparison of Philadelphia Free Library, the primary focus of their research, and 14 other big-city libraries. Specifically, the data doesn’t track in a “cause and effect” manner. If we look first at their Change in Library Visits and accompanying Visits Per Capita charts they present side by side – the library with the second greatest decline in visitations is Columbus with -14% and then look at their per capita visits, they are third highest with 8.3. AND – the library with the second highest increase in total visits was Baltimore with 25%, but they are the lowest per capita visits at 2.8.

Wouldn’t one expect that major increases or decreases in total library visits would have a direct relationship (as opposed to inverse) to major increases and decreases in visits per capita? Say a city with a population of 100,000 experiences a decrease in total visits by 25% – hypothetically they go from 40,000 visits to 30,000 visits – shouldn’t there be a corresponding decrease in visits per capita – hypothetically from 4 to 3. So what would explain a 25% increase in total visits and a very low per capita visit rate?

Trying to find a direct correlation, we can look at circulation – that’s always a good bell weather for changes – right?

Unfortunately, we see more anomalies between total circulation and circulation per capita. Columbus had the greatest decline in circulation over the reporting period –12%. Yet, they had the second highest circ per capita at 17.2. Seattle had the highest total circulation increase at 50%, so having the highest circ per capita seems appropriate. AND, Baltimore had the second lowest total circulation decrease at -9%, along with their lowest rank circ per capita of 2 seems totally compatible. So what’s up with Columbus’ large decrease in total circulation and high circulation per capita?

Maybe there is an answer in the revenue – the level of funding – or not. Los Angeles had an almost 0% change in their total circulation despite a 34% decrease in funding. Philadelphia had a 12% increase in total circ despite a 19% decrease in funding. Seattle’s 50% increase in circulation doesn’t really track with a nearly static funding level, but we know they experienced a significant bump from their new library facility.

OK, I know the answer to making sense of disparate data – public access computers. Everyone says that libraries are experiencing the greatest boom ever due to people needing Internet access because of the economy.

Seattle has the highest number (among those libraries studied) of public access computers at 17.1 per 10K citizens. That would certainly account for much of their increased total visits and visits per capita – along with the new building.

Columbus came in second with 13.1 computers per 10K citizens, but that doesn’t track with their 14% decrease in total visits. But, would that account for their high visits per capita? Yet, their funding has taken a distressing hit at -12%. So…………?

Phoenix had one of the lowest increases in total visits – about 2% – and next to the lowest visits per capita at 3. Their circulation increased by 13% and per capita circ was a respectable 9.6. Yet, Phoenix has only 3.5 computers per 10K citizens. WHAT? A city the size and diversity of Phoenix has only 3.5 computers for every 10,000 citizens? They’ve experienced only slight decrease in funding at 4%, so why would Phoenix have so few public access computers?

One never knows what conclusions data will lead to, or whether they will reveal anything at all. My conclusion is that none of these data comparisons has a clear “cause and effect” relationship. That leads me to the conclusion that like politics – all library use is local.

I’ve been saying for some time that libraries must determine the needs of their customers and their community and meet those needs in whatever manner is best for them, hopefully while applying 21st Century librarianship techniques. One could argue that these data support that theory, and my suggested new…

21st Century Library Paradigm:
The 21st Century Library will be defined by those librarians running the library to meet the needs of their local community, more than by the profession, or schools of library and information science, or by any association of librarians’ principles.


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6 responses to “Big-City Public Libraries vs. Statistics

  1. Juan Lee

    CASE IN POINT: The Day-Riverside Branch library on the west side of Salt Lake City has a very large gate count (people coming into the building) every day, but they have fairly low circulation (materials borrowed) statistics. The Anderson-Foothill Branch on the East bench of the city has huge-normous circulation numbers (hundreds of items checked out every day) but the traffic pattern (library visitors) is not quite as large. Why? Community needs (at the neighborhood level) and library functions…

    • Thanks for that perspective. I guess a large “homeless” contingent to a library’s visitors would account for high gate count and low circulation. Is this something that needs attention, or should even be considered a “problem”, or is just the demographics of the library’s community?

  2. Bob Belvin

    There a many things that account for a high gate count. At New Brunswick (NJ) we have high use of public access computers (some homeless but mostly people who can’t afford computer or Internet access), high use of our Children’s Room (lots of kids who don’t borrow buts but come in for homework, programs, activities), use of our Community Room for local organizations, etc. High circ is often a small percentage of users who borrow as lot of items (think suburban moms who borrow twenty picture books each week).

  3. Pingback: Honest-to-Goodness Transformation « Lib(rary) Performance

  4. Hi Steve. Joe Matthews suggested your post to me a couple of months ago. Just got around to writing up an explanation which you might find interesting. It’s the July 2012 post in my blog here:

  5. Kur

    As life has changed and we see the revolution of technologies, libraries need to be reniewed. Every new iniciative is welcome, in my opinion library can become community center, if it changes the old fashioned image.

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