by Paul Waak, NTLP Director for Resource Sharing

Have you ever wondered why public libraries file state statistical reports? Many short term reasons are given. They can be reported to a city council, county commissioner, or governing board. Then again, those numbers are typically reported directly each month so the additional state report a year later adds nothing new. The numbers give libraries a means for comparison. But when people think quality means the budget can be slashed without dropping below average, a favorable comparison is a liability. And average service is a surprisingly common goal among budget analysts. Also, the report forms the basis for accreditation. But when accreditation is not tied to property values or other quantifiable community measures, how do we explain the value of accreditation? This last question brings us to the real reason for the state statistical reports, property values. Or rather, the lack of a tie to property values.

The links between libraries and property values, livability ratings, and other community metrics are established through statistics. Not just any statistics will do though. The statistics must span enough time to show trends that are independent of other influences like market shifts and PR campaigns. The influence of libraries is suspected to be generational, so time spans longer than one generation are important. It is also important to have “before and after” data for communities that open or close libraries. Lastly, statistically significant results require hundreds of thousands of data points. More data is always better. Gathering data about the 9,000 public libraries in the US over 22 continuous years will create about 200,000 data points. This is less than ideal, but enough for trends to be taken seriously.

Fortunately, the federal government has been collecting these statistics since 1994 through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Their Public Library Survey program works with the state libraries to collect these statistics each year. What statistics do they collect? The annual statistical report to the state library is the Public Library Survey. That information is passed straight through to IMLS who in turn compiles it and releases a national report another year later. This brings public libraries four years shy of becoming statistically proven institutions.

Some valuable trends are emerging by correlating library statistics with other city/county statistics. Clear signs are emerging that show library use reduces poverty, lowers unemployment, increases average income, and creates economic stability within their communities. There also seem to be clear thresholds. Library use above the threshold have a positive influence. But library use below the threshold is worse than having no library at all. So it is not enough to just have a library; it must be a good library. And these statistics create an outcome based standard for accreditation. But none of this is complete yet. To make a good library a proven requirement for every community we need to continue collecting data for at least four more years. That is four more years of annual statistical reports to the state. Turning back now, when we are so close, would be devastating. Stopping the reports now would only support those who oppose libraries and their campaigns for library closures. Every library director needs to continue filing annual statistical reports to the state.

Original Publication Date: 
January 17, 2012