Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 12, Number 9: October 2012

The Front

Give Us a Dollar and We’ll Give You Back Four (2012-13)

Public libraries represent excellent value propositions, quite apart from being at the heart of healthy communities large and small. Public libraries typically yield several dollars in benefits for every dollar in expenditures. Public libraries also need better funding to do better work—and unless they have separate funding agencies, must compete for that funding with other agencies at the local and state level.

Public libraries need to tell their stories, stories that are distinct for each of the more than 9,000 public libraries in the U.S., to improve and maintain funding and to assure healthy futures. This book won’t tell your library’s story, but it should provide a resource to help you tell your library’s story—specifically, how your library’s doing on measurable metrics (compared to other libraries) and why it deserves better funding to do even better..

The book is 262 pages long and consists primarily of several hundred concise tables, designed to help you compare your library to other comparable libraries in several dozen ways. It’s based on the FY2010 Public Library Data Tables released by the Institute for Museum and Library Studies (IMLS) at the end of July 2012. The book covers 8,659 libraries and library districts. (649 were omitted either because they failed to provide enough information to IMLS to be workable, because they have less than a quarter-time librarian, because they have less than $5 per capita or more than $400 per capita funding or, in two cases, because they were the only U.S. territorial libraries not omitted for other reasons. Those 649 libraries, roughly 7% of the total, serve less than 2% of the population and circulated less than 0.5% of total library circulation.)


Give Us a Dollar and We’ll Give You Back Four (2012-13) is available in three versions, all with precisely the same content:

·         An $11.99 PDF may suit most libraries’ needs best, especially smaller libraries. The page size is 6x9", so it should be easy to read on a desktop, notebook, tablet or ebook reader. There is no DRM: your library owns the book. (If your library or consortium believes patrons might find the book interesting, you’re welcome to put it on your ebook server: no contract required. It’s your book.)

·         A $21.95 trade paperback (cover shown above) is printed on cream 60# book stock and should be an easy book to read and use. This may be the best version for library consultants, larger libraries for whom an extra $9.96 doesn’t make a big difference and the secondary audience of library people who will find the tables interesting on their own.

·         A $31.50 casebound hardcover is the most permanent form. I believe any library serving a library school should own this book. It’s not only the first book out based on the IMLS FY2010 tables, it offers a distinctive set of comparisons of relatively small groups of libraries.

All three versions are available from Lulu, Lulu frequently has sales during weekday periods (most often announced on a Monday and good through that Friday), typically offering 15% or 20% off. You might go first to the Lulu home page and look for a coupon code, then search for “Give Us a Dollar” to get to the books. You can buy and download the PDF immediately. The trade paperback will typically take a week or so to reach you; the hardcover may take an additional week.

The Idea

This book gathers key metrics for public library support and use, arrives at a Benefit Ratio based on conservative estimate of the value of various countable library functions and provides ways for a given library to compare itself with roughly 510 libraries serving a similar legal service area population (LSA), a few dozen libraries within that group with similar funding, and other libraries in its state. A library can also compare itself to libraries with similar funding across the nation.

All metrics are based on FY2010 IMLS data, but most are derived from that data rather than using it directly. Three taken directly from the data are open hours (for all outlets in a library system), number of personal computers with internet access for public use, and LSA population. LSA is used only as the basis for dividing libraries into 17 roughly equal-size groups of from 492 to 532 libraries each. There’s one chapter for each of these groups, a chapter offering numbers for the nation’s libraries in general and a chapter offering a subset of metrics for each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Other metrics are derived from the raw data:

·         Expenditures per capita, dividing the total operating expenditures by LSA.

·         Circulation per capita and circulation per hour

·         Patron visits per capita and patron visits per hour

·         Reference transactions per capita

·         Program attendance per capita

·         PC use per capita and computers per thousand patrons.

The Benefit Ratio is based on circulation, visits, open hours, reference transactions, program attendance and a PC benefit calculation that measures the larger of reported PC use or PC availability. Five out of six of the 8,659 libraries covered have benefit ratios that round to 4 (two-thirds have benefit ratios that round to 5 or higher), so the book’s title applies to the vast majority of libraries—even though it’s far too conservative, leaving out many less calculable or unreported benefits of a public library.

Expenditure Brackets

I split expenditures per capita into ten brackets based on actual numbers; each bracket includes roughly 10% of the libraries. In order to have even-dollar breakpoints (for example, $17-$20, not $16.45-$19.87), the brackets vary from 8.7% to 11.0% of libraries or 756 to 954 libraries, although six of the ten brackets have 850 to 882 libraries each.

The top bracket is $73 to $399.99 per capita (omitting 16 libraries with extraordinarily good funding). The bottom is $5 to $11.99 per capita (omitting 144 libraries with exceptionally poor funding).

