For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
November 11, 2006 - Checkouts Still a Basic Business
I was talking the other day with an economic development executive. A self-described Internet junkie, he wanted to know how the 'net was changing the profile of library use.
I told him a little bit about the study I reported on earlier this year: the more Internet stations we add, the more business we get everywhere else, too. But then I got curious about proportions. How do the uses of the public library compare to each other?
As of the end of October, we've already matched or beat our statistics for all of last year. In round terms, we have checked out over 4 million items. Our patrons have walked through our doors more than 1.2 million times.
We offer round the clock access to various electronic databases. To date, people have racked up over 400,000 searches.
Over 300,000 people have logged into our public Internet stations. We've answered over 230,000 reference questions.
We've had 168,856 volunteer hours donated to us. Imagine that each volunteer gives us just one hour. Given that we're open 69 hours a week, and have worked through some 44 weeks, that works out to about 55 volunteers every 7 days.
Finally, over 80,000 people have attended various library meetings.
So in terms of actual library use, here's what we know:
* Every person who walks through the door checks out about 3 and a half items.
* Every third person uses one of our subscription databases (either in the library, or from home).
* Every fourth person signs up for one of our Internet stations.
* Every fifth person asks a reference question.
* Every seventh person gives us an hour of their volunteer time.
* Every fifteenth person attends a library program.
Clearly, then, the greatest use of our public library is still as a place to borrow stuff. But there is quite a drop between what people check out, versus other measurable uses of our services.
Just because we can't measure it, of course, doesn't mean people are standing around with a confused look on their faces. (Although, sometimes, it might mean that, at which point our staff should make a graceful intervention.)
There's also the activity of "browsing," which is part of the process through which people get to those checkouts. It correlates to "shopping" -- people spend more time wandering around and handling the merchandise than they do actually paying for something.
Like shopping, hanging out at a library has another important dimension: social interaction. We are social creatures. We like to see others of our kind, and be seen by them. We like to listen to others, and have them listen to us.
Often -- although we don't have good numbers for this -- people are simply sitting and studying or reading. But quite as often, they're talking to each other. They may also attend meetings not sponsored by the library, but held there.
In all, I find these statistics reassuring. Despite the hype about computers replacing and displacing public places, it turns out that we still need those places for people to gather. And the traditional use of the public library -- a place to browse and borrow materials -- is still the big winner in terms of people's actions in the building.
2006 has been a year of many changes for the library. But it's important to remember that some things, basic to our business, are still our bedrock.