August 26, 2014

Beyond the Stars | Editorial

The LJ Index of Public Library Service shows what you deliver

The latest round of America’s star Libraries is here, and a record-setting 262 libraries earned three-, four-, or five-star distinction. When we launched the LJ Index of Public Library Service in 2009 (LJ 2/15/09) using the latest available Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) data (from 2006), we hoped to bring more clarity, and continuity, to four significant output measures among libraries grouped by expenditure: per capita circulation, visits, program attendance, and public Internet terminal use.

Put simply, it answered the question from users, funding agencies, and donors, “What do we get for all that library money?” And it enabled the 7,115 libraries rated in that first LJ Index to compare themselves against their peers, not by population served but by the amount of money they had to deliver services.

Much has changed since that first foray. The number of libraries eligible for inclusion has risen from 7,115 for the 2006 data to 7,513 for the 2009 data. Initially, many libraries were excluded because they did not submit all four statistics to their state library agencies. While the authors of the LJ Index, Keith Lance and Ray Lyons, don’t claim credit for the increase in reporting, their campaign for more accurate and complete reporting of statistics seems to have had a positive effect. Several state data coordinators have indicated that the LJ Index is a “carrot” to encourage more libraries to report these statistics. In fact, Nicolle Steffen, director of Colorado’s Library Research Service, tells Lance that even libraries from whom she had to request missing data repeatedly now send it in on their own initiative, or ask for help in gathering  the data.

More than the number of eligible libraries has changed, however. When the LJ Index launched, there were a number of questions about how to count public Internet terminal use and remote use. Now, Lance and Lyons point out, many libraries count virtual transactions, like streaming media, in their circulation stats. In libraries at the higher end of the expenditure spectrum, public Internet use has declined as people use their own laptops, tablets, and handheld devices along with Wi-Fi in libraries to access the library’s website, databases, and more. An IMLS task force is reportedly working on incorporating virtual services into existing measures.

Lance and Lyons also look at what the recession has meant for public library use, comparing the 2006–07 data to the 2008–09 data. In almost all the expenditure categories, per capita circulation has risen dramatically, even after declining in 2006–07 (the recession officially began in December 2007).

The impact of the recession on library visits has been startling as well. Even where visits had declined before the recession, there were substantial increases in several of the expenditure categories in the current LJ Index. (Explore the detailed data on the LJ Index ratings for your library and all 7,513 libraries in the rest of this feature, see sidebar at right).

As the spotlights on nine libraries—one from each expenditure group—show, in hard-hit areas like Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, NC, visits rose from six per capita for the 2006 data to 8.3 per capita in 2009—the official “end” of the recession. In other libraries, visits quadrupled or quintupled, and circulation doubled or tripled.

The explosion of library use, particularly demonstrated in stats for circulation and visits, reinforces the belief that libraries are more important than ever. The LJ Index should be used  by all libraries, stars or not, in their marketing, funding,  and fundraising campaigns. These statistics also confirm the powerful deliverables of public libraries: as resources for education, entertainment, and information. Our political leaders  can’t afford to cut them, either in a depressed economy or a thriving one.

francinefialkoffsignature 300x105 Beyond the Stars | Editorial

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Francine Fialkoff About Francine Fialkoff

Francine Fialkoff (ffialkoff@gmail.com) spent 35 years with LJ, and 15 years at its helm as Editor and Editor-in-Chief. For more, see her Farewell Editorial.

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