It Pays to Belong: Small Public Libraries Benefit from Membership in Systems, Federations, and Cooperatives

Few, if any, public agencies can claim to cooperate to the extent that public libraries do. The perceived benefits of such cooperation can vary dramatically from state to state and from one type of system, federation, or cooperative to another, but some types of benefits are fairly common. Such benefits include: continuing education, cooperative projects (such as cooperative purchasing agreements), resource sharing (interlibrary loan and networking), and a wide variety of technical assistance. Some of these organizations are multi-type (like Colorado’s Regional Library Service Systems), while others focus exclusively on a single type of library, usually public.

How do the perceived benefits of membership in systems, federations, and cooperatives affect the fiscal health and performance of the nation’s public libraries—especially the “small” ones—those serving populations under 25,000?

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Library Districts Are Best-Funded Type of Public Libraries

In 1996, there were 8,950 public library jurisdictions in the United States. The five most common types are city, county, non-profit, multi-jurisdictional, and special district (see Table 1 in full report).

As library managers and decision-makers struggle to make ends meet as well as fulfill the needs of their customers, many wonder: On the average, which of these public library types is the best funded? This question is not easy to address, because of the idiosyncrasies of public library financing and statistics about it.

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Teens Credit Librarians with Influencing Their Book Purchases

If you are a young adult librarian, have you ever considered how many of your clients may be looking to you for book purchasing recommendations? According to a recent Publishers Weekly poll of 12- to 17-year-olds nationwide…

  • Librarians rank fourth after friends, teachers, and parents as the people they most credit with influencing their book-buying choices.
  • After parents, librarians are the individuals to whom teenage boys are almost as likely to turn as teenage girls are. (Gender differences for friends and teachers are dramatic, as the chart at the full report illustrates.)

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State and National Data Link Circulation of Children’s Materials from Public Libraries & Reading Test Scores

Relationships between public libraries and school library media centers (LMCs) are somewhat difficult to observe and assess. Consequently, distinguishing between the effects of public libraries and school LMCs on children’s performance in school is problematic. Several recent issues of FAST FACTS have presented evidence of the contributions of LMCs alone and their collaboration with public libraries.

The latest data available for both Colorado (1997) and the United States (1994) indicates that public libraries themselves contribute to academic achievement.


  • In Colorado school districts scoring in the highest third on the 1997 CSAP reading test, circulation of children’s materials per capita by public libraries was 50 percent higher than in school districts scoring in the lowest third.
  • Similarly, in states scoring in the highest third on the 1994 NAEP reading test, circulation of children’s materials per capita by  public libraries was more than a third higher than in states scoring in the lowest third.

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Better-Funded Public Libraries Provide More Service to Individual Users

As for all tax-supported enterprises, a perennial issue for public libraries is the relative merit of smaller, lower-budget operations and larger, higher-budget ones. The former claim to be able to provide more personalized service, because they are closer to their clients. The latter claim to create “economies of scale” that enable them to provide more, cheaper services. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that the latter argument has some validity.


  • Compared with lowest funded public libraries, highest funded …
    • handle almost three times as many reference questions per capita,
    • receive almost half again as many visits per capita, and
    • generate almost a third higher circulation per capita.
  • Within peer population groups, higher funded public libraries consistently “out-produce” lower funded ones.

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Well-Managed Library Media Programs That Cooperate with Local Public Libraries Linked to Higher CSAP Test Scores

In 1997, Colorado fourth graders were the state’s first public schoolchildren to be tested on reading via the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP). Average test scores for a stratified and weighted random sample of 74 (8%) of Colorado’s 908 elementary schools were combined with data about their library media programs to answer the following questions:

Are students likely to earn higher reading scores if:

  • there is a plan for the development of their school’s library media program?
  • there is a collection development policy that guides the library media specialist’s selection of learning resources?
  • there is a relationship between the school library media program and the local public library?
  • public library staff visit the library media center to present book talks?
  • the local public library provides a summer reading program to prevent the loss of reading skills progress during the break between school years?

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The Colorado Library Card: A Resource Sharing Success Story

In Spring 1998, 133 (85 percent) of the 156 public, academic, and special libraries participating in the CLC program responded to an evaluation survey. By sector, the response rates were: public, 99 out of 112 or 88 percent; academic, 23 out of 29 or 79 percent; and special, 11 out of 15 or 73 percent. The results indicate that the Colorado Library Card program is an overwhelming success.

  • Colorado Library Card libraries generally extend the same borrowing privileges to other Coloradans as to their primary clientele. This is the core principle of the CLC agreement signed by participating libraries.
    • At 9 out of 10 CLC libraries, non-resident1 users can borrow books and audio books on the same terms as residents, as well as return materials borrowed from other libraries. Among the respondents, such privileges are almost universal among public and special libraries and are extended by 3 out of 4  academic libraries.

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Public Library Statistics: How Colorado Ranks

In 1996, Colorado ranked in the top half of the states on most public library statistics. Three statistics on which the state ranked in the middle among the lowest are noteworthy:

  • Colorado was one of only a half dozen states in which public libraries received no regular income from state government. In every other state, equity of access to public library services is guaranteed by a reliable, annual program of state funding. Among the vast majority of states with such programs, the level of support averaged two dollars per capita.
  • Colorado ranks in the middle of the 50 states and D.C. on several statistics:
    • Colorado is 18th in staff per 25,000 served
    • Colorado is 19th in visits per capita
    • Colorado is 23rd in ILLS received per 1,000 served

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Almost 7 Million Americans “Unserved” by Public Libraries

According to 1996 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (with some corrections from a few state library agencies), 6,908,844 Americans in 24 states live beyond the legal service area of any public library—roughly the equivalent of the entire Washington, DC, or San Francisco metropolitan area. These individuals are “unserved,” as there is no public library legally responsible for meeting their needs for reading matter, information, and access to the “information superhighway.” Reasons for this situation, include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • In many U.S. counties, there are only municipal libraries, and no provision is made for countywide service that covers residents of unincorporated areas.
  • Some units of government (e.g., counties, cities, towns, townships) that are not part of larger units of service (e.g., library districts, county library systems) cannot afford to support libraries.
  • A few local governments have even closed public libraries due to fiscal problems.
  • Beyond such circumstances, which explain the actual absence of any public library service, some public libraries are so inadequate in terms of local support, staffing, hours of service, or the like, that they are not recognized by the state library agency as a public library.

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Public Library Salary Spending Compares Unfavorably with Average Teacher Pay

According to Public Library Standards for Colorado 1997, public libraries serving populations under 2,500 should have directors employed for a minimum of 20 hours per week, those serving 2,500 to 9,999, 30 hours per week, and those serving 10,000 and over, 40 hours per week. This standard implies that, in general, libraries should be open and staffed for such hours.

To estimate what staffing public libraries at such levels would cost—allowing for differences from one jurisdiction to another—the average salary for one public school teacher in the same area was used as a benchmark—indeed, a very conservative one.

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LRS is part of the Colorado State Library, a unit of the Colorado Department of Education. We design and conduct library research for library and education professionals, public officials, and the media to inform practices and assessment needs. We partner with the Library and Information Science program at University of Denver's Morgridge College of Education to provide research fellowships to current MLIS students.

This project is made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

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