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I’ve received a few interesting responses to this post on library use, which talked about a recent report showing that the seven libraries that were proposed for closure often had better statistics than other branches.

I wanted to highlight this response from a reader who works as a city librarian and asked to go unnamed. This reader wanted to add some “shading” to my post.

Circulation figures are the most concrete data we have on library use. (Door counts, internet usage, and reference counts are all subject to a fair amount of measuring error.) But circ stats also hide a few things and bear an imperfect relation to use.

First, without speculating on the reasons, there’s a pattern of poorer communities — even when using libraries in strong numbers — checking items out at below average rates.

Second, circulation in aggregate somewhat discounts adult use of libraries. Parents borrowing picture books for kids will check out stacks of ten, twenty, thirty books at a time; while adults borrowing for themselves will check out 2 or 3. Certainly that parent’s usage is to be treasured. But we should be careful about concluding based on circulation that a branch serving 1 parent is as well used as a branch serving 10 adults. This is relevant because usage patterns do vary substantially among our communities: juvenile circ represents 69% of total circulation at the most kid-heavy branch and 15% at the least.

Last, circulation should be normalized for hours open for the simple reason that a branch that isn’t open much can’t circ a lot, whatever the community demand would otherwise be. Another useful measure is circulation relative to collection size (not square-footage) which reflects one aspect of demand and use.

The point of all this is that simple readings of library usage stats can be misleading. I hope this background can improve the public debate about our libraries.

Keep your thoughts coming to rani.gupta@voiceofsandiego.org.

RANI GUPTA

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