Gannett Releases Searchable Public Library Trends Database

Gannett Releases Searchable Public Library Trends Database

Gannett News Service released a searchable database July 17 that compares trends affecting public library systems between 2002 and 2006. The analysis used data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) as well as statistics collected from state library data coordinators, compared figures for the some 9,200 library systems, and found that library visits increased by roughly 10% during that five-year period and that circulation of materials rose by 9%.

Database users can select a library system from a dropdown list of counties by state to learn about changes in book and video circulation, number of visits, operating expenses, and the number of public-use computers. The Library Systems Database also offers lists of public libraries serving populations of 10,000 or more that have the highest circulation per capita, the most internet-capable computers per capita, and the highest operating expenses per capita. “If you didn’t do that you’d have very small systems looking very robust and off the charts,” Ledge King, one of the two reporters who created the database, told American Libraries. “Rate is always truer than whole numbers. If you did straight numbers of computers, all the big cities would be on top but might actually be below average per capita.”

With 85 newspapers around the country “Gannett News Services has taken a particular interest in a lot of data-rich stories,” King said. Local papers are more interested in running stories supplied by Gannett when they are accompanied by “specific information about what’s happening in their local libraries,” he explained. Libraries are “not a well-covered issue in the media,” King observed, “yet every community has one.” He added that local reporters were being encouraged to “use us as a national lens but talk to their local libraries and talk to people about why are they are there, what they like about it, or don’t like about it.”

King said that he and news assistant William Risser initially believed they could construct the database with information collected by NCES but they soon realized that the latest information available to them would be from 2004, “which was too old for us.” The only way to get current data was to go directly to the data coordinators for all 50 states, who were “for most part helpful, eager in some cases,” to cooperate. Robert Benincasa, Gannett database editor, joined the team, and it took only about three months to collect all the numbers.

Immediately after the launch of the database, a number of news outlets did pick up the story and give it a local angle. The Honolulu Advertiser reported that Hawaii public libraries are seeing fewer patrons than they did just a few years ago, which is “bucking a national trend of increased traffic at public libraries.” At most libraries “on the Mainland,” traffic is up by some 10% in recent years, the report goes on to say, and “those figures can be attributed to libraries transforming—despite hefty budget cuts—from staid institutions to hip public spaces offering internet service, programs for seniors and kids, and a wide range of materials, from DVDs to audiobooks on mp3 players to manga graphic novels.” The story attributes circulation and visit decreases to libraries being open less often due to the state’s budget squeeze.

While the Gannett findings do not rank libraries per se, they are based on much of the same statistical information analyzed by Thomas Hennen in his annual HAPLR public library rankings and published in American Libraries. Reed Elsevier’s Library Journal announced June 15 that, in partnership with Bibliostat, it will publish a new ranking system that focuses “more transparently on ranking libraries based on their performance” than HAPLR does. SirsiDynix recently suspended work on the Normative Data Project, an effort similar to the Gannett database.

Asked if Gannett plans to continue to update the database, King said, “I don’t know. We have set the template, but the next federal data is for 2005, so it’s going to be a year behind ours.” He said many people at the state level observed that NCES “does not move fast enough” to make the numbers useful to news reporters. The Gannett database, said King, “gives us a fairly up-to-date and geographically accurate impression of what is happening in libraries around the country, how some are progressing more than others in computers available or funding available. It gives our newspapers much more of a connection to libraries in general and what’s happening, and allows them to see what’s happening in their own backyard in the context of national trends. Different places are different in what they emphasize and how much they value libraries. It gave our papers and me a better sense of what’s happening where.” He also noted that the Gannett’s 23 TV stations are being encouraged to use the database for local stories about libraries. The news service has already released a prototype video (3:05) about services at the District of Columbia Public Library’s Waltha T. Daniels/Shaw Interim Library.

Larra Clark of the American Library Association’s Office for Research and Statistics told American Libraries,“There are many statistics and stories that go into painting a complete picture of the value our libraries provide their communities.” While the Gannett lists on circulation, internet workstations, and operating expenses exclude libraries serving a population lower than 10,000 (about 59% of U.S. public libraries), Clark said the data is nevertheless “a very rich resource.” She added, “Libraries of all sizes can use the peer comparison tool, now supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, to benchmark a full range of inputs and outputs against their peers. Perhaps more importantly, the news service provided a model for how this data can be used to tell a compelling story about how libraries continue to innovate, expand, and serve all people.”

King said that his team’s research ended with a big surprise: “When we started, I did not know a whole lot about libraries. I tended to suppose that the internet age would mean libraries were not doing as well as they are doing.” The outcome was “counterintuitive” and “went in a different direction than what we thought it would.”

Posted and modified on July 23, 2008; corrected July 25 and August 19, 2008. Discuss.