America's Star Libraries 2019

The 12th edition of the LJ Index of Public Library Service rates U.S. public libraries based on selected per capita output measures. The 2019 Index derives from data recently released by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) for FY17. This year, 6,333 U.S. public libraries qualified to be rated in the Index. In this edition, there are 261 Star Libraries, each receiving three-Star, four-Star, or five-Star designations.

The LJ Index of Public Library Service 2019

A third of the 261 Star Libraries that Library Journal scored, in its 12th year rating U.S. libraries on the LJ Index of Public Library Service, were not Star Libraries last year. There was a dramatic drop in libraries scored on the Index this year. Primarily due to this year’s new per-capita output measure, Wi-Fi sessions, more than 1,000 libraries opted out. This lowered the number to 6,333. With more and more users visiting libraries with their own laptops, tablets, and smartphones, as well as libraries loaning devices that run on Wi-Fi to replace or supplement desktop PCs, Wi-Fi sessions are now being counted alongside public internet computer usage to provide a more complete picture of how visitors access online resources at the library.

Wi-Fi joins the five existing measures that determine the LJ Index: total circulation, circulation of electronic materials, library visits, program attendance, and public internet computer use. (Eligible libraries are grouped by total operating expenditures and rated based on their differences from the average for the six per-capita statistics. For more detail, see the FAQ: bit.ly/LJstarsFAQ.)

The 2019 scores and ratings are based on the most recent findings from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Public Library Survey (PLS), FY17. Even though every state agency has collected data on Wi-Fi for at least two years, and often three, 1,028 libraries did not report Wi-Fi sessions. Unlike reporting zero sessions, not answering the question at all eliminated these libraries from consideration for the Index and rankings, which requires libraries to submit data on all six measures.

MEAN AND STANDARD DEVIATIONS (SD) OF LJ INDEX STATISTICS BY EXPENDITURE CATEGORY, 2019 (BASED ON FY17 DATA)

PER CAPITA SERVICE OUTPUT
EXPENDITURES CATEGORY
TOTAL CIRCULATION CIRCULATION OF ELECTRONIC MATERIALS LIBRARY VISITS TOTAL PROGRAM ATTENDANCE PUBLIC INTERNET COMPUTER USE WIFI SESSIONS
MEAN SD MEAN SD MEAN SD MEAN SD MEAN SD MEAN SD
$30M+ 9.61 5.78 1.42 0.96 4.73 1.63 0.39 0.21 0.98 0.48 1.66 2.31
$10-29.9M 10.05 6.72 1.33 1.9 4.81 2.08 0.44 0.3 1.01 0.61 1.84 4.15
$5-9.9M 10.65 8.07 1.12 1.14 5.99 4.94 0.53 0.42 1.09 0.98 2.31 5.1
$1-4.9M 9.05 7.62 0.86 1.77 6.12 5.13 0.62 0.81 0.99 0.98 1.53 3.39
$400-999.9K 8.04 6.52 0.69 1.02 6.62 6.57 0.7 0.77 1.07 1.31 1.54 4.57
$200-399.9K 6.86 6.13 0.56 1.06 5.6 4.67 0.63 0.71 1.02 1.53 1.02 2.46
$100-199.9K 6.87 6.37 0.52 0.81 5.55 5.34 0.65 0.84 1.1 1.62 1.17 2.87
$50-99.9K 5.69 4.44 0.45 0.86 4.43 3.65 0.57 0.71 0.97 1.19 1.25 4.05
$10-49.9K 3.63 3.18 0.27 0.68 2.77 2.16 0.35 0.57 0.77 1.03 0.85 3.12
AVERAGE 7.27 6.47 0.64 1.19 5.48 5.1 0.61 0.75 1.01 1.29 1.32 3.6

KEY: M–Millions K–Thousands

 

LIBRARIES STRUGGLE TO TRACK WI-FI

Several states reported that data collection on Wi-Fi usage was a major challenge, one that required training, assistance, and expenditure of resources at the state level. “We now have a statewide contract to help libraries collect Wi-Fi use,” says Scott Dermont, Iowa state data coordinator (SDC). Michele Balliet Unrath, North Dakota SDC, says the state library offered a grant to supply libraries with routers and individual training on how to accurately count and report sessions. Texas offers something similar, but one obstacle is systemic rather than informational: “The main barrier to getting Wi-Fi data we hear is that the Wi-Fi is managed at the city or county level and is not broken out by department,” explains Stacey Malek, Texas SDC.

