This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, September 6, 1995

September 6, 1995 - why circ isn't the whole story

As an honest librarian, it's important for me to know how well (or how poorly) the library is doing. As an honest library user and taxpayer, it's important for you to know, too.

The most commonly used measure of library service is circulation -- how many items get checked out in a year. In that number, most libraries also include renewals (the same person extends the loan on an item for another three weeks).

Generally speaking, the idea is that if people are checking out MORE books than last year, the library is better. If the library is checking out fewer books, then it's getting worse.

While some fluctuations from year to year are to be expected, circulation figures are in fact fairly reliable yardsticks for library performance. A drastic increase in library circulation usually does mean the library is getting better. A drastic decline usually means that it's lost funding, or lost the knack of matching up the things patrons want with the things the library is offering, or both.

It happens that over the past five years, library use in Douglas County has increased by almost 400%. From this year to last, things have slowed down tremendously -- largely because of the deliberate change of our loan periods from 2 weeks to 3 weeks. But even with that change, overall library circulation continues to rise.

Rather than just measuring the number of checkouts, however, a better measure is to calculate circulation per capita. By this measure, the Douglas Public Library District does very well indeed -- we're second in the state, just after Boulder Public Library.

Yet another measure is the "fill rate," usually determined through a survey. This is what we're after when we hand you a survey that asks if you actually found what you came in for, or had to settle for something else.

Another traditional measure is reference services, calculated as the total number of questions the library receives and tries to answer.

By this measure, the Douglas Public Library District is still among the lesser-used public libraries in the state. It happens that my wife and I use the reference services fairly frequently -- to track down population figures, article citations, things we read in the paper that seem to us unclear or unsubstantiated, used car prices, the relative safety of infant car seats, and much, much more.

Long before the Internet, the public has had access to a staggering amount of information through the relatively old- fashioned but utterly reliable technology of a phone and a reference librarian. The number is 688-8721. Try it.

Yet another measure of library services is programming. I'm not talking about computers, here, but about story times, public lectures, and other public meetings. Here again, the Douglas Public Library District does very well, offering more children's programming on a weekly basis than many libraries offer in a month.

There are many other measures as well. How many books get used within the library, but not checked out? Are the buildings and grounds well-maintained? Do the staff speak well OF EACH OTHER?

Among the more intriguing measures of library performance is revealed by the question: What percentage of the budget goes to new materials and to staff?

The "industry standards" for this are usually 10-12% for materials, and 65-70% for staff. As a relatively young library district, we have spent between 12-14% for materials, and a little over 50% for staff -- the rest of our money has been banked for capital improvements. As time goes on, and the district matures, however, we too will have to transfer a greater percentage of this money to the people who provide all our services.

But finally, the measure that matters is the intangible measure of "reputation," both within and without the library. Perhaps the single most important factor here is simple responsiveness.

When you walk through the library's door, how long does it take to get a smile and a greeting? When you ask for a book, or have a problem, does the staff find a way to say "yes!" -- or do they give you lists of reasons why they can't provide a particular service?

The public library, like any public institution, is healthy only so long as it remains focused on its job, and stays close to the people it serves. And while I may believe that the value of the public library is immeasurable -- its performance MUST be measured if we are to know its ultimate worth.

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