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

Selection from Cites & Insights 7, Number 1: January 2007

Finding a Balance

Patrons and the Library

Here’s a novel idea: Organizations should pay attention to the people who use their services and pay their bills. Here’s another one: Organizations should find ways to involve all the people within their community who could or should use their services.

Those ideas don’t seem novel? Maybe not. To hear some people talk about it, you’d think being patron-oriented is a startling change for libraries and librarianship. Here’s how one radical librarian put it:

“Every reader his book. Every book its reader. Save the time of the reader.” [Emphasis added.]

You know the source: S.R. Ranganathan, 1931, Five Laws of Library Science. The laws still make sense, especially if “book” is defined more broadly. I can’t imagine there are too many librarians who haven’t read those laws—and I don’t imagine there are too many librarians who don’t care about their patrons.

What’s the Problem?

Maybe there isn’t a problem. Some libraries are doing a fine job of staying in touch with their patrons’ needs and desires. But I’m sure some librarians pay lip service to patron orientation more than they actively seek ways to maintain better contact, and that some libraries are good at “listening” to patrons but not quite so good at hearing them.

As with most of today’s pushes for transformation, maybe it’s not so much principles as techniques. Technology provides new ways to stay in touch with patrons, new ways to provide service. Technology can also enable patrons to be active parts of the library community in ways that weren’t previously feasible.

It’s not difficult to go overboard in patron orientation. Library users can be as mistaken and wrong-headed as librarians and frequently are: They may not be “broken” but they can certainly be wrong. “Give ‘em what they want” is a great idea in moderation, but potentially disastrous if it becomes the overriding principle for all library decisions. If librarians don’t know more than patrons about some things, why are they being paid to be librarians? For that matter, keeping touch with who “they” are and what “they” want—or, more to the point, what they expect from the library—is neither simple nor likely to be perfect.

Making Patrons Part of the Library

Here’s one way to look at patron orientation within a balanced library:

Patrons should be part of the library, and the library community should include the broadest feasible range of patrons from within the service community.

Ø    As part of your library, patron needs are clearly important—but so are other needs within the library community.

Ø    As part of your library, patrons can contribute intellectual effort as well as tax money and volunteer hours (and Friends membership), in ways that can improve and enhance (but probably not replace) traditional cataloging and recommendation services.

Ø    As part of your library, some subset of patrons should be involved in much of your planning and decision-making—but librarians need to lead the library community just as specialists lead other specialized communities.

Ø    Reaching out to bring more patrons into your library community means respecting the existing community as well; that’s balance.

Joshua M. Neff, in discussing “beta is forever” in a September 10, 2006 post at The goblin in the library, notes “libraries have always tried to gear their services and programming to their users…and done their best to tweak…their services and programs” (emphasis added)—but worries about the felt need to “have all the wrinkles ironed out before we present anything to the public.”

Neff looks at “beta is forever” differently, saying it “means always being mindful that what we do, we do for our patrons” and “means openly bringing our patrons in on what we do.” Later, he rewords that:

We need to include our patrons, because who better to improve services and programs than the people who actually take advantage of them?

While the thrust of the post is the need for continuing refinement (which you can either call “beta is forever” or, more familiarly, continuous monitoring and improvement: Google and Microsoft don’t stop refining and improving software just because they drop the “beta” label), I find that it fits here. Including patrons as part of the process, making them integral to the library rather than merely customers, may be key to balanced improvement.

Laura Cohen thinks along the same lines in a September 19, 2006 post at Library 2.0: An academic’s perspective: “Library 2.0 and the academic conundrum.”

Library 2.0 turns the role of academic librarians on its head. In the library 2.0 world view, user needs, preferences, practices, comfort zones, interests and skills in their handling of information converge to drive library services. Their participation in the creation and use of these services forges the library. Ultimately, users become our peers.

“Ultimately, users become our peers.” I would disagree that current user needs should drive all of an academic library’s practices, but making the patrons peers of the librarians in some respects makes sense. On the other hand, the next paragraph in the post strikes me oddly. It lists some of the traditional roles of academic librarians—but where those roles are legitimate (instructors, guides to researchers, classifiers), they continue to be vital. Academic librarians have always been more “guide on the side” than “sage on the stage” (to use a contrast popular a few years ago). Realistically, student needs, preferences, and practices also drive “classroom services” (very few academic institutions keep teaching classes with no students)—but that doesn’t negate the special skills and roles of faculty members.

