Go Ahead, Name Them: America's Best Public Libraries

By Hennen, Thomas J., Jr. | American Libraries, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Go Ahead, Name Them: America's Best Public Libraries


Hennen, Thomas J., Jr., American Libraries


ARMED WITH STATS AND DATA, A LIBRARYLAND PUNDIT ATTEMPTS THE IMPOSSIBLE TASK OF RANKING THE TOP 20 IN FOUR CATEGORIES

Where is the best place to live in America? What is the best college, hospital, graduate school, or place to work? What these questions have in common is that each is subjective and open to infinite interpretation. But that has not stopped magazines from routinely trying to provide rankings to answer them. Money magazine's 1998 annual report on the "Best Places to Live in America" ranks them - and uses "library books per capita" as one of its 89 indicators.

With a rating and evaluation scheme devised specifically for public libraries in the United States, Hennen's American Public Library Rating Index is also subjective and open to debate. Nevertheless, it is an attempt to answer the question, what are the best public libraries in America?

The HAPLR Index uses six input and nine output measures. They are calculated from the latest Federal-State Cooperative System (FSCS) public library data, which will be published in final form by the U.S. Department of Education in March. Each factor was weighted and scored. The scores for each library within a population category were then added, to develop a weighted score. The HAPLR Index is similar to an ACT or SAT score, with a theoretical minimum of 1 and a maximum of 1,000, although 90% of libraries in each population group scored between 260 and 730.

So are the libraries listed here the best in America? Perhaps, but we all recognize that data alone cannot and never will define excellence in library service. The data measurement cannot capture a friendly smile and warm greeting at the circulation desk. Nor can data alone measure the excitement of a child at story time or a senior surfing the Internet for the first time. The way in which population data is assigned puts some libraries at a disadvantage in the rankings. Because nonprint and electronic service data are not yet adequately reported in the FSCS data, libraries that are in the forefront of such service may have lost out in rankings that by necessity favor more traditional service.

The HAPLR Index is a composite measure of both inputs and outputs. It may be asked whether there is a correlation between the two. Does the user get what is paid for? Are libraries efficient public services? Donald E. Vitaliano, in his 1997 article in Public Finance Review, describes libraries as more efficient than highway departments or nursing homes, less efficient than power plants, and about as inefficient as banks! Library trustees, elected officials, and the public frequently ask librarians for assurances that the tax dollars appropriated for libraries are well spent. Examination of the relationship between input and output measures in the data examined appears to indicate a very strong correlation between them.

Where the data comes from

Of the 8,950 public libraries included in the FSCS data, only 7,128 reported data in enough detail to calculate the 15 input and output measures used to produce the HAPLR Index. The results were tabulated in four different population categories, in order to provide a more consistent basis for comparison. The population categories chosen are: over 100,000; 10,000 to 99,999; 2,000 to 9,999; and under 2,000.

The information on how a library compares nationally [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] on standard measures can be important for strategic planning. The standing joke for many engineers in the 1980s was "having lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled all our efforts." Knowing where a library stands by comparison can help it avoid wasteful redoubling of efforts and allow it to target time, energy, and resources where that effort is needed. For example, if the level of visits is high, but circulation per visit is low, perhaps more merchandising is needed in the library.

Population factors to consider

Population numbers are always problematic, even leaving aside the continuous complaints that national census takers misrepresent the data for cities. …

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