Libraries: the future through the past
From 2000 to 2008, a bit less than 1/3 of public libraries saw declining visits per capita. In the same period, a bit over 1/3 of public libraries saw declining circulation per capita.
I emphasize the “per capita” because when you just use mean and median, visits have increased while circulation has been flat.
No, I can’t provide a link. I’m doing the crunching of IMLS statistics - feel free to replicate by pulling the data.
Now here’s the entertaining thing. Other than the fact that approximately 80% of the libraries with declining visits per cap have declining circulation per cap, there is no correlation between these and any other numbers. Changes in staff, changes in budgets, changes in numbers of computers, changes in hours, changes in programs… nothing. Yes, that includes size of the library, the state, county, or city it’s in. To put it more clearly, you cannot look at any other statistic and guess whether the library is growing or shrinking.
I think libraries are important. I also think that for them to grow and continue to be around, we sorta need to know why some are doing so while others are failing. The fact we can’t do that says we’re not getting the right information in our statistics.
So why am I posting this page? I’m flummoxed. I’ll be asking library directors why they think their library is growing or shrinking via qualitative surveys, but I’d prefer to avoid wide-open essay surveys if I can. I’d like to have some ideas of better questions than just “why has your library’s performance improved/declined over the past decade?”
This is especially important given it’s 2010, not 2008. Since the 2008 numbers were assembled we hit a major recession and it’s had a nasty impact on the field. (As a small example, I’m an unemployed librarian, and I’m far from the only long-term unemployed librarian. Cities with shrinking budgets tend to cut libraries first and recover them last.) So we’ve got two years of experiences that can muddy the trail. I’d like to avoid answers that boil down to “it’s the recession, stupid.”
The floor is open for comments and suggestions.