Friday, December 5, 2008

And So It Begins

Librarians live and die by statistics. Mostly because we have to justify our existence to every politician looking to trim the budget. Also, and this can't be understated enough, librarians are just nosy, curious people by nature. Anything past simple arithmetic makes my head hurt, but I love looking at library usage statistics.

Geek that I am.

Yesterday my employer sent out our monthly statistics from a couple months back (what can I say, we're behind) and my coworker exclaimed that usage was "way up."

Then I took a closer look. Usage is up - in certain areas.

Before my defection to a sterile administration building, I worked at one of our branches located in a decidedly working-class area. People on fixed incomes. Immigrants fairly new to this country. The types of people who traditionally don't have a lot of disposable income. When they do have disposable income? Yeah, they're paying their bills, stocking their pantry, or buying their kids that much needed new pair of shoes. Books? Um, no.

Our branches located in these types of areas? Library usage did not go up. It either went down very slightly, or stayed level. No wild swings one way or another. Why? Because these communities traditionally use public libraries anyway - whether the economy is in the crapper or not. For them it's already a part of their lives.

Side note: Librarians, if you ever need an ego boost, work a public library in an area with a large immigrant population. Americans, God bless us, take public libraries for granted. We just do. But when you explain the institution to someone new to this country? Holy cow. It's like you're giving them the keys to the city. By far the #1 thing I miss about The Old Job.

Now our branches located in more affluent areas? The areas where people have traditionally had disposable income, or a big enough credit line to make their neighbors think they have disposable income? Library usage is up. Way up. In many instances we had branches circulate up to 3000-4000 more items in one month. 30 days people. Why?

Well, as much as people love their books - if it comes down to buying that shiny new hard cover or putting gas in your SUV so you can go to work? Yeah, gas is winning out. Plus, the library is a real bargain. Even if you jack up a 50 cent late fee, that's still way cheaper than what you would have paid for the book at the Big Box Discount Store. Oh sure, you have to sit your happy butt on a waiting list for that hot, new bestseller. But waiting becomes amazingly more palpable to people when they open up their wallets only to discover less money there.

Just saying.

I'm curious to see what the immediate future will bring. Specifically the November and December numbers. My experience has been that around the holidays, library usage takes a swift nose dive - but this year? I wonder. Especially since over 500,000 jobs were lost just in the month of November. How many of those people will find themselves going to public libraries to fill out online job applications and check out books on how to write amazing cover letters and resumes?

It's a mixed blessing for librarians though. As happy as we are to have people coming in and taking advantage of the services we offer? The crappy economy isn't exactly leaving us unscathed. Budgets are tanking. Hours are getting reduced, and in some cases across the country, branches are getting shut down. Thankfully it hasn't come to that for my employer, but that doesn't mean we're all dancing on top of our desks either.

So gird your loins fellow librarians, and prepare for the long bumpy road ahead.


Sherry Thomas said...

After 9/11, the library branch closest to my house closed every Thursday. It took me a long time to remember, and somehow I ended up going there every other Thursday, only to realize, upon seeing the empty parking lot, Doh, forgot again!

I was ever so glad when the city became flush enough to have libraries open 6, rather than 5 days a week.

But the Thursday closing started again a month ago. Sigh.

On a tangentially related note, PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS is on the shelves in that library branch. And my heart always does a little pitter-patter when I see that it's checked out. :-)

Lori said...

It's alays interesting for me to hear the librarian side of it, even if it's the public librarian side. Being in academic publishing, and for a long time I was in the journals division, it's all about the library usage statistics. The publishers live and die by the usage stats, too. If nobody is reading our journals, the libraries cut out the subscription next year.

That's always been my interaction with the usage stats. I forget that there is an entirely different side to it!

Shanna said...

I love my library. Regardless of how much I make I think I'll always enjoy hanging out there and finding new books.

azteclady said...

"when you explain the institution to someone new to this country? Holy cow. It's like you're giving them the keys to the city."

Yes. Unless you have lived in a place where you are lucky if there even *is* a public library, let alone one that allows you to take books home and trusts you to return them in a decent enough shape, you can't imagine what the US public library system means for people like me.

(and please note that I am the daughter of a librarian and stepdaughter to a history professor, and grew up in a house filled to the ceiling with books--literally; I am perfectly aware how blessed I was growing up)

Kwana said...

Great post. Being middle classed in my upper classed town I've seen the crunch at my local library. I'm the library queen and have been forever but I've noticed that the hold lines are getting longer and longer and the library is more packed than ever. These folks don;t have the money that they used to. Sadly with the economy there are talks of closing on certain days.

Cheryl St.John said...

I always appreciate your insider views, and this is was exception. I can see clearly how getting to read all those free books would be thrilling to someone who'd never had the priveledge.

I saw my Illinois cousin over the weekend, and she told me how she's asked for my books in her local library for years, and only recently has seen a few copies. But what was thought was so cool was that the circulation of books is so great that they own nearly twice as many books as will actually fit on the shelves. Is that commen?

Wendy said...

Cheryl: It can be common, if circulation is high enough, because it insures that enough books will be "checked out" so that the shelves don't get over run. You don't want your shelves so tightly packed in with books - because it's counterproductive. People can't see the forest for the trees, and circulation will drop. Especially if you have junky, nasty, smelly, old books clogging up the works.

Library weeding is a whole separate post though. Suffice it to say, some librarians love to weed, and others hate it. Me? I'm a weeding fool!

Mel Hiers said...

"Holy cow. It's like you're giving them the keys to the city."

That's one of the things I like best about working the desk. You get to hear all that stuff first-had. Of course, you get all the crap too. But one person who thinks your library is wonderful - and says it out loud - can make your whole day!

We're in a very family-centric suburb and our state relies soley on sales tax. So our usage goes up and our funding goes down when the economy sucks. So long and bumpy is right!

Cheryl St.John said...

Thanks for the info, Wendy.

It's a summer thing for me to take my "kids" to the library every couple of weeks. (They're my grandkids, but don't tell anyone.) I got them their library cards as soon as they were old enough to print their names and showed them how to look for books. We went to the kiddie hours when they were small. Fun stuff.

Elijah is one of those kids who reads with a flashlight after he's supposed to be sleeping. I caught him at it tonight - reading a huge dinosaur book about how early paleantologists misidentified something-or-the-other. He was telling me this stuff as I was saying, "Close your eyes and sleep now."