What Do Patrons Want?

That question comes up repeatedly in blogs and elsewhere. There are no easy answers, given the basic confounding factors:

Ø    The patrons of each community are unique.

Ø    Very few patron communities are homogeneous; different patrons have different wants and needs.

Ø    Patron desires and needs change over time, and those needs they believe the library should fulfill are influenced by previous experience with this library and other libraries.

Ø    There are no ways to gain complete pictures of patron wants and needs. Feedback mechanisms providing more than anecdotal evidence are expensive and clumsy—and they need to be continual, since the makeup of the community and tools available to the library continue to change.

None of these says it’s hopeless or that librarians shouldn’t keep as much in touch with patrons as possible. They do, I believe, argue against knee-jerk “whatever patrons want” reactions.

What do freshmen want?

The ubiquitous librarian asked that question in an August 7, 2006 post. Faced with a new incoming class at Georgia Tech, he wondered, “So what do they want from us?” He asked 30 random students within the appropriate Facebook group that very question; 16 responded. That’s anecdotal, but still useful.

The top expectation? Resources! Just about all of the respondents expressed desire for a quality collection, with five mentioning a wide range of materials on all topics. Nothing shocking, but the words that kept surfacing were fast, online, and easy.

The second most frequently mentioned desire was quiet space. The library world (or maybe just us?) has been so focused on creating group and social spaces, but students definitely expect to use the library for escape.

Specific responses included the desire for “nooks and crannies so that I can study without seeing my friends every two minutes,” “a quiet place for me to study,” “a place to study where silence is enforced”—but also “research resources and such” and “a large range of books on every topic, a helpful library staff.” Anecdotally, place—more specifically a quiet place—matters a lot, and so do books (as well as online resources).

Working with the patrons

Laura Cohen set down a list of “twenty things I want to ask our users” in an October 6, 2006 post at Library 2.0: An academic’s perspective. She expresses the need to “work actively with our constituencies to find out what they need and how they want these needs to be delivered” and wants to ask questions ranging from the philosophical to the practical. When balanced with the long-term goals of the library, this form of direct user involvement as part of the library could be particularly beneficial in academic libraries, where the connections between librarians and patrons may have frayed over the decades. A few of the questions:

5. Why do you go to the library?

7. Do you want the library Web site to be more like Google, Yahoo!, or something in between?

8. What’s useful about the library Web site? What’s problematic? What’s missing?

13. Do you blog? If so, what service or software do you use, and what do you blog about?

14. Do you engage in tagging? If so, where? Would tagging of library research materials be useful to you?

16. If the library created a browser toolbar, what kinds of things would you like it to include?

It’s worth reading and thinking about the whole list, but consider some of these. Number 5 does refer to library as place (the first question asks users to explain the role of the library in their life); its open-endedness is interesting. Number 7 may be difficult, particularly since—while Google is the most prominent search engine—Yahoo! is used more commonly than Google, indicating that both models work for tens of millions of users. Number 8 (and 9, which asks the same questions about the catalog) should elicit worthwhile feedback, although it’s difficult for people to suggest what’s missing unless possibilities are offered.

Number 16 is incomplete, or could be usefully modified: A more crucial question, I believe, is “What functionality would make a library browser toolbar useful enough for you to download and use it?” Number 14 is tricky: It assumes patrons know what “tagging” means, and that they understand the social-software meaning, not the graffiti artist’s meaning. On the other hand, it’s a vital question if a library’s considering opening the catalog to folksonomy.

Then there’s number 13—and I admit to puzzlement. If I was a student asked that question, I think my answer might be “What business is that of yours—and how does it relate to my use of the library?” While libraries need to find ways to make patrons part of the library, there are limits. I wonder whether question 13 doesn’t fall into the same category (NOYDB, to use an acronym) as “Do you date? What is your sexual preference?”

