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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.

Highlights

  • 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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“De-Brucing” Colorado Public Library Income & Expenditures

Since passage of Amendment 1, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) amendment, many public library districts and county libraries with dedicated mill levies have taken steps to exempt their income and expenditures from the restrictions imposed by that measure. In order to respond to many requests for data about this phenomenon, the Library Research Service surveyed all such libraries to learn what steps, if any, of this sort they have taken. Surveys were sent to 56 libraries in the state. Of the 43 surveys returned, 19 have taken no “de-Brucing” action since enactment of the TABOR amendment. Of the remaining 23—20 libraries reported a “win” at the ballot box between 1995 and 1997! Some of these had mixed results. For instance, Pine River LD reported a loss when requesting a mill levy increase, while receiving a “yes” from voters in its request to keep and spend all income indefinitely.

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The Role of Academic and Public Libraries in Distance Education

In October 1997, the National Center for Education Statistics released a statistical analysis report titled Distance Education in Higher Education Institutions (NCES 98-062). A few of the questions in this survey concerned the role of academic and public libraries in distance education. Three of these questions yielded especially interesting results.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Public libraries popular sites for delivery of distance education courses.
  • Library resources most often extended to distance learners from four-year institutions.
  • Lack of library resources perceived as a serious obstacle to starting or expanding programs.

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Only Three Out of Five American Communities Have Public Library Outlets

One of the quintessential landmarks in the Norman Rockwell image of the American town is the public library building. But, this traditional conception has little to do with contemporary reality. In metropolitan areas, the public library is usually represented not by a single building, but by a large central library and numerous neighborhood branches. Many New England towns have multiple public libraries. In outlying rural areas, public libraries are occasionally found where there is not even a “wide spot in the road.” Generally, however, most people assume that every place big enough to have a local government has a public library, whether it is a creature of the city or town in which it is located or part of a countywide system or library district.

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Coloradans–and Colorado Public Libraries–Top National Internet Norms

Recent state and national surveys indicate that Coloradans—and Colorado public libraries—meet or exceed several national norms regarding the Internet. Coloradans are 38 percent more likely to be regular Internet users. Nationwide, 34 percent of American adults use the Internet on at least a monthly basis, but 47 percent of Colorado adults do so. Similarly, the state’s public libraries are 22 percent more likely than libraries nationwide to provide Internet access. Sixty percent of U.S. public libraries provide Internet access, compared with 73 percent in Colorado.

Colorado public libraries enjoy this distinction whether they are in urban (i.e., metropolitan) or rural (i.e., non-metropolitan) areas (see table in full report).

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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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