Annoyed Librarian
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Fun with Facts

The ALA has released a new Quotable Facts about America’s Libraries card, presumably so library nerds can carry the cards around and annoy people by randomly quoting facts at them.

It’s not always clear what the “facts” are trying to prove. For example, what can we learn from this: “Americans go to school, public and academic libraries more than three times more often than they go to the movies.”

Is this supposed to show us that libraries are more popular than movie theaters? Or that if you put students of all ages in institutions where they’re likely to be in libraries relatively often that they’ll use them more than buildings where you have to go somewhere and pay a lot of money to see bad movies?

And like all such lists of facts, the facts are cherry-picked to show only convenient goodness. We’re told that “A 2011 Pew study found that about 24% of library card holders had read e-books in the past year. Of them, 57% preferred borrowing e-books and about 33% preferred purchasing them.” More prefer borrowing to buying? Shocker!

We’re not told about the Pew Study that “58% of all library card holders say they do not know if their library provides e-book lending services,” and that “55% of all those who say the library is “very important” to them say they do not know if their library lends e-books.” That just makes it look like libraries can’t get the word out.

The choice of comparisons is odd, too. “There are more public libraries than McDonald’s in the U.S.—a total of 16,766 including branches.” Okay, so?

There are over 24,000 Subway restaurants in the U.S., almost 50% more Subways than public libraries. What does that prove? That Subways are more popular than public libraries? That doesn’t surprise me, because I’ve yet to see a library offer sweet onion chicken teriyaki sandwiches.

Or, “Americans spend nearly three times as much on candy as they do on public libraries.” Does this mean Americans prefer candy to libraries? That they should stop eating so much candy and give that money to libraries? Actually, that would probably be better for both the Americans and the libraries, so maybe the ALA should be more blunt.

Sometimes it’s the wording that’s suspicious. “Academic librarians provide information that serves more than 44 million students yearly—reaching almost 12 million more than attend college basketball games.” “Provide information that serves” isn’t quite the same thing as “is used by.” Do all those 44 million students use the library? Put like that, you could say that public libraries provide information that serves more than 300 million Americans. That doesn’t mean 300 million people use public libraries.

And why college basketball games? Oh, I know why. Because attendance at college football games last year was 49,699,419, reaching almost 6 million more than visit academic libraries. I don’t know what that proves, but it’s a fact.

There are lots of quotable facts about school libraries, maybe because the school librarians are under siege everywhere. I’m not sure they help, though.

“Research shows the highest achieving students attend schools with well-staffed and well-funded libraries.” This fact is obviously open to lots of interpretations, the most likely being that schools with well-funded libraries are in general well-funded, which in the U.S. means that they’re probably in upper middle class school districts with a high tax base and successful parents who do all they can to help their children succeed. Correlation doesn’t imply causation.

And we get the movie theater comparison again: “Students make 1.5 billion visits to school libraries during the school year—more than total attendances made to movie theaters in 2011.” The ALA seems obsessed with what might already be a dying industry.

And again, the children are in school every day. Library visits are often required. There are 53 million Americans between the ages of 5-17. Apparently, the most frequent moviegoers in America are males aged 25-39, of which there are about 30 million. 10% of the population accounts for 50% of movie ticket sales. All this shows is that there are a lot more school aged children likely to be required to use a library than there are people who go to the movies.

Here’s one that I guess is meant to show how skewed our values are. “Americans spend over 18 times as much money on home video games ($18.6 billion) as they do on school library materials for their children ($1 billion).”

This one seems questionable to me. Do the people who spend the most on home video games even have children? According to industry statistics, 32% of gamers are under 18, and another 31% are 18-35. It seems unlikely.

Oh, wait. Are we talking about the children collectively? Like a politician might. As in we have to do this, it’s “for the children.” Oh, “for the children,” well then let’s do it, whatever it is.

You know what else we do for children? Buy them books. The Census site has a little back to school fact sheet for this school year. Sales at book stores? $2.4 billion, and that’s just for August.

Remember a few paragraphs ago when we found out that “students make 1.5 billion visits to school libraries during the school year”? In the final fact, located right next to the previous fact on the card, we find instead that “Students make 1.3 billion visits to school libraries during the school year—or three times as many visits to national parks.”