 

WI-FI RADICALLY CHANGES THE GAME

Since the 2018 edition of the Index, the Star Libraries group has undergone dramatic changes. Notably, the standard deviation for Wi-Fi sessions in each expenditure category tends to run two to three times the mean—something it has in common with circulation of electronic materials for lower expenditure categories. Most likely, these proportionally larger deviations are explained by a few outliers reporting very high numbers on one end, and a large number of zeroes reported by libraries that don’t provide these services on the other.

 

REPEAT STARS MAINTAIN THEIR EDGE

For 2019, 111 libraries retained the same Star status they had in 2018. There are 59 continuing five-Star libraries, 32 libraries that maintained four-Star status, and 20 libraries that remain three-Star libraries.

This year, 172 of 2018’s Star libraries held onto Star status. However, their number of Stars may have changed. There are also 89 new or returning Star libraries that were not Stars in last year’s edition. That’s an all-time high, and it, too, is explained largely by the addition of Wi-Fi. A record 31 public libraries withdrew themselves from consideration as repeat Star Libraries by declining to report Wi-Fi sessions.

Between 2018 and 2019, ten libraries moved from one expenditure category to another while retaining Star library status. Of those libraries, eight retained Star library status despite moving from a lower to a higher expenditure category and, in two cases, it was the reverse.

 

PUBLIC LIBRARIES ELIGIBLE FOR THE LJ INDEX AND REPEAT AND NEW STAR LIBRARIES, 2009–19 (BASED ON FY06–17 IMLS DATA)

EXPENDITURE 
CATEGORY

NUMBER OF LIBRARIES

NOVEMBER 2019 
(2017 DATA)

NOVEMBER 2018
 (2016 DATA)
DECEMBER 2017
(2015 DATA)
NOVEMBER 2016
(2014 DATA)
NOVEMBER 2015
(2013 DATA)
NOVEMBER 2014
(2012 DATA)
NOVEMBER 2013
(2011 DATA)
NOVEMBER 2012
(2010 DATA)
NOVEMBER 2011
(2009 DATA)
OCTOBER 2010
(2008 DATA)
NOVEMBER 2009
(2007 DATA)
FEBRUARY 2009
(2006 DATA)
$30M + 55 54 49 49 51 47 46 44 48 45 36 31
$10M - $29.9M 112 127 116 107 112 113 112 114 107 106 98 88
$5M - $9.9M 192 220 219 222 209 209 198 191 211 186 176 159
$1M - $4.9M 1,251 1,445 1,436 1,401 1,397 1,381 1,367 1,349 1,307 1,282 1,209 1,125
$ 400K - $999.9K 1,221 1,451 1,443 1,414 1,446 1,394 1,395 1,373 1,377 1,333 1,278 1,247
$200K - $399.9K 1,030 1,169 1,186 1,171 1,209 1,208 1,174 1,170 1,129 1,087 1,113 1,089
 $100K - $199.9K 1,044 1,204 1,212 1,180 1,257 1,237 1,251 1,258 1,236 1,204 1,191 1,173
$50K - $99.9K 888 1,011 1,002 1,055 1,088 1,122 1,111 1,126 1,145 1,128 1,152 1,115
 $10K - $49.9K 540 680 746 750 894 875 919 945 953 1,036 1,015 1,088
Total Libraries Rated 6,333 7,361 7,409 7,349 7,663 7,586 7,573 7,570 7,513 7,407 7,268 7,115
 Repeat Stars (from prior year) 172 197 205 199 207 198 196 203 195 195 208  
New Stars (not starred prior year) 89 60 54 61 54 60 67 59 67 63 50  
 TOTAL STARS 261 257 259 260 261 258 263 262 262 258 258 256

KEY: M–Millions K–Thousands

WHY DO LIBRARIES GAIN OR LOSE STARS?

Each year, some libraries remaining in the same expenditure categories earn more or fewer Stars than in the previous year. Of 2018’s five-Star libraries, 11 are four-Star ones and two are three-Star ones this year. Of 2018’s four-Star libraries, six became five-Star libraries, while 19 became three-Star ones. Of 2018’s three-Star libraries, seven became five-Star libraries and 16 became four-Star ones.

