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The statistics we keep to show stakeholders what our libraries deliver to our communities have always mattered, but they may now be more important than ever. In the face of the ongoing and broad cuts libraries are seeing nationwide, it is vital to illustrate the accomplishments of libraries. To that end, we offer the LJ Index of Public Library Service 2010, sponsored by Baker & Taylor's Bibliostat, based on 2008 data released by the Institute of Museum and Library Services a few months ago. Significantly, this data reflects service reported for FY08 (most often, calendar 2008, July 2007-June 2008, or October 2007-September 2008, depending on the state), which makes this the first round of national public library statistics since the onset of the economic recession in December 2007.
For this edition of the LJ Index, we asked star libraries to review the data they had reported for the four per capita service outputs--visits, circulation, program attendance, and public Internet terminal use--and reflect on why their figures rose. At first, it seemed there were as many explanations as libraries, but common threads emerged concerning the recession, funding, facilities, staffing, collections, technology, programs, policies, strategic planning and internal research, extraordinary circumstances, and data collection methods.
The recession arrives
As the recession took hold, libraries responded. Jan Sanders of Pasadena Public Library, CA ($10 million-$29.9 million, ****), notes that her library's Internet use seminars and job-related presentations drew "capacity" crowds that year. She credits spikes in children's services measures to "children whose families could [no longer] pay for private [child] care."
Across the country in New Jersey, Karen Brodsky believes Bernardsville Public Library ($400,000-$999,999, *****) saw high levels of use during 2008, "partly because numerous people were using the library to find employment and to hone computer skills toward that effort." She adds that "we believe that people were successful because use of the library decreased somewhat in late 2009 and early 2010 as more people were working."
Similarly, Cheryl Whistler Garrison thinks the impressive statistics from Kent District Library, MI ($10 million-$29.9 million, ***), "are due in part to the challenges resulting from Michigan's economic downturn. People are turning to the public library more than ever for entertainment, information, and job search assistance."
For some, annual increases in library traffic during 2008 masked even more dramatic increases late in the year. Christine M. Steckel of Lower Merion Library System, PA ($5 million-$9,999,999, ****), cites "the fourth-quarter explosion in all activity levels as the recession rolled through the international landscape."
The funding factor
While public libraries tend to see increases in usage when economic times are tough, some libraries maintain high usage because funding is both higher and more stable than that of other libraries.
Wellfleet Public Library, MA ($400,000-$999,999, *****), is in such fortunate circumstances. "Our small town has been cautious with budgets over the years. Most town departments' operating budgets have been level-funded for years, but they haven't been cut," says Wellfleet's Elaine McIlroy. She notes a range of support from Friends, trust funds, and a recent "significant bequest," as well as an effort to bring in stimulus funding. Some might attribute this library's success solely to its strong fiscal support, but it is what one does with funding that makes the difference. McIlroy also describes how the library has increased the number of public Internet stations and programs for all ages but especially tweens and teens. "In these difficult economic times," she adds, "free programs offered at the library are well attended and appreciated."
For decades, Ohio public libraries have been funded by a unique statewide funding mechanism, the Ohio Public Library Fund. In 2009, state fiscal pressures led to the first substantial decrease in funding via that means. Doubtless, this will impact the standing of Ohio libraries in the next two rounds of the L] Index. Some Ohio libraries are weathering this storm better than others. For instance, Kent Oliver of Stark County District Library ($10 million-$29.9 million, *****) believes a "fairly recent operating levy" explains continuing increases in his library's "overall usage statistics."
Facilities that draw
One truism about public libraries is that use goes up after a new building opens or a renovation is completed. Star-level statistics for many libraries were chalked up to this factor. The building alone, however, is not enough. "New buildings might bring people in initially," says Carole Kowell of Medina County District Library, OH ($5 million-$9,999,999, ***), but it's what's inside that brings them back."
Upticks in statistics in new spaces may be owing to the novelty, longer hours, more space, specific building features, or reinvigorated programming. Cheryl Wright of Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library ($30 million and over, ****) credits across-the-board statistical increases to the remodel of the central library. "In the newly renovated building, we returned to our normal hours of four nights per week till 9 p.m. We experienced higher door counts, circulated more materials, and had expanded the number of public Internet computers," she says. "We also conducted heavy programming during that first year to bring people in to see and celebrate the newly renovated facility."
At the San Jose Public Library, CA ($30 million and over, ***), Jane Light identifies the beginnings of recent statistical increases with more space via the "reopening of several branches that had been closed for construction. Those buildings are over twice as big as the old buildings."