Despite my problems with three of the twenty questions and sense that #13 is out of place, it makes sense to formulate this year’s list of things a library would like to know—as long as you recognize it would be impractical to expect all, or a significant fraction, of your patrons to answer such a lengthy set of questions. If 1,000 students and 100 faculty members did answer all 20 questions, what would you do with the responses? The set can, as Cohen suggests, “get us thinking”—and part of that thinking should be how you can use narrower surveys and other feedback mechanisms to integrate patrons into your library. I’d suggest being as nonintrusive as possible; if there’s no clear connection between the question and library services, why ask the question?

What do writers and readers expect of the library?

“What do patrons want?” is an overbroad question, to be sure. Lorcan Dempsey gets the question right in this September 20, 2006 post at Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog, discussing a Danish study of library perceptions and expectations by Birte Christensen-Dalsgaard. Patrons may want many things that they would never expect the library to supply (and might be appalled if the library attempted to supply them). While it’s wonderful to speak of exceeding expectations, we may go too far if we exceed reasonable boundaries.

Dempsey doesn’t summarize the entire report (which I haven’t yet read). Some of his notes are particularly relevant as you think about integrating patrons into the library and the limits of such integration. The study categorized three library-usage persona: the “drive-in user” (using the library in a goal-oriented way), the “worker bee” (using the physical space but not necessarily using library resources), and the library enthusiast (knowledgeable, uses library services, interacts with staff). “Library staff tend to be disappointed that the drive-in users do not make user of other services; not unsurprisingly, they ‘express delight’ about library enthusiasts.” But all three personae represent legitimate segments of the patron community. A balanced library will find ways to integrate all of them while encouraging, but not forcing, the first two to expand their connections with the library. I’ve never asked the reference librarians at my public library for help; that doesn’t make them less valuable or me less whole as a library user.

The Christensen-Dalsgaard report notes, “[P]eople tend not to use the library for searching, but once something is found, they do look to the library to get it.” That makes Google and the library not direct competitors—but I wonder how many of you read that as a failure on the part of libraries? I don’t. If patrons use some library tools as part of the patrons’ overall research toolkits, how is it a failure that they don’t use all of them?

Other findings of the report may also be useful in seeking balance, while recognizing that every user community is distinct. “Users expect library instruction to be goal-oriented.” Is this a surprise? “Students appreciated the physical locale of the library as a workplace…”

Will they tell us? Do they want change?

“Library 2.0” appeared on Life as I know it on September 4, 2006. Jennifer, the blogger, notes Nicole Engard’s musing about making her patrons (lawyers) part of the library: “I sometimes wonder if our audience (lawyers) will ever want to participate in the creation of ‘both the physical and virtual services’ in the library.” Extending that thought to academic libraries, Jennifer notes:

College students are often uninterested in participating in user groups, focus groups, taking surveys or offering constructive thoughts. They are much more likely to tell you what they do not like. As such, they are not necessarily thinking about how the library can serve them better—just about what doesn’t work for them. This presents an interesting challenge.

As the writer notes, there are limits to “Build it and [they] will come”: “Implementing new services just to get a reaction one way or the other isn’t a great way to make changes—actually, it is an awful way.”

What happens if patrons won’t indicate a need for the new? Jennifer finds that situation locally:

I don’t have patrons rallying for new services—they appear (through surveys, etc.) to be content with what we offer. As such, library staff don’t see any particular need to try new services. Without patrons demanding some of these new library 2.0 services or engaged library staff, it is difficult to justify them to the administration. So, in the meantime, I keep watching all of the exciting things that are happening and making small changes one at a time.

Maybe the patrons are part of that library, and maybe the appropriate balance in that case does call for continuity more than change. There’s nothing wrong with “making small changes one at a time”—and there’s a lot right with paying attention to patrons who seem satisfied with what they’re getting, as long as that doesn’t mean an unwillingness to consider extensions to what’s working well. It’s possible—it’s likely—that for many libraries, the best course of action in 2007 is to do what they did in 2006 very well and keep thinking about what changes might make sense for 2008. Balanced change may be slower than revolutionary change, but it’s also a lot less bloody.

Laura Cohen raises similar questions in an academic library context in “Collaboration in Library 2.0: Can it really happen?” (posted October 13, 2006 at Library 2.0: An academic’s perspective). She notes that “Library 2.0” requires active collaboration between librarians and patrons—and wonders whether patrons are interested in such collaboration.