2018 STAR LIBRARIES THAT LOST STAR STATUS DUE TO NOT REPORTING WI-FI SESSIONS

EXPENDITURE 
CATEGORY

NO WI-FI SESSIONS REPORTED

NUMBER

% LOSING
STAR STATUS

$30M + 1 50
$10M–$29.9M 3 42.9
$5M–$9.9M 1 20
$1M–$4.9M 1 10
$400K–$999.9K 2 28.6
$200K–$399.9K 4 26.7
$100K–$199.9K 2 25
$50K–$99.9K 5 35.7
$10K–$49.9K 12 92.3
TOTAL 31 38.3

KEY: M–Millions K–Thousands

The number of libraries losing Star status often falls between 50 and 70 per year, making this year’s 85 seem exceptionally high. But again, the losses can be attributed largely to the fact that 31 libraries didn’t report Wi-Fi sessions. Notably, while libraries withdrawn from consideration for Star Library status are found in every expenditure category, the highest proportion of Star status losses for non-reporting of Wi-Fi sessions was in the lowest expenditure category. More than nine out of ten of the lowest-spending libraries that lost Star status did so over Wi-Fi non-reporting. It’s possible that many or most small libraries simply don’t have the resources, training, or funds to easily track Wi-Fi usage by patrons.

THE ROLE OF SYSTEM SIZE

As in past years, most of the Star-less states have one notable thing in common: public library jurisdictions covering the largest geographical areas. An extreme case is Hawaii, which is unique in having a statewide system. In three of the remaining Star-less states—North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wyoming—all, or almost all, jurisdictions are countywide. In two others—Georgia and Mississippi—the most prevalent jurisdictions are county and multi-jurisdictional, while in Delaware, jurisdictions are predominantly either county systems or library districts.

As reported in the 2017 article, library jurisdictions that cover larger geography—particularly countywide and multi-jurisdictional systems—are at a disadvantage in the Star Library ratings, because they tend to be more poorly funded on a per-capita basis than other types (i.e., city, library district, nonprofit association) and, as a result, tend to generate lower per-capita service outputs.

Many libraries serving smaller geographic areas have higher per-capita statistics for both funding and output because they attract users from outside their official legal service area population. This gives them an edge over libraries with larger official service areas that encompass all or most of their actual users. This is why you should compare your library’s LJ Index score with scores of other libraries of the same type (e.g., city, county, library district). A more precise analysis will yield a fairer comparison from a local perspective.

 

WHAT VARIABLES AFFECT WI-FI COUNTS?

Wi-Fi sessions can vary dramatically from library to library based on a wide variety of factors. Major issues include:

  • CAPACITY How many simultaneous users can your library’s Wi-Fi network accommodate?
  • RANGE What is the geographical range of your library’s Wi-Fi network? Many library Wi-Fi networks provide service in the library’s parking lot. Some may provide service to neighboring businesses or other public agencies.
  • SPATIAL CONCENTRATION OF SIMULTANEOUS USERS How is your library’s Wi-Fi traffic affected by a large number of simultaneous users in close physical proximity?
  • BANDWIDTH How fast is your Wi-Fi network? Web browsing can be done at four mbps, but high-definition video streaming might call for 25 mbps. What users can do on your Wi-Fi network probably has an impact on how often and for how long they use it, thus affecting the number of sessions.
  • LIBRARY POLICIES Does the library have policies that limit Wi-Fi session length, connection speed, or number of simultaneous users?
  • AUTHENTICATION To access your library’s Wi-Fi network, do users have to log in? Are mobile devices automatically connected to your network? After publication of last year’s article, a director reported having extraordinarily high Wi-Fi session counts because devices are connected automatically, the library network has a wide range, and the library is at an intersection with a traffic light!
  • INTENSITY OF USER—AND STAFF—ACTIVITY Some uses make far greater demands on a Wi-Fi network’s resources than others. And what about staff use of library Wi-Fi? If public services staff are equipped with handheld devices, their use of library Wi-Fi could inflate the count of Wi-Fi sessions substantially.
  • WI-FI SERVICE BEYOND THE LIBRARY Does your library check out Wi-Fi hotspots? If so, are usage counts for those hotspots included in your Wi-Fi session count? Is the library involved in providing Wi-Fi service to the wider community?

 

NEW STARS, MORE STARS, AND CONTINUING STARS IN NEW EXPENDITURE CATEGORIES, 2018–2019

EXPENDITURE 
CATEGORY

NEW STARS 3 TO 5
STARS
3 TO 4
STARS
4 TO 5
STARS

NEW EXPENDITURE
CATEGORY/
STILL STARS

NUMBER % NUMBER % NUMBER % NUMBER % NUMBER

%

$30M + 4 26.7 0 0 1 6.7 0 0 0 0
$10M–$29.9M 10 30.3 1 3 2 6.1 1 3 1 3
$5M–$9.9M 7 22.6 2 6.5 2 6.5 1 3.2 1 3.2
$1M–$4.9M 12 40 0 0 1 3.3 1 3.3 1 3.3
$400K–$999.9K 5 16.7 1 3.3 3 10 0 0 3 10
$200K–$399.9K 14 46.7 1 3.3 1 3.3 0 0 2 6.7
$100K–$199.9K 8 26.7 0 0 1 3.3 1 3.3 1 3.3
$50K–$99.9K 15 48.4 1 3.2 1 3.2 0 0 1 3.2
$10K–$49.9K 14 45.2 1 3.2 4 12.9 2 6.5 0 0
TOTAL 89 34.1 7 2.7 16 6.1 6 2.3 10 3.8

