2014-02-28 / Community

Library Links

The public library: returning value to the community
By Kevin Davis

With the municipal budget season fast approaching, the finances of the library – and how the library fits into the larger city operation – is much on my mind. I thought some readers might be interested in the numbers behind the dayto day operation of South Portland’s library department.

We’ll start with the big number – the library department accounts for $643,261 of the city’s annual budget. While a large number, this does reflect a cumulative decrease of more than $120,000 since the library’s 2007 budget of $764,598. The annual budget covers the entirety of the library’s operations, with payroll costs being the largest expense – something to be expected in a service- and people-based offering. We run and maintain the two library buildings, keeping them staffed and stocked to deliver library services to the community seven days a week. For comparison’s sake, though we serve the sixthlargest community in Maine, South Portland’s library is the fourth-busiest public library in the state in terms of volume of materials borrowed. Budget wise, we rank eighth, statewide, in our local expenditures for library services.

One correction to what I said above about the library’s budget covering the entirety of the library’s operation: the annual budget does not fund one very important aspect – programs. Apart from the payroll costs of library staff involved, there is no funding support for any of the library’s programming included in the annual budget. The cost of paid performers and presenters, the cost of supplies for craft projects, refreshments for events, puppets for story time and other enhancements that make the library a nicer place to visit are only possible thanks to the efforts and generosity of Friends of the South Portland Public Library.

So what do we do with the money we get in our annual budget – and what benefits does our community see from it? Quite a bit, actually.

For circulating library materials – the things you can come in and borrow – we are budgeted with $86,200 for the current fiscal year (through June 2014). This money is split, as is proportionally appropriate, between the main and branch libraries, adult and children’s material, as well as between books and audio/video materials. We try to be as responsive as possible to our users’ needs within the means of the budget. When we recognize that a particular title is becoming popular (or if it is anticipated to be so) we will invest in additional copies. The days of waiting for months on end on long reserve lists for a single copy of a popular book are long gone, thankfully.

Let’s compare the $86,200 materials budget to actual use of our collections. In the past 12 months, we have circulated 221,856 items. This is significantly greater than the actual collection holdings of the library and reflects many multiple uses of some titles. With these numbers, we have spent, approximately, 38 cents in actual material cost for every use of an item. Not a bad return on investment, I think.

We can show the value of the community investment in the library another way as well. Given that we are fully funded as part of the annual municipal budget, the average South Portland resident contributes approximately $26 toward the library’s operation, annually, as part of property taxes paid to the city. This is lower than the $33.56 national average annual taxpayer contribution for public library services, as determined by the American Library Association in 2010.

So, what does that $26 investment equate to? Assuming the best possible discounts available, your annual investment in the library’s services is less than the cost of purchasing two bestselling hardcover books … or three paperbacks. It is less than three new music CDs or two new release films on disc. It’s less than the cost of renting six films online (streaming) through iTunes and less than four months of Netflix service. It’s less than the cost of taking your family out to eat – once – at any of the family-friendly chain restaurants around the mall, and less than the cost of a single entrĂ©e at many others. It’s about half of what I spend to fill the gas tank of my car every week, and less than the cost of a simple pair of Levis.

We have just shy of 6,000 library users who have checked out materials in the past year. Among those users are 140 or so who are not South Portland residents, but who choose to pay the city an annual nonresident fee to use our library. This number does not include visitors who have come to the library to make use of the space (studying, using the library’s Internet connection, either through our computers or their own, connecting over our wireless network), or who attend a program. In fact, there are many users who receive value from the investment in library services who are not reflected in simple tabulations of checked out materials.

If you are a library user, how much value do you get from our service during any one visit? Over the course of a month? A year? If you use the library at all, you will find that the annual cost of operating the library is dwarfed by the value returned to the community. If you would like to do a quick calculation of the value your library returns to you, we do have a very simple and unscientific “library value calculator” on our website. Check it out and see if your investment is paying for itself. If not, stop on by, we’d love the chance to make it worth your while.

Kevin Davis is director at South Portland Public Library.

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