We’d like them to help us develop our Web sites, tag our content, comment on our blogs, collaborate with us in developing library services, provide advice to their peers about library resources and services, podcast with us, and so on. We expect that they’ll be happy to see us on “their” community sites and will actively engage us in these spaces.

Cohen notes MyLibrary as a cautionary tale: Big when first released, many MyLibrary systems never really caught on with students. Cohen’s “waiting to see how much use is made of the review writing, table of contents and notes features in WorldCat.” She notes that adding social networking takes effort on the part of librarians—but also on the part of users. “So what if we launch Library 2.0. Will anyone come in the way that we hope?”

The Balanced Approach

It’s a matter of balance—not only making patrons integral to the library community, but balancing what you hear from anecdotal and survey feedback with known needs and long-term issues.

The customer is always…what?

Jessamyn West is surely as patron-oriented as any librarian I know of, but she wonders just how far patron orientation can go in this October 21, 2006 post. She links to a post on InfoBreakers in which a patron felt that the library should automatically renew books that were due while she was on vacation, particularly since she had “told someone” she would be on vacation. The writer at InfoBreaker noted:

I know, I know, customer service is at the core of Library 2.0. Finding new ways to connect with customers and redefining how we connected in the old channels. But where are the boundaries of Library 2.0? At what point do we say, “You’re just going to have to look elsewhere for help on that.”?

As West put it, “As we try to open our communities and have patrons ‘join the conversation’ and be more interactive with users, how do we learn to set new boundaries?” West continues:

If the library was totally democratic, would users still fine themselves? Implement noise policies? Shirt/shoes dress codes? We know they would be unlikely to, as a group, create their own ILS or their own classification system (no, folksonomy is not a classification system, yes it is very useful on its own). So my question is and has been, what is the role for the librarian, the supposed “information expert” in our 2.0 vision of ourselves? We facilitate access to information surely. However, there are many people, librarians and patrons, deeply in love with the idea of library as place.

After some other comments, West closes: “How much do we bend to meet our users? How much do we expect them to bend to meet us?” Both questions must be asked if libraries are to find a balanced approach that integrates patrons into libraries. The patron is part of the library community; that doesn’t mean they always behave appropriately, and it certainly doesn’t make any patron the boss of the library community.

InfoBreaker continued the discussion on October 24 with “The customer is always right…except when they’re wrong.” The writer wonders whether librarians are being neutered as a profession—and notes that patron expectations need to be balanced against other patron expectations. Waive the fines for the vacationer, and books aren’t available for other patrons. This writer is thinking about balance and the mix of patrons that make up a library community, as evidenced in this closing paragraph (excerpted):

[O]ur policies need to be designed in such a way that we maximize the publicness of our public libraries. That as a resource, it remains for as many people as possible to use. Our collections, our services and our missions ought to be developed and judged by their betterment of the public good and the public’s access to resources, rather than the tech savvy, the teens or the people who are standing in front of you at the time, and often that means stopping one person’s swing to keep the other’s nose.

If that final reference is obscure, it’s because I omitted Oliver Wendell Holmes’ saying, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” A balanced approach to patron orientation means not only respecting the needs and rights of all patrons, but also considering the needs of the future community and preserving the record of the community.

Jennifer at Life as I know it commented on November 4, 2006, “Is it all about the customer?”

[Ho]w far should we go to provide our patrons with services they want and/or need[?] In a perfect world, the answer should be as far as possible. However, in reality, there are all sorts of constraints that limit what services we can provide—time, money, knowledge, resources, technology, government regulations, etc. Ultimately, we are trying to provide the best services to our patrons with the resources that we possess. And I’m really working hard to figure out how best to do this. Allocation of resources is not an easy task. We all need to make decisions about what we can do - and conversely what we cannot… Balance is key to this equation. [Loads of unpaid overtime isn’t the answer.] [A]dding resources that current staff can’t support isn’t the answer either. It is all about the customer—but providing the best service to the customer doesn’t always mean doing everything that the customer wants. We can only work with what we have.

