Monday, April 20, 2009

Indiana "Star" Libraries

I’m a big fan of Indiana’s public libraries. My work has taken me to several dozen of them, and I’m always impressed with how busy and vibrant they all are, whether at 11 o’clock on a Saturday morning or 3 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. The museum guy in me is jealous of their traffic flow.

Two months ago, the professional publication Library Journal released the results of a year-long national study in which it identified “America’s Star Libraries.” Right off the top, I want to say congratulations to the eleven Indiana libraries that ranked among the top 30, top 20, or even top ten in the nation among libraries of similar size.

Library Journal based their rankings on four fairly straightforward criteria – all measures of per capita usage. Other ranking systems measure a combination of “inputs” as well as “outputs” – budget, depth of collection, etc. This ranking measured only visits, circulation, computer log-ons, and program attendance, divided by the number of residents in the district.

Library Journal analyzed the federal- and state-collected data for some 7100 libraries nationwide, and identified the top thirty libraries, according to these criteria, in each of nine different groups according to budget. Eleven of the top 256 libraries in the nation are in Indiana – more than all but four states, three of which (New York, California, and Ohio) have many, many more libraries in the “competition.”

So, the Indiana libraries that are most “relevant” to their audience, by these criteria, compared to all other libraries of similar size in the country, are as follows:

Spencer County Public Library, which serves 9300 people through a main library in Rockport and three branches, is a “five star library” – one of the top ten in the nation with budgets between $400K and $1M.

Bell Memorial Library in Mentone and Waterloo-Grant Township Library are in the top ten among libraries operating on budgets between $200K and $399K.

Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library ranked as a 4-star library among libraries in the $30M plus category – but that’s because there are so few libraries of that size, LJ only gave “five-star” ratings to the top five instead of top ten. So even though it only got four stars, IMCPL is still one of the top ten "really big" libraries in the nation, by these criteria.

Among the other “four star” libraries – in the top 20 in the nation among some 800 in their category – are Orleans Town and Township ($100-$199K), Butler ($200-$499K), St. Joseph County ($10-29 M), and Allen County Public Library ($10-29 M).

“Three star” libraries – in the top 30, nationwide – include Walton/Tipton Twp ($100-$199K), and Evansville-Vanderburgh County and Monroe County, both in the $5-$9.9 M category.

So – before any analysis or commentary – congratulations to the staffs and boards of these libraries. They’re doing something right.

But, I have to wonder – what does it say that Indiana’s highest ranking libraries – by these criteria, compared to their peers nationwide – include five of Indiana’s very largest libraries, and five of our smallest?

I’ve spent a lot of time preparing for and delivering programs in mid-sized libraries in LaPorte, Rochester, Warsaw, Columbia City, Bluffton, West Lafayette, Crawfordsville, Carmel, Greenfield, Batesville, Seymour, and Vincennes, among others, and I can say, those places rock. I don’t understand how none of them are in the top 30 among libraries of similar size.

So, part of it may be the methodology. This study measures quantity (divided by population), not quality. There’s no equation for the number, let alone the accuracy, of answers provided at reference desks; or whether the items in circulation include any literature, science, or classical music CDs in the mix along with best-sellers and DVDs.

I also suspect that part of what is coming into play is that the largest and smallest libraries are in communities with higher concentrations of people whose economic circumstances drive them to these free sources of enlightenment and entertainment.

And it may be a matter of proximity. The Marion County system has 22 branches, in addition to the Central Library. Bell Memorial, in my hometown of Mentone, serves 3600 people, none of whom live more than 5 miles away. In these communities, no one is more than a five-minute drive (or even walk) from a library.

Indiana’s librarians and their advocates have their hands full these days, dealing not only with recession-related budget cuts, but also changes from property tax restructuring and possible local government re-organization.

I wouldn’t suggest making policy around the results of one imperfect study. I would take a minute (okay, an hour or so!) to say congratulations to some libraries that, without question, are excelling at certain standards. And I would pose to everyone who is looking into library restructuring – whether voluntary or mandatory – that whatever solutions are considered, from consolidation to confederation to simple increased resource-sharing – it appears that there are certainly benefits to being physically close to your audience.

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