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Deep in the heart of Texas

April 14th, 2008 by

In preparation for the Texas Library Association conference this week, I have been looking at data from public libraries in Texas using the same method I used in a post on the open-ils blog on library characteristics: A Riff on Big. Not surprisingly, Texas public libraries show similar patterns as we saw there for all U.S. public libraries: a few very big libraries and many small ones.

Taking total circulations as in that earlier post, we find the following summary figures for Texas from the same fiscal year 2005 data used there:
The maximum number of annual circulations at any Texas public library was 10.4 million at Harris County. The fourth quartile, though begins at 87,800. That is, one fourth of the libraries in this sample had total circulations greater than that number including, of course, Harris County. One fourth had between 31,732 and 87,800. The central value is that 31,732 which means that half of the libraries had circs greater than that number and half had less. The first quartile—the lowest fourth—had fewer annual circulations than 12,050. As I said, the central value is 31,732 but the mean, that is, the arithmetic average, is 180,574. The big libraries are so big that they pull this average way above the median.

This kind of relationship with circulations exists with most other variables. For example, total expenditures: median (or central value): $ 116,000, while the arithmetic mean is $655,856. And so on through most of the variables that relate to size. The big public libraries in Texas are very big and the small ones are very small.

There are implications to the fact that the distribution of libraries by their sizes and resources have these characteristics. I discussed the profound and worrisome policy implications in more detail in that earlier post but, briefly, differential resources like these numbers indicate have a lasting effect on our notions of a foundational premise in our form of government, that is, an informed citizenry. In addition, in an era where so much is changing in our economy and so fast, continuing education is vital. Smaller libraries have fewer resources to aid a population that is adapting to continuing change and is trying to stay informed. What I neglected to mention earlier, however, is the fact that libraries provide their users entertainment as well as edification—and sometimes both at the same time.

In the Transforming Texas Libraries initiative, there is a clear background of realizing that the changing information environment faced by libraries and the public they serve are changing. Google and this new information environment are affecting libraries.

I have an idea:

Why not put all Texas public libraries in one resource sharing network like the folks in Georgia did? The technology exists now with Evergreen and a related development effort, dubbed FullfILLment ™, that will use the proven Evergreen back end processing to connect to library catalogs that are not using Evergreen through opportunistic connectors and, voila!, you have a PINES-like consortium. FullfILLment is discussed in other blog posts. We are working with some other large consortia to get development funding.

What would happen? Well, all sorts of things as the network filled out.

Right now, users of libraries face an information environment with their libraries that resembles “silos” as they are called in the IT world: separate and barely communicating collections of information. In a Google world, library users and potential library users find library resources broken up in small lots while they are now expecting to see the whole panorama of what is available. Interlibrary loan is a sluggish, time consuming, and awkward way of sharing materials between libraries; its cost in time and complication reduces its use and its effectiveness.

Within PINES, however, ILL become “holds” that result when someone searching the local catalog can’t find what he or she is looking for locally and the ILS offers a simple means to request it from another library. The material is already verified and the user authenticated. Without going into too much detail, I discussed elsewhere what I dubbed “The Evergreen Effect” which is what I called the increase in holds coming from the result that Evergreen was easier to use than the legacy software. Holds were up in the 30-50% range and total circulations were up 10% or so. This increase was after the consortium already existed so we have no easy way to estimate how much of a circulation increase came about as a result of a consortium alone. What would all this mean to Texas with its 100 million circs (again, 2005 figures)? Would a 25% increase be outlandish a projection if Texas were to emulate the PINES experience?

Q. Can Evergreen really handle the circulations for all the public libraries in the state?
A. Yep. That is what it was designed to do.

Q. Is Evergreen perfect?
A. Nope. It will do a lot but acquisitions and serials won’t be working until late this year or early next year. But, it will take longer than that to get the libraries loaded anyway.

Q. But won’t this expected increase cause problems?
A. In the short run, very probably. People like libraries and if you make it easier to use them, count on it: they will. Folks will be coming in your library more to avail themselves of a virtual collection that is substantially larger than what they have access to currently. In Georgia, we have seen that library users do not care about our politics but they do love access to the long tail—or at least the “slightly longer tail” than they find at their libraries. The public that uses libraries also uses Google and information silos pain them. These users have been trained to expect better in this era.

More broadly, there are good problems in libraries and bad problems. A bad problem is what happened to many libraries in Louisiana after the hurricanes: they’re gone. A good problem is when folks want to use your library so much that they bust down the doors. Now they tell the mayor what a great job the library is doing so the library director doesn’t have to. The budget meeting without that problem. In Georgia, the legislature has just passed a bill increasing the PINES budget by a third. It is on the governor’s desk and we will see if he signs it. But, the support PINES received in the legislature, I believe, is a result of the support it receives among its many users for having done a good job. A good job means more support.

People like what libraries do and if given the opportunity to have libraries that make more materials more available, the users of libraries will visit them more often. That will likely mean more work in the short run but in the long run stronger libraries and a better informed citizenry that uses libraries. We have the ability to run very large, very dispersed networks now and our users like them. What are we waiting for?

Bob Molyneux

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Been there, done that, have the Summer Reading t-shirts to prove it.

Project Manager for Implemenations

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