“Providing the best service to the customer doesn’t always mean doing everything that the customer wants.” It is, indeed, a question of balance—and balance across all patrons within the library community sometimes means ignoring certain felt needs.

Reality and Special Needs

Yes, patrons need to be integrated into library planning and operations, and new technologies and media provide more ways to do this. No, library services shouldn’t be about doing “whatever the patrons ask for.” Sometimes it’s necessary to set aside what some patrons might want in order to serve the broader community—or to keep working at all.

Unfortunately, it’s also easy to assume that changes will suit patrons. The Jurassic Librarian discussed this in an October 25, 2006 post, “Librarians to patrons: Drop dead.” Noting that libraries are, indeed, frequently innovators and early adopters of technology, Jurassic notes that this can go too far:

[W]e tend to deploy new technology in libraries without regard to patron wishes. We simply bull ahead. We don't ask permission. We assume we know what is best for our patrons. We don't learn from patrons' daily struggles with machines and interfaces.

The example given: Replacing card catalogs with online catalogs. I won’t quote the whole discussion, but it’s true (in most libraries) that “Nobody asked our patrons about the change.” It’s also true that card catalogs were “constructed on a human scale” and online catalogs continue to confound and, in essence, reduce library service for “those who cannot use information technology and those who refuse to use it.”

It’s a tricky example. Whatever their flaws, online catalogs do offer richer access than card catalogs—but they continue to be weaker in some areas (Jurassic quotes a 1999 American Libraries article where I discussed this issue). Realistically, most libraries couldn’t afford the labor involved in maintaining a card catalog—but I suspect most librarians also believed, and still believe, that they were doing their patrons a favor by making the change.

Would libraries be better off if they had involved patrons from the start and followed the advice to stick with card catalogs? Would that have been the advice from patrons? Would we be better off now if the first two generations of online catalogs had never existed? I have no answers, but I suspect answers involve more complex equations than just following patron leads.

Finally for this discussion, I’ll quote from a Publib post by Aaron Smith relating to the requirement that libraries should involve all patrons as part of the library community—and that a balanced approach means paying special attention to special needs:

Is there a more radically egalitarian institution than the American public library? We have this variety of users precisely because we accept all comers and serve them without bias. Most of us make every effort to come as closely to this ideal as possible.

Good libraries not only accept all comers, they make special efforts to serve those most in need of service. Good libraries—particularly good public libraries—pay special attention to the minorities, to those not readily served by majoritarian goods. I think that issue deserves more exploration—and I explored a group of related issues in a 2001 American Libraries article which is not available on the open web and many of you probably haven’t read. The article appears below (with a different title), in full but in its submitted rather than published form.

Patrons, Libraries and the Pareto Principle[1]

The best public libraries are exceptional institutions—where “exceptional” is a literal description, not an encomium. Good public libraries cater to exceptions: to the ideas, people, and literature too often ignored in a majoritarian society. The best public libraries are “counter-Pareto” institutions: they go beyond the Pareto Principle for the long-term good of the community.

What’s the Pareto Principle? You’ve almost certainly used the observation even if you don’t recall the name. Think of it as the 20:80 (or 80:20) rule. Twenty percent of the contributors in a field account for 80% of the field. So, for example, 20% of a restaurant’s menu probably generates 80% of its business; 20% of a store’s customers produce 80% of its business; 20% of currently-released movies will do 80% of the box office business; 20% of advertising produces 80% of results. On the flip side, 20% of customers will generate 80% of the complaints—and solving 20% of the problems in a process may resolve 80% of the failures. The Pareto Principle holds true in an astonishingly wide variety of fields, including many aspects of librarianship.

Vilfredo Pareto and J.M. Juran

Who was Pareto? Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) was an economist, sociological theorist, and—supposedly—avid gardener. Born in Paris, he graduated from the University of Turin and was a professor of political economy at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Pareto observed that 20% of the population of Italy owned 80% of the land. According to one citation, he later observed that 20% of the peapods in his garden yielded 80% of the peas.

