A Riff on Small

In A Riff on Big, I dealt with the skewed nature of library distributions in the United States (although the finding is more generally applicable)—that is, there few big libraries and many small libraries. Moreover, the big libraries are really, really big and the small libraries are really, really small.

However, the critical question is not this fact but its implications for a national information policy. In a consential democracy with the foundational principle of an informed citizenry, any information policy has to consider the disparate sizes and resources of the nation’s libraries and how to ensure that those with access only to the smallest libraries can have access to greater resources—as great as is possible.

With all that in mind, Karen Schneider asked me if the size of libraries in square feet was known? Well, actually, it is, and I produced a list for her of the PINES libraries with the size square feet for each outlet running Evergreen. Hmmm. Interesting. The summary statistics, as well as sources are included below but what do they mean?

The conventional model for allocating public library services has several layers. Independent libraries may operate independently with resources available at worse through Ill. In larger settings, branches will draw on a central library or, even larger, regions of independent systems draw on the resources of the region. Until recently, that is what was possible.

The PINES system allows the libraries in all PINES libraries in the system to draw on all other member libraries. The system includes about 2 million bibliographic items and 9 million or so physical items. This arrangement of resource sharing is not common nationally. That fact may be because a consortial library system was not available until recently.

PINES, then, has made more resources more available to more smaller libraries than the conventional model could if applied in Georgia. This is an important step forward and one that has profound information policy implications.

I conclude that the conventional model has served its function as well as was possible before the development of software capable of managing resources of a large consortium. If resource sharing is important, recreating such conventional systems today would, at best, be doing the wrong thing well.

Some Data

Here are some summary stats for libraries reporting this number to the US (N=15,858) and for PINES (N=243) for FY 2005:

Summary statistics of library outlets by square feet of space

                         All                           PINES
                         U.S.                           # by
                      Quartiles                    U.S. quartiles

Fourth           Greater or equal to                     59
Quartile         12,000 sq. ft.

Third            Less than 11,999
Quartile         and greater than 5,314                  62
                 square feet

Second           Less than 5,313                         80
Quartile         and greater than 2,234
                 square feet

Quartile         Fewer than 2,233                        42
                 square feet

Note that the number we normally see of the PINES libraries gives the aggregated figures for each of the (now) 48 systems but this number is considerably disaggregated. Let’s look a bit more.

Smallest library outlets by square footage

                         All                            PINES
                         U.S.                             #

Smallest          less than                              20
10%               1,120 sq. ft.

Smallest          less than                               9
5%                784 sq. ft.

Smallest          fewer than                              4
1%                384 square feet

Note that these categories are not mutually exclusive and that each interval is included in the interval above.

Source of data

The data come from the FY 2005 Outlet File published originally by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics and now available on the Website of the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. The outlet file has an observation for 17,299 outlets. Appendix J of the documentation reports that 16,557 responded and 44 did not respond but had data from the year before. I found some responses were negative (a conventional way of representing such things as “not applicable” or “unknown”) and deleted those. Bookmobiles apparently do not conventionally report square footage, at least the PINES libraries do not, thus leaving 15,585 outlets (branches and central libraries) with reported figures.

That this number is from FY 2005, the latest national level data we have, and facts will have changed since that survey.

Bob Molyneux