On May 11, Jay Leno quipped “People here in Los Angeles are upset at the mayor’s proposed plan to cut the budget of libraries… they want to cut library budgets and this could affect as many as nine people.” City Librarian Martin Gómez responded to Leno “… these cuts are no laughing matter to the 17 million people who use the city’s libraries each year.”
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates population for the city of Los Angeles at 3.8 million1 and the entire county at 9.8 million2, so Mr. Gómez has either misinterpreted his gate counts or people are consistently coming from northern California and other states to use the city’s libraries. Perhaps he has conflated gate counts and users, which seems prevalent in the library world.
The Annoyed Librarian made a similar observation about ALA President Roberta Steven’s January 2010 statement that “we had 1.2 billion people coming to our libraries across the nation and checking out 2 billion items” by noting that 1.2 billion people is roughly the population of North and South America combined. Last month, arguing against budget cuts for Queens Public Library, City Councilman Peter Koo stated that 2 million people visited the Flushing Library last year. The population of Queens is roughly 2.2 million3 and Flushing is one of 48 branches in the Queens system. I’d be surprised if 2 million people visited all the Queens libraries combined last year, let alone just the Flushing branch. Even in my home town, library statistics simply don’t jive with our region’s population.
Upon encountering these mistakes, discerning individuals may subconsciously translate users to visits, but even then — are the numbers truly representative of library usage? How likely is it library staff have reliable or consistent means to adjust gate counts to subtract for staff movement and traffic generated by service providers, volunteers, rambunctious children going in and out, and people stepping in to use the restrooms? And how do they distinguish between frequent and infrequent users? If all gate counts record is bodies physically passing through a library’s doors, they seem like a crude mechanism for assessing usage (except to convey trends as Charlotte Mecklenburg Library did in its FY2011 budget overview).4
So how many people really do use the Los Angeles Public Library for its intended purposes? We’re told it’s as few as 9 people and as many as 17 million people per year. Common sense and a bit of research suggest neither figure is credible. The lack of such basic data is a real impediment to meaningful dialogue about managing and funding this public resource.
Readers may also be interested in Thinking ’bout library card statistics and Library statistics I’d like to see.
1U.S. Census Bureau population of Los Angeles (city), 2006
2U.S. Census Bureau population of Los Angeles (county), 2009
2U.S. Census Bureau population of Queens, NY, 2000
4Gate counts for Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, 2004 – 2010