Did Vilfredo Pareto formulate a principle stating that, in most fields, a few of the contributors (20%) account for the bulk of the effect (80%)? Probably not. According to Dr. J. M. Juran, “Dean of American consultants on quality control,” the first published use of the term “Pareto Principle” was in the paper “Universals in Management Planning and Controlling,” The Management Review, October 1954. Juran generalized Pareto’s observations to other fields and chose to use Pareto’s name for that generalization.

Dr. Juran’s belated confession that the Pareto principle should probably be the Juran principle comes in a charming article, “The Non-Pareto Principle: Mea Culpa” ( SP7518.html). As he notes, it’s far too late to rename the principle of unequal distribution.

Pareto offered an observation in one field—one that echoed and quantified similar observations from previous scholars. Juran generalized the observation into a principle that seems to hold across most endeavors. That’s all to the good: the Pareto Principle (whether rightly named or not) is useful shorthand for the sort of distribution that seems prevalent in many areas.

Juran went one step further, a step that made sense for quality control but causes problems elsewhere. He characterized the Pareto Principle as separating the “vital few” from the “trivial many.” When you’re locating the 20% of problems in a system that cause 80% of the difficulties in using that system, the distinction makes sense—particularly because you can proceed in an iterative fashion. That is, once you’ve corrected the worst 20%, chances are that 20% of the remaining problems—16% of the original—are causing 80% of the remaining difficulties—again, 16% of the original. Solve those (36% of the original problems) and you’ve approached perfection (eliminating 96% of the original difficulties).

When the Pareto Principle becomes the basis for decision-making, “trivial” can be a tricky word, as it slides quickly over into “irrelevant.” You see that at some banks, stock brokerages, and other service institutions, where nearly all customer service is aimed at the 20% of depositors who represent 80% of the deposits: the rest of us are trivial. Some stores seem intent on reducing their customer base to the “vital” 20%; from a purely profit-oriented perspective, that may be a reasonable attitude.

Even in the private sector, businesses run into trouble when they try to apply the Pareto Principle too broadly. Crown bookstores carry the 20% (or less) of books that represent 80% of sales—but Borders, Barnes & Noble, and similar superstores find it much more profitable to carry much of the “irrelevant” 80%.

A similar situation may be playing out for video rentals. Pundits wrote off neighborhood video stores some years back: video-on-demand, offering the 20% of movies that people really want to see, would wipe them out. But the video rental stores survive; even though most of us do indeed stick to the new releases (and to a minority of those), we appreciate the broader selection and will pay a few cents extra to have it available.

For that matter, some financial institutions have benefited from the Pareto orientation of their competitors. It’s not unusual for people to move from the irrelevant 80% to the vital 20% as their conditions improve. People with reasonable memories make a point of avoiding those institutions that shunned them when they were struggling; that’s a rational tendency that favors more egalitarian institutions.

Libraries: Counter-Pareto Institutions?

It may be useful to think of public libraries as counter-Pareto institutions. Good public libraries concentrate on the other 20%: the 20% of needs and uses not satisfied by the “vital” 20% of resources, and the users left out by majoritarian services.

Consider some ways that the Pareto Principle affects libraries, and why libraries need to focus on the exceptions:

Ø    Most of us get at least 80% of our information and entertainment from sources other than public libraries: TV, newspapers, magazine subscriptions, and so on. It’s more difficult to satisfy the other 20% of our information and entertainment needs; if we’re sensible, we look to public libraries for those exceptional needs.

Ø    80% of public library users may be satisfied with small popular collections, as they’re looking for best sellers and evergreens. Almost any library can satisfy those requirements; good libraries work to handle the special needs of the other 20%. That may mean that 80% of your collection goes to serve 20% of user needs—and maybe that’s the way it should be.

Ø    80% of the user population of a typical public library can probably afford to buy all the books they want or need. Libraries are the most vital for the 20% who can’t afford to buy their own materials.

Ø    User surveys will show the 20% of library services that meet 80% of needs. Those may not be the most important services for the health of your community, particularly if you degrade the other 80% of services.

I am neither qualified to suggest formulas for incorporating counter-Pareto thinking nor brave enough to do so. Most libraries don’t adhere to pure Pareto thinking in any case: it’s a rare public library that devotes 80% of its acquisition budget to the 20% of materials that will yield 80% of the circulation, even though a case could be made for doing so. On the other hand, most public libraries also don’t spread acquisitions funds evenly across the entire spectrum of publishing; you do—properly—devote more dollars to the materials most likely to be widely used and to meet your own community’s immediate needs.