Benchmarks and Budget Tables

For each metric  other than expenditures and LSA, I divided libraries into anywhere from eight to ten brackets, depending on the number of brackets that would yield reasonable cutoff points. For some metrics, it was feasible to aim for roughly equal numbers of libraries in each bracket. In a few cases, it made sense to have smaller or larger brackets for very low or very high figures (e.g., only 5% of libraries had 100 or more PCs; only 6% had 24 or more circs per capita and only 6% had less than 2 circs per capita).

For each size of library (each of 17 LSA size groups), each of ten metrics has a benchmark table showing the number and percentage of libraries in each bracket, cumulative percentage (always working from largest to smallest numbers), median benefit ratio and median expenditures per capita for libraries in that row. Each row typically represents a few dozen libraries, although that can vary widely.

Each pair of metrics also appears in a combined table that shows, for each expenditure bracket, the first quartile, median and third quartile numbers for the metric. The tables combine two metrics purely in order to save space. Again, each bracket—each row—typically involves a few dozen libraries.

The case study in the July 2012 Cites & Insights takes a hypothetical New York library through some of the tables to show how they work. You should be able to see how your library compares with a few dozen or few hundred libraries and, by looking at adjacent rows and chapters, how slightly better funded libraries can offer better and more service. You can also see whether you’re doing better or worse than similar libraries on these measures.

The case study is obsolete on a couple of counts, in addition to using older data. The state chapter, which includes four of the ten metrics (to keep the book to a reasonable size), now splits libraries by expenditures per capita rather than size so as to keep it comparable to the other chapters. I’ve also added more metrics to those shown in the case study.


There isn’t any—at least not past the first chapter. I deliberately allow tables to stand on their own. If you can’t stand numbers, you’ll find this book useless and bewildering. (That might also be the case if you like numbers, but that’s a different issue.)

I found lots of things interesting as I was building the tables; I don’t believe there was a single table that didn’t show me something worth noting. But including all the things I find interesting would both make the book much longer and also tend to make the book less generally useful to tell your story—and much less useful if you’re interested in looking at the picture on your own. I plan to point out some interesting items within tables and, possibly more often, across tables and chapters as posts on Walt at Random, as items FriendFeed or Google+ or as Facebook updates. I also plan to bring together some of those observations (and more) in the November 2012 Cites & Insights. I’m not exaggerating when I say I can envision finding a thousand points of interest without too much trouble. I don’t plan to write a 1,000-paragraph essay!

One thing you’ll find in the comments I do write: as in the book, I do not name individual libraries. That’s not the point of the book. I’m not naming stars; I’m trying to help a range of libraries tell their own stories.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought having a chapter for every 510-odd libraries made more sense than the usual practice of lumping thousands of smaller libraries into a few brackets and having brackets for far fewer large libraries. I could say that small libraries are equally important to the life of their communities—but that may be wrong. Small communities are likely to have fewer alternative places, fewer bookshops, fewer alternatives in general. Public libraries that serve a few hundred or a few thousand people may be more important to the health of their communities. I’m trying to give them equal attention and priced the book—especially the PDF—so they could afford it.

Audiences and Uses

I hope quite a few public libraries will find this book worthwhile as a way to help tell their—your—stories to funding agencies. You’ll want to send me email ( as soon as you order the book, giving your library’s name, city, state and zip code, so I can send you the metrics that apply to your library: That saves you time when using the book.

Consultants are an obvious audience for the book. There’s nothing here you couldn’t prepare yourself with a lot of hours in Excel or Access, but I’ve done that work already. That’s only the start of preparing a library’s story, to be sure, but it’s a start.

Library schools should have this as a detailed resource on what public libraries do.

Some librarians and other library people may find this interesting on its own. I’ve designed it so each table is small enough to read and evaluate in a minute or two. With one exception, there are never more than eleven rows or seven columns of data, and a typical table takes up one-third of a book page. I believe it’s all self-explanatory after you read the first two chapters (and possibly the appendix).

Give Me a Tenspot…

Give it a try. I believe—I hope—it offers a new and useful resource. If enough of you agree, there will be a new version in another year.

I made a deliberate choice to separate library names and places (except for state) even before I started running the numbers. To date, I haven’t even looked up the figures for my local public library or the ones I previously used. I’ll only connect a library’s name with its metrics when I get emails requesting the metrics for individual libraries.

Is all this worth $10 (what I get from each purchase, give or take a few cents)? That’s up to you, and of course it may actually cost you $2 to $20 more. There’s a 15-page preview at Lulu, showing the first part of Chapter 1 and most of one of the other chapters. Take a look.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 12, Number 9, Whole # 153, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced irregularly by Walt Crawford.

Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2012 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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