If America's public libraries are to win
support, they must move forward to basics, not back
Back to basics? If public libraries are to
win support and flourish, they must move forward to basics, not back. A
system of library standards should be
established that identifies:
- Minimum standards for all public libraries
in America that only a very few could not achieve.
- Advisory standards that all libraries
should strive for, though only some will achieve them.
- Benchmarks of excellence for libraries
that very few libraries will achieve. These libraries
will help disseminate their best practices for all to emulate.
Fifty years ago, public library leaders
like Carleton Joeckl and Lowell Marin thought nationally in their planning
(A National Plan for Public Library Service, 1948). National
library standards reached their zenith during
the Johnson administration. By the Carter administration, almost
everything had been redefined in terms of output measures. Lacking
national standards, most states began or revised their own standards,
a trend that meshed all too well with the Reagan-Bush devolution and
states' rights philosophy.
The wider national framework of business practices and
research has consistently influenced library planning and
research. There have been efforts at using benchmarking, total quality
management, and similar methods, especially in academic libraries
but as John Moorman noted in the January 1997 issue of Public Libraries,
there does not appear to be much professional consensus on either public library
standards or evaluation methods.
A critical question to ask is, Who will define new standards?
Until 1966, the American Library Association took an active
role in setting standards. Since then, ALA has concentrated
on variations on planning and encouraging libraries to set
their own standards. Individual state library
agencies, assisted by state library associations, have taken
on the job. Who should take the lead in setting new standards?
Should it be ALA? The Commission on Libraries and
Information Science? The White House Conference on Library
and Information Services? The Public Library Association?
The Carnegie Corporation spurred the push for standards
and wider units of service that led to the National Plan for Library
Service in 1950, but the corporation was disappointed when individual libraries
built with Carnegie grants failed to garner sufficient support to thrive.
In our day, the Gates Foundation is spending millions to place computers
in the most disadvantaged libraries; perhaps one day soon it
will see its way clear to encourage both the bootstrap libraries
and the libraries that have the best practices.
Who will resist new national standards?
Probably the state library agencies, which will cite the
need for more local standards. Many libraries
at or above current median levels of numeric standards for
their state also will object; they will have complaints about minimums
becoming maximums, holding back the best, and so forth. Allowing for
benchmark standards of excellence to which the top tier of libraries
can aspire would alleviate this concern.
Most often when we think of standards, we
immediately jump to the numerical standards such as the
number of books per capita, hours open, or computer workstations that a library
of a given size should have; but prescriptive standards are
just as important, if not more so. These prescriptive standards
inquire about the existence of a challenged materials policy, bylaws for
the board, acceptable Internet use policies, and the like. There are no
numbers here, simply an answer of yes or no to things the standards
specify every library should be doing.
Does it really take a planning process to discover that
a library needs bylaws for the board or a selection policy?
Of course not. Standards that require all libraries
to have such policies and procedures ought not be optional or
"discovered" by community analysis. They are simply necessary,
and they are necessary nationally, not state by state. (Technical standards
such as the Machine-Readable Cataloging standard also are important, but
they are not the focus of the present discussion.)
Minimum standards. Minimum standards
are, or should be, met by every library. Theoretically, one
might say that if a library does not meet the minimum standards,
it can be called a reading room, a coffee shop with books, or something
else, but not a public library.
Minimum standards get some attention and
lip service, but few states have implemented such standards
for any but the narrowest of measures. Most often these minimum standards
include certification of library staff and hours of service.
Wisconsin has just added minimum hours, collection size, and budget to its
minimum standards. The Wisconsin standards,
like most state standards, are advisory.
Target standards. Many states have target standards.
These often involve "moving targets" pegged to some percentile
measures for a given library population. There is none of
that Lake Woebegon "everyone is above average" mentality in such
standards. By the very definition of percentiles, a certain
proportion of libraries will always be substandard. Because
so many libraries cannot, by definition, meet the standards,
they are always advisory.