Counter-Pareto Thinking: A Hypothetical Budget

Counter-Pareto thinking might suggest some balances. The numbers and ratios used here are illustrative and reflect a profound ignorance of current public library selection and budgeting process: this is entirely hypothetical. Let’s assume a $1 million materials budget (suggesting at least a $5 million operating budget), with 20% set aside for reference, special local collections, and digital resources, leaving $800,000.

If your library knows borrowing patterns and has use-oriented acquisitions policies, it’s fair to suggest that 40% of the remaining budget should be devoted to the “top 20%”—the items that will get 80% of potential circulation. That’s $320,000, leaving $480,000.

Take another chunk out: 40% devoted to the next 20%--the materials that will fill 80% of remaining user needs. That’s $192,000—and you’ve now met 96% of likely user needs. (This assumes that the Pareto Principle does work iteratively for circulation patterns. That may not be true, but it’s a reasonable starting point.)

Following these allocations—two levels of “giving ‘em what they want”—you have $288,000 available to meet special needs and to expand the horizons of your users. Should some portion of that money go to alternative literature, small press books, and the resources that will make your most frequent users extremely uncomfortable? Possibly so; it’s reasonable to suggest that any good public library should have something in it to offend (or at least upset) almost anybody.

Even if you take a strongly majoritarian perspective and allocate half of your funds to the best-selling 20%, and do that twice, there should still be deliberate funding for exceptional cases. At the end of the first two cuts, $200,000 should be available. $200,000 will buy a lot of specialized resources, alternative literature, and small press books—and it will help to build a diverse, lasting collection that will grow with your public as their needs and tastes change.

I’m not suggesting any radical changes in budgeting. My naïve guess, based on browsing within a range of public libraries around the country, is that public libraries do engage in counter-Pareto thinking (perhaps unconsciously). While the difficult areas of publishing may receive less attention than they deserve, most good libraries do go well beyond what would be needed to serve everyday needs and popular demand. Instead of buying bestsellers at saturation levels, libraries buy and lease enough copies to be responsive while allocating some funds to important items that may circulate once a decade—but that will mean far more than any bestseller to the rare users who read those items.


The counter-Pareto perspective may clarify some misleading claims about the future of libraries. “Give ‘em what they want” has always been a Pareto assertion: focus on the predictable materials that will please 80% of users. “Give ‘em what they need,” the counter-Pareto assertion, is much more difficult to carry out. Good libraries do both.

The Whole Library Community

If a library finds that it can’t serve 100% of the needs of 100% of its potential patrons, where should it do a less than ideal job? Consider a worst case: based on unusually effective patron interaction, it’s clear that 20% of the patrons will be unsatisfied no matter how resources are distributed and services are defined—but the library can determine which 20%. To make a silly hypothetical even sillier, let’s assume that one set of choices will result in “inferior” service as defined by the 20% most technologically adept patrons in the service community—and that the other plausible set of choices will delight them, but will result in inferior service to the 20% least technologically adept patrons.

Which direction would you choose?

Faced with this implausible dichotomy, I know which course I would argue for, and I think my choice is obvious from the section above. The 20% least technologically adept patrons are almost certainly the 20% most in need of library services—they’re likely to be those left behind in various ways.

In the real world of most libraries, you should never face such a stark choice. But if someone tells you it’s OK to ignore 20% as long as you please 80%, think long and hard about which 20% you’ll ignore. A balanced public library maintains its soul and its character as the most egalitarian, most accessible public agency: one place offering free services where nobody should ever be ashamed to show up.

For the rest of the story…

This essay is the draft version of Chapter 2 of Balanced Libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change, a new book now available at If you found this chapter worthwhile, why not buy the book?


Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7, Number 1, Whole Issue 85, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at OCLC.

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[1] This section appeared, possibly with editorial changes, as “Exceptional Institutions: Libraries and the Pareto Principle” in American Libraries 32:6 (June/July 2001), pp. 72-74. What appears here is the original draft submitted on November 10, 2000.