A Riff on Big

I have alluded in several posts to the disparities one finds in looking at distributions of library data. By “distributions” I am talking here about making observations and generalizations when one looks at all the data from a set of libraries.

I am going to discuss a fact of library life we all know about, give you a few numbers, and discuss a few implications. I take circulation figures (TOTCIR as NCES calls it) for all public libraries in the United States for fiscal year 2005. These are the latest national-level data we have from NCES. I use the data as I recompiled them in a dataset that began when I was at the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. I have continued to update that series since then. Exhausting documentation exists on that site.

In that year in the dataset, there were 8,957 libraries and they circulated 2 billion items. Of those total circulations, 1.8 billion were reported for the highest quartile. That is, the 2,240 library systems that had the highest number of circulations accounted for 86% of all circulations. Those libraries in the first quartile, that is, those 2,240 with the lowest circulations had 13.9 million circulations or fewer than 1% of the total. This relationship—the big are awfully big and the small are really small—is an observable fact in most variables (staff, income, expenditures, holdings, and so on) and in every universal library dataset I have worked on. It is a characteristic of our national library system. The term in Statistics to describe this kind of distribution is “skew” and library distributions typically are skewed.

There are two kinds of implications, I think, to this characteristic. One deals with information policy and the second with the design of integrated library systems. Considering the information policy implications first, there are, it seems to me, three aspects that arise when we consider that the structure of library resources in this country are so disparate.

First is the effect of differential resources in a consensual democracy where an informed citizenry is a foundational element.

Second, what effects do differential resources have on the post-Enlightenment notion that was particularly important in the history of U.S. libraries: the library as the university of the common man? This question still is important because of the necessity of continuing education in an era with so many dynamic changes in our economy and where people need to retool for new kinds of jobs.

Third, given that the small libraries are so small, their staffs are also small. Andrea Neiman, of the Kent County Public Library, Chestertown, Maryland reminded me the other day when we were chatting about the implications of skewness of something important, that is, what we know about the small libraries which is not much. Consider: the top quartile of public libraries employs 85% of all public total full time equivalent staff while the bottom quartile employs fewer than 1%–numbers similar to what we saw with circulations, of course. The upper boundary of this quartile is less than 1.2 FTEs–the rest are smaller. Thus, these libraries will not likely be adequately represented at conferences nor in decision making bodies.

The policy implications are for another place and time, of course, and we all know of the halting attempts to address this problem, that is, to breakdown the information silos faced by users of libraries.

A second implication of the skewness has to do with the design of library automation systems. They have handled the fact of the distribution of library resources awkwardly and that, in turn, follows from the unsystematic way these resources have been designed traditionally. I will leave to my colleague Mike Rylander to discuss what he has explained to me about how ILSs were designed but there was market segmentation: big ILSs and small ILSs as a result of the limitations of early design decisions and capabilities of the ILSs. The influence these design limitations had on information policy would be a fascinating subject to explore.

In any case, Evergreen is, currently, unique in that its design encompasses very big to pretty small libraries and its ability to handle diverse consortia is also unique—and valuable as I have discussed in several previous posts. The PINES experience indicates that good design can address the information policy aspect of skewed library distributions.

Bob Molyneux