KEY: M–Millions K–Thousands

WI-FI SESSIONS VERSUS LIBRARY VISITS

The relationship between Wi-Fi sessions and library visits is worth examining. You might expect a library’s number of Wi-Fi sessions to be a subset of its number of visits; however, there are many circumstances in which Wi-Fi sessions might exceed visits: if the network range extends beyond the building, if log-ons are automated, or if a network-imposed limit on session length generates repeated re-connects. And sometimes visits don’t get counted, say, when special event attendees use a separate entrance. It’s also possible that libraries reporting very high numbers of Wi-Fi sessions are not counting these sessions in the same way their peers are—there is no standardized process across public libraries.

Libraries reporting more Wi-Fi sessions than library visits are few—less than four percent nationwide. Interestingly, the proportion of libraries reporting more Wi-Fi sessions than library visits is higher for both the highest and the lowest-spending libraries than it is for those in-between. About one out of 20 libraries spending $30 million or more and about one out of 14 libraries spending between $5 million and $29.9 million report more Wi-Fi sessions than library visits. The latter proportion also applies to libraries spending between $10,000 and $49,999. Only two to three percent of libraries in the spending categories in-between report more Wi-Fi sessions than library visits.

There are other interesting patterns in the relationship between Wi-Fi sessions and library visits. In a dozen states—Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Maine, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Rhode Island, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming—zero libraries report more Wi-Fi sessions than library visits. In most other states, nine out of ten libraries report a number of Wi-Fi sessions that is less than or equal to their number of library visits. The percentage of libraries reporting more Wi-Fi sessions than library visits reaches double digits in only four states: Kansas (ten percent), Kentucky (13 percent), Wisconsin (16.7 percent), and North Dakota—where just over half (52.1 percent) of libraries report more Wi-Fi sessions than library visits. Perhaps rural locations, which often lack reliable, affordable broadband connections to private homes, are more dependent on library Wi-Fi.

A noteworthy change accompanying the addition of digital service measures is the increasing independence of service outputs from physical visits. The long-established definition of circulation has always included renewals, which often happen either automatically or via a library website transaction. As public library programming becomes more expansive and places increasing emphasis on outreach, there is a growing probability that program attendance figures include attendees of events happening outside the library. Of the LJ Index statistics, the only one that continues to have a strong relationship to physical visits is use of public internet computers, which are usually located in library facilities. None of the new digital service measures—e-circulation, Wi-Fi sessions, and, in time, e-retrievals and library website visits—requires that the user trip the gate counter at the library door.


What factors affect Star status?

As always, factors other than changes in service output can affect a library’s Star status:

  • The mix of libraries that qualify for inclusion in the LJ Index.
  • Changes in the statistics reported by a library’s spending peers.
  • Moving from one expenditure category to another.
  • Increases or decreases in a library’s own statistics relative to the previous year don’t necessarily translate into higher or lower LJ Index scores or more or fewer Stars. Each year is a separate ranking, strongly influenced by the other libraries in the mix.

Verifying data collection

One of the most challenging issues in comparing statistics is assessing the validity of outliers in the responses. At the national level it is impossible for anyone other than IMLS and the state library agencies, working together, to police the accuracy and comparability of data. Even for them, it is a daunting annual challenge, particularly for new measures, where the learning curve is still steep and data collection methods are not yet standardized. This is where public library directors and their staff come in, to review regularly how their own library’s data are collected and reported and to consult with one other when their peers report unusual data.


Be your own star

If your library is scored on the LJ Index, but not rated as a Star Library, there are many do-it-yourself projects that could make the data useful to you. Consider refining your library’s peers within its expenditure category by using additional data provided, including legal basis type (e.g., city, county, library district), administrative code (single vs. multiple outlet), numbers of central and branch libraries, total full-time equivalent staff, volumes held, and total collection expenditures.

See the 2015 edition for more ideas. You may find that your library’s LJ Index score is the highest or in the top ten for a more refined subset of spending peers, such as library districts spending $100,000 to $199,999 that have a single outlet.


Keith Curry Lance (keithlance@comcast.net) is an independent consultant based in suburban Denver. He also consults with the Colorado-based RSL Research Group. In both capacities, he conducts research on libraries of all types for state library agencies, state library associations, and other library-related organizations. For more information, visit www.KeithCurryLance.com.

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