Sometimes, though, it's the creature comforts that pay off. Robin Yuran of Norfolk Public Library, CT ($400,000-$999,999, ****), believes most of her library's 2008 statistics reached all-time highs because of "[t]he redesign of the Great Hall with cozy alcoves, new furniture, and Wi-Fi."
The setting also helps. "Our location in the heart of a beautiful new development was probably the biggest factor in our explosive growth," says Barbara D. Hathaway of Bee Cave Public Library, TX ($200,000-$399,999, *****). "Parking is plentiful, and visibility is very high. The library is literally in the center of the development, facing the outdoor amphitheater where free concerts and fireworks are a big draw."
Sometimes, exceptional statistics reflect what is going on with another library. "Hard times in other libraries have resulted in more traffic in ours," notes Jean Campbell of Forsyth Public Library, IL ($200,000-$399,999, ***).
Sue Seamans of Falconer Public Library, NY ($100,000-$199,999, *****), illustrated this further with an example that may just explain a repeat of their star library status next year. "[L]ast fall, our largest Chautauqua-Cattaraugus System Library (James Prendergast Library) was closed due to asbestos abatement and renovations.... We experienced a large number of 'Prendergast Refugees,' as we called them, looking for library services.... We were very busy (and frantic some days), but it was a rewarding opportunity for us to help another library."
In some cases, a public library facility houses more than a public library. E. Leslie Polott of Hudson Library, OH ($1 million-$4.9 million, ***), reports, "We were created [in 1910] as both a historical society [and] a library," while Laurie Sundborg of Tulsa City-County Library ($10 million-$29.9 million, ***) notes that "a 420-seat children's theater [is] attached to [our] Regional Library."
Of course, deliberate efforts to promote user traffic can be powerful, too. Andra Addison reports that Seattle Public Library ($30 million and over, *****) celebrated completion of its "Libraries for All" capital building campaign by distributing "library passports" and encouraging people to visit all the new locations to get their passports stamped.
Several libraries attribute high--and, in many cases, still increasing--numbers to staff changes or additions.
Beth Kramer, of West Tisbury Free Public Library, MA ($200,000-$399,999, *****), credits her library's recent increases in program attendance to "the creation of a program director.... [W]ithout community outreach and response to community needs, our library would become disconnected and our services would not necessarily meet our community's [needs]," she says. "We [also] changed our YA librarian's position to focus on programming and outreach."
The Palo Alto City Library, CA ($5 million-$9,999,999, ****), says Diane R. Jennings, saw a rise in program attendance owing to an increase in the number of school-based programs after the creation of a half-time school liaison position to work very actively with "students, faculty, and parents to promote our city's library resources and services."
Conversely, of course, this issue cuts both ways: staffing reductions can be an obvious explanation for reduced service outputs.
Collections with range and depth
Diverse collections--both in format and language--are credited for high circulation and other outputs by many libraries.
"Record-breaking" circulation, says Mary Hastier of Harford County Public Library, MD ($10 million-$29.9 million, ****), resulted from "getting materials out to the branches by street date, an emphasis on purchasing popular materials, providing a wide array of formats, and adding new formats to the collection, such as Playaways."
Greg Bodin reports that collection development at San Mateo County Library, CA ($10 million-$29.9 million, ****), focuses on "popular materials such as ... movies and books-on-CD" to supplement new books and classics. He also notes the library's world languages collection of "over 12,500 [heavily used] items in ... Chinese, Hindi, Russian, and Spanish."
Depth in the collection also means a lot at the San Francisco Public Library ($30 million and over, ***). "Chinese-language items make up about seven percent of the total library collection, [but] they represent 14 percent of circulating items," says Jill Bourne. "In 2008, the highest circulating fiction title was a book in Chinese--Lao Fuzi."
The touch of technology
Explanations for high and/or increased computer use in libraries include adding more computers, upping the functionality of those already available, and being a source for high-speed connectivity in areas where people cannot take it for granted.
Santa Clara County Library, CA ($30 million and over, ****), increased Internet access by replacing "thin-client terminals" with "full-service Internet computers so that all public access computers now offer all the functionality patrons need to link to a URL from the library ILS catalog or online databases," says Melinda Cervantes. "This is critical when completing job application forms online and attaching or linking to cover letters and resumes. Additionally, the library added wireless access points to meeting rooms and other public spaces."
Lisa Wenner, of Meekins Public Library, Williamsburg, MA ($100,000-$199,999, ***), reports that "the hill towns ... in western Massachusetts do not, for the most part, offer broadband or high-speed Internet.... So, many people depend on the public libraries in the area for ... Internet [access], which is certainly always faster than dial-up."
At the other extreme, dozens of star libraries say that use of public Internet computers, while still high, is …