How Much Do I Cost the Library? Part Two

November 10, 2009 at 12:13 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

First, I posted about a 10-day closure at my library, caused by a budget shortfall.  I wanted to know what I could do to help, as a heavy user who does not contribute to library funding via property taxes.  (Over 90% of my library’s funds come from that source).

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. 

Ultimately I wanted to encourage my readers to do what I am trying to do, which is figure out ways rational and ridiculous to drum up funds so our libraries don’t have to shut their doors, even for ten days.  This would include writing a check, which I would have made out for maybe $40 without any sense that this would not only do little to affect the $1.7 million shortfall, but also come nowhere near my true impact on costs.

Academic questions have come up, as they are bound to, about what services libraries provide and how to calculate costs.  Clearly dividing the library’s annual budget by number of items checked out does not provide a clear picture.  What it does do is catch people’s attention.  Academic people shun questions of marketing because they are vulgar, but the truth is that funding comes from the concrete more often than from the abstract.

On to the concrete.  I’ve said that blogging is a way of thinking out loud.  I type fast, I talk fast, I even think fast, but research takes time and analysis takes even more time.  Let’s explore some more.

I’m going to compare the San Francisco and Multnomah County library systems, partly because it was easier to drum up statistics on daily visits.  Both cities are roughly comparable in population, region, crummy weather, and number of independent bookstores.  (As opposed to, say, Fargo and Chicago).

Population.  San Francisco: 799,263.  Multnomah County: 685,950.  Multnomah is 86% the size of San Francisco.

Library circulation.  San Francisco: 9,638,160.  Multnomah: 20,000,000.  Multnomah’s is 207% that of San Francisco.

Library visits.  San Francisco: 5,963,197.  Multnomah: 4,701,886.  The Multnomah library system endures 79% of the patron visits experienced by San Francisco libraries.

Collection.  San Francisco: 5,860,577.  Multnomah: 2,030,000.  The Multnomah library system has 35% the number of books San Francisco has.

Internet terminals: San Francisco: 358.  Multnomah: 378.  Multnomah has 5% more web-access computers.

Budget: San Francisco: $75.1 million.  Multnomah: $49 million.

In layman’s terms, Multnomah County circulates more than double the books at 2/3 the cost, has more computers even with about 80% the usage (visits, population), and yet has a scant 35% of the media collection, compared to San Francisco.  If this is due to any reasons other than labor, property, and utility costs, librarians should be taking frantic notes right now. 

Another way to look at these numbers is that Multnomah experiences roughly 2.3 patron visits per item and 9.85 check-outs per item.  San Francisco experiences roughly .98 visits per item and .60 check-outs per item.

What is Multnomah County doing with its relatively skimpy collection that San Francisco could perhaps imitate?

What does a library look like to a patron?  Many cardholders will go years between visits.  Common complaints address the sad and maddening issue of the homeless, the slightly less sad and slightly more maddening issue of unsupervised children, and the merely maddening issue of cell phone use.  Internet terminals are so fraught with territorialism and competition that security stand by to break up fisticuffs – I’ve seen it happen.  I believe in my heart that the vast majority of library users know about as much about their library’s permanent reference collection as they do about the Rosetta stone.

The health and well-being of public libraries rests largely on what they can draw from property taxes, however much the Venn diagram of property owners overlaps with library patrons.  We have to focus on the bottom line, and it means looking at libraries the way taxpayers do.  In my area, we’ve been hit extremely hard by crashing real estate values, and we’re still slashing government budgets and laying off government workers.  I’m scared for my library and I wish it could be more cost-effective. 

Most likely, it will have to be.

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