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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  1. […] Further thoughts on this topic! […]

  2. (Disclosure: I have almost finished with my master’s in library science, and I spend a lot of time at class and at work talking about issues like this, although usually from the – what statistics have meaning for us as a library mode. How do we use numbers to represent all the things we do?)

    I would be interested to see other libraries thrown into the mix as well. I like these statistics much better. I find the circulation numbers odd. I would first look to see what the circulation loan periods are at each institution. Do some books go out for seven days? How long do dvds check out for? DVDs are 60% of circulation at my library, but part of the reason (we think) is that they can’t be requested (so they’re always out or on the shelf), and you can only have them for two days. DVDs can easily circulate fifteen times a month. DVDs are also incredibly popular at our library, but it throws our circulation numbers off. Similarly, our fiction new releases (less than 500 pages) only circulate for one week. Patrons may renew them once if the book is not requested. The one-week limit lets more people read the newest books more quickly, but it also boosts circulation numbers. The suburban libraries nearest to us have 14-day and 21-day circulation periods. All of these present statistical variances.

    I looked briefly at the Web sites of the two libraries you featured. The biggest disparity I noticed in my quick search was the extensive list of departments at the main branch of San Francisco’s Public Library (the list is here: I clicked through a few, such as the San Francisco History Center, which is quite impressive and the official archives for the city and county. They have a book arts and special collections center. They are not an ARL (Association of Research Libraries) member, but I believe New York is the only Public Library to serve in this capacity. Meanwhile, Multnomah County’s focus seems to be more general. Regardless, the level of scholarship and research sources available seems to explain the disparity in collection size. Again, I am not an expert on either library.

    I’m also curious to see the budget for SFPL (although, admittedly, not curious enough to try to find it). Did the budget numbers you found include the $105.9 million bond to renovate and build new libraries ( If so, the money is already being spent on not just construction costs, but also collection costs to outfit the new library from scratch. Until the branches are all open, circulation will be down, while budget and collection items will be up.

    I’ve really enjoyed these posts!

    • Interesting points!

      Both libraries have 21-day limits on “most items” except 7 days for videos in San Francisco. The San Francisco library allows 10 disk-type items at a time; Portland says 15. San Francisco allows 50 books; Portland allows 150 total items.

      I also looked at hours of service, and San Francisco is open a few hours more per week, mostly due to earlier morning hours during weekdays.

      I have a degree in history, so I flatter myself in thinking I appreciate a solid reference library as much as anyone else. I do think, though, that in times of budget crunch a library does well to consider patron “bang for the buck” as well as alternative fundraising sources.

  3. Fascinating. I must investigate my system AND donate some money.

  4. I think these posts are so interesting! I might check out the stats of my library.

  5. There’s some really cool stuff in the latest issue of Library Journal measuring library quality by budget, circulation per capita, program attendance, etc.:

  6. Thank you for this costing analysis and i work now on same study about library costing in ( Iraq ) thank you againe

    • Cool! Tell us more!

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