It is the lack of national target standards
for collection size, expenditures per capita, and the like that libraries
seeking improvements most often lament. However, those libraries
well above the targets fear such targets will hold them back. They urge
community-based planning instead of hard standards.
Benchmarking standards are found in total
quality management (TQM) circles. Benchmarking standards are
intended to indicate excellence and best practices that can be emulated by
others. In 1979, Xerox used benchmarking to improve its warehousing
operations by replicating the efficiencies achieved by L. L. Bean. If
corporations in one industry can find value in comparing themselves to
corporations in entirely different industries, how can libraries
claim to be beyond comparison?
As long ago as 1985, Christine MacDonald at the Toronto
Reference Library (now part of the Toronto Public Library
System) conducted the first known library benchmarking study
of its Public Service Department. Comparing Toronto practices to those of
peer libraries led to a number of innovations and changes
that improved efficiencies. Involvement of the staff at an earlier stage
of the benchmarking process would have enhanced the process, MacDonald
Each year since 1991, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has
bestowed the Baldridge Award for Quality on an American business. The
award and the attention it draws have greatly increased the interest of
both business and the public sector in the techniques involved in
benchmarking and determining best practices.
ISO 9000 is a set of five universal standards
for a quality-assurance system. Currently 90 countries have adopted ISO
(International Standards Organization) 9000 as national standards.
These standards ensure that the companies or services
certified by ISO 9000 have gone through a rigorous regimen of
self-analysis, self-inspection, and documentation of processes.
It is time to encourage America's best libraries
to go through a quality-assurance process using the ISO 9000 standards.
This would assure that these libraries have the
documentation on planning and development needed to allow other libraries
and library schools to study their best practices. (We also
need proper standards to begin to address the important
issues of Internet use and electronic use in libraries, but
neither ALA nor anyone else nationally seems able to address this critical
Public libraries have not registered with
ISO 9000, but some library suppliers such as the OCLC have.
I suggest that top-notch libraries be urged to apply for ISO
9000-type certification as a condition for grants and recognition. Not all
or even most libraries should use this process--only the
willing and the best.
In a way, ISO 9000 certification is a bit like ALA
accreditation for library schools. The documentation and
site visits cannot absolutely guarantee that all graduates are well taught
and know their stuff, of course, but it does increase the odds. Most libraries
look for ALA accreditation for the same reason that GM looks for ISO
certification: they're betting that it will increase their chances of
The profession should set minimum standards
for libraries. Let us compete for excellence by exceeding
minimums, men exceeding targets, and finally soaring to total quality library
service. Let us seek awards for excellence.
The Public Library Association should
immediately begin the process of setting national standards
at several tiers. Establishing local standards tailored to
specific local needs is also important, of course, but consider: Would you
fly an airline that set its own standards for when the wings
should be de-iced?
More on the issue of national standards is
available on the author's Web site at www.haplr-index.com.
- Minimum standards get some lip service,
but few states have implemented standards for any but
the narrowest of measures.
- Target standards often involve
"moving targets" pegged to some percentile measures for a
given library population. Thus, by definition, some libraries
will always be substandard.
- Benchmarking standards are intended to
indicate excellence and best practices that can be emulated by others.
BENCHMARKING FOR EXCELLENCE
Here are some ways to use library
benchmarking to promote excellence:
- Use benchmarking tools to identify potential
candidates for library grants and recognition, then
subject libraries that accept the grant invitation to a
peer review by seasoned professional librarians.
- Test applicant libraries with a
customer satisfaction inventory, such as the American Customer
Satisfaction Index (ACSI), a national economic indicator of customer
- Apply ISO 9000 standards to applicant libraries
to insure that they have documented their planning process.
- Urge library schools to provide field
placements at the mentor libraries to expose new
graduates to best practices. Distance education technology would
facilitate discussing and examining the best practices.
- Make libraries that successfully
complete these steps eligible for classification as a Best Practices Library,
which would bring with it both prestige and a cash grant from
government or private foundation sources.