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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Lance Index

In my 2008 self-evaluation, I informed my bosses, the Board of Trustees, that:

1. Our library district, by several key measures, is not just among the best in the nation, but is truly world class. Those measures include:

  • staff per 1,000 served

  • total expenditures per capita

  • library visits per capita

  • circulation per capita

  • program attendance per capita.

Some of those measures are inputs; others are outputs. Some measures that I think are important (use of public computers or databases, percentage of households per capita) are not included at all -- mainly because they are not uniformly reported. But according to Dr. Keith Curry Lance (until his retirement, director of the Library Research Service, a department of the Colorado State Library), the five statistics are highly correlated for success. That is, just these five measures predict how public libraries perform, no matter their size. I call it the Lance Index.

I took this idea to OCLC, who ran a version of the measures against international public libraries (if memory serves, they substituted one measure: "staff per 10,000 served"). They concluded that the measures are indeed predictors of library performance, all around the world. The best performing public libraries, incidentally, are in the United States, Finland, and Denmark. Again, DCL is a word class library -- in at least the top five percent globally. That's the good news.

2. Here's the bad news. As of 2008, Douglas County's libraries are getting worse. Essential to library performance is sufficient space to house materials and programs. For the past 18 years, we've done a superb job of keeping up with population growth: we've shot for, and maintained, half-a-square-foot per capita. This year, after last year's election loss, we've fallen below that.

So I'm thinking, a lot, about how to respond to that. The choices seem to be:

1. Get worse. Oh well!

2. Do everything possible to live within existing income, but still do the capital expansion that's required.

3. Take it back to the voters again.

# 1 isn't acceptable to me.

# 2 -- we've spent the last two years doing just that: tightening our belts, completely reinventing our processes to allow us to keep up with our astonishing growth in demand. Our work here has been impressive. Over the past two years, we kept up with roughly 20% growth in circulation per year with almost no increase in staff. It's not enough to free up the money we need.

# 3 -- that's where I am. But clearly, I'm not the one who has to be convinced.

Last year, we lost by 210 votes -- out of over 42,000 cast. But only 34% of our voters actually mailed in their ballots. Where there was a higher percentage of turnout, we won.

In 2008, we can expect close to 90% or greater turnout. Is that enough?

No. I've learned that elections are complicated things. Have I (and others) learned enough to secure the longterm viability of the institution I serve? Can, in fact, the case be made that a modest tax increase for the public library is not just tolerable, but a very smart investment, even in tough economic times?

Isn't that an excellent question?

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