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By Thomas J. Hennen Jr.  Originally published in American Libraries,  Mar2000, Vol. 31, Issue 3

See also the Standards Page

Who will set new standards?
Three tiers of standards
It's time to go for ISO
Let us soar to quality
Three tiers of standards

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:

  1. Minimum standards for all public libraries in America that only a very few could not achieve.
  2. Advisory standards that all libraries should strive for, though only some will achieve them.
  3. 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.

Who will set new standards?

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.

Three tiers of standards

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 says.

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.

It's time to go for ISO

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 area.)

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 quality.

Let us soar to quality

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.

Three tiers of standards:

  • 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.




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 satisfaction.
  • 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.



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