Wait, which is it? 1.5 or 1.3 billion? What happened to those other 200 million library visits? And national parks? That’s the comparison? Are these analogous somehow?

According to the National Park Service, there were 281,303,769 visits in 2010. Why not take that number and compare it to the higher 1.5 billion student library visits. Then, you could say that there were more than 5 times the number of visits to school libraries than to national parks! That sounds even more impressive! Meaningless, but still impressive.

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Comments

  1. Irv Rockwood says:

    Right. Let’s not put out any “facts” at all. It’s all so confusing and questionable and anything we say can be held against us by someone. Much better to say nothing. That way we’re safe.

  2. DevelopmentArrested says:

    “That doesn’t surprise me, because I’ve yet to see a library offer sweet onion chicken teriyaki sandwiches.”

    When I was in college, the library had a Chik-Fil-A (sp? sorry too lazy to look up the dumb spelling of a fast food restaurant).

    That was before we knew how homophobic that restaurant, so it was pretty popular with us liberal liberal arts students.

    • ChickenPolitics says:

      This apparent desire to smear what you disagree with must have clouded your abilities to spell names and apprehend non sequiturs.

    • DevelopmentArrested says:

      Apparently, your dumb political belief has dulled your sense of humor.

      Please get it polished before coming back to comment.

    • DevelopmentArrested says:

      Oh, I was also pretty darn close to spelling it right considering how incredibly dumb it’s spelled.

    • ChickenPolitics says:

      This word you keep using, “dumb,” I do not think it means what you think it means. (“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya…”)

      Despite how trite as it sounds, it’s often necessary for cherished and heartfelt sentiments to get bruised by cold, hard facts.

      The fact that your initial comment had nothing to do with the article and was…not made in good faith…will hurt your feelings far more than any impassioned invective I could possibly hurl.

      I won’t belabor this point with further observation because it’s unlikely that our kind hostess would appreciate the comments section straying from her interesting topic.

    • DevelopmentArrested says:

      “The fact that your initial comment had nothing to do with the article and was…not made in good faith…will hurt your feelings far more than any impassioned invective I could possibly hurl”

      I was just riffing on the Subway comment. I’m sorry I forgot that was a super serious blog where every comment must be serious. Because this is the Internet home of the serious business.

      And really, you don’t consider spelling filet “fil-a” to be stupid? Well, whatever. I’d rather not talk to you anymore. You may now go back to reading blog comments looking for comments about Chick-fil-a, so that you can argue about corporations’ inalienable right to be homophobic.

    • Annoyed Librarian says:

      “The Internet Home of Serious Business” describes this blog perfectly, and don’t dare think otherwise.

  3. Dan Kleinman says:

    AL said: “Oh, wait. Are we talking about the children collectively? Like a politician might. As in we have to do this, it’s ‘for the children.’ Oh, ‘for the children,’ well then let’s do it, whatever it is.”

    Thanks, AL, now I see yet another ALA double standard as ALA mocks that phrase when it comes to legally keeping children from inappropriate material:

    “ALA Mocks ‘Protecting the Children’”
    http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2009/07/ala-mocks-protecting-children.html

    • The Librarian With No Name says:

      Absolutely right. If we’re no longer allowed to use emotionally manipulative thought-terminating cliches, the terrorists have won.

  4. Tom M says:

    The word “facts” has pretty much come to mean “marketing” in most forms of public communication. Data is a much more boring word that can usually be trusted to refer to a dense, documented source that isn’t particularly quotable… for now.

    • gatoloco says:

      I wish the ALA wrote something well researched on qualitative outcomes instead. Such narratives can be powerful, and closer to the truth in this instance. I know the desire of many in the field is to use correlations, or imprecise facts, to prove the innate worth of our institutions. However the studies or reports are often done poorly, or with such flawed methodologies, that they hurt more than they help.

  5. DevelopmentArrested says:

    National parks are nature’s libraries.

  6. CarolM says:

    “There are more public libraries than McDonald’s in the U.S.—a total of 16,766 including branches.”

    This is helpful. Now I know that when I am in an unfamiliar town and I need to use the bathroom, I am better off looking for a library than a McDonald’s.