How Much Do I Cost the Library?

November 9, 2009 at 3:18 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Last week we were exploring budget cuts for my county library system.  I wondered how much it costs for me to check out one item.   A little research shocked me out of my shoes.

My library’s budget this year is $16.6 million.  Circulation statistics are about 3.6 million.  That works out to $4.60 per item.  (Factoring in labor, real estate, utilities, and all).  [Looking back, I had estimated $3.75, much closer than I would have figured].

I had absolutely no idea it cost so much!  I understand that higher circulation would lower the cost per item, because certain costs are fixed.  But still!

I checked out 294 items from my county library this year.  (The remainder of the books I read either came from the San Francisco library system, Paperspine, my own collection, or a friend).  So I can say that I cost my library $1352.40, not including things I have checked out but haven’t yet read.  If I had bought every book I’ve read so far, I would have spent at least $2750 and as much as $5100 in 2009 to date.

I couldn’t help but wonder if certain library systems have higher or lower costs per circulated item.  Naturally my first thought was for San Francisco, where I also make use of my privileges.  (San Francisco allows all California residents to apply for a card, which is strange for such a large geographical area).  I held off on posting this until I had time to do more research.

Now my jaw is hanging open.  The closest I can come to a cost-per-circulation for all San Francisco branch libraries is $9.01.  That’s 8,334,391 circulated items at a cost of $75.1 million.

Out of nostalgia, I checked stats on the Multnomah County library system, one of the great loves of my life.  Now, why is it that they can circulate 19,900,816 items at a cost of $49 million?  That works out to a circulation cost of $2.46 per item, staggeringly cheaper.

I never took statistics and I’m a little bewildered by all these data.  It seems pretty straightforward though:  We budget a certain amount, and a certain number of items are checked out.  Circulation goes up, cost per item goes down, at least somewhat.  Maybe I should be more concerned with driving crowds into the library to check out books rather than worrying that I should be donating something like 5% of my income to defray my personal impact on the system.

Factors that I think might affect the costs of running a library:

  • Theft
  • Vandalism
  • Security, including homelessness management
  • Heat and water cost, usage
  • Proportion of circulation devoted to new items, i.e. everyone wants to read the same thing while it’s still trendy

It still doesn’t make sense to me why Portlanders can run an award-winning library system so much more cheaply than San Franciscans.  Perhaps we should pay more attention to this (and, while we’re at it, their transit system too).

Further thoughts on this topic!

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