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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  1. But don’t circulation numbers only tell part of the story? What about all the people who ask reference questions, do research, read magazines and newspapers, use the Internet, use meeting rooms, participate in children’s programs, etc. So your fabulously old fashion habit of checking out actual books isn’t as big a stress on the system than you may think.

    • On the contrary, I spend a huge amount of time at the library and it’s usually a ghost town other than the lines waiting to use the computers. I regularly use three branch libraries in my own county, and travel every two weeks to San Francisco to use theirs. I fully understand that the library offers more than simply circulating materials. I just think it fails to explain fully why costs seem to differ so much between systems.

  2. Thanks for looking into this and sharing, it is really interesting!

  3. I’m surprised at all those costs. I had no idea. I would think it would be a lot lower per book, but maybe that’s only if more are circulating? I wonder how much mine costs…

  4. I’m not a statistics expert, but I am a graduate student in library science, so I’m somewhat familiar with these ideas. The cost-per-circulation number is rather meaningless for many reasons. First, some items don’t circulate. Reference books are typically the most expensive books in a library, and they never leave, so we can’t measure their worth by circulation. Second, a library is not only books. Computer usage at the library, ridiculously expensive database subscriptions, events and programs are all part of what a library’s budget goes to. Third, as you pointed out, there are a lot of variables in budgets: location, staff, etc. Bigger branches may be able to get discounts in purchasing, etc.

    If you want to evaluate circulations, look at the number of times each item circulates. This statistic is what most libraries use as a measure of when to weed an item (remove it from the collection). Different systems have different lengths of time, but if the new Dan Brown book circulates 100 times, it’s only 25 cents per use, which is great. Some books (award winners, still popular and published series, local interest) will always remain in a collection, but most collection development strategies focus on what will circulate at their library and if books go in and out enough to “earn their keep.” If you’re reading items that other people are also reading, then together you are saving the library money.

    Another interesting thing to look at is how much tax goes to the library. Where I live, it’s around $140 a year. I, personally, save myself far more than that amount of money, but there are others who never enter the library, so essentially, they fund my reading options.

    That being said, as a soon-to-be librarian, donations are always welcome:-)!

    • A real librarian! Thanks for joining the discussion as we try to figure out why our libraries are facing such devastating funding issues. Blogging (for me at least) is a “thinking out loud” process, and I’m delighted to have your input at this early stage. See today’s post, if you would be so kind – we can certainly use an educated observer.

  5. […] Second, I got curious about how to estimate cost per use, and I wanted to compare costs between different library systems that I have used.  […]

  6. Interesting! My first thought was that SF might be more expensive because the cost of living is high there. Salaries would be higher and so would be building rents. Do you think that might be part of it, also?

    • I do, definitely, though I don’t think it’s the whole picture. Sonoma County, where I live, is also a very expensive area with high salaries. Portlanders make less but their cost of real estate relative to income is also ridiculously high.

  7. Thought-provoking article. You may also appreciate this, the Library Use Value Calculator. Various libraries have modified it and posted in on their website. I imagine it could be a useful promotional tool around levy time!

    Good luck in your library career! It’s the best career I could have chosen–I hope you love it as much as I do.

    • Kim – I love library use calculators. Thanks for sharing the link!

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