Murder by the Numbers


The graphic to the right was passed around the online library world during the recent National Library Week. My reaction to the infographic was a bit different than others; specifically, I was a bit perturbed. While it is pleasant to look at and certainly has good design to it, it’s the data represented that made me wonder why anyone would think that this was a ‘good’ library support graphic.

I’ll explain it in sections.


First, take a look at the list of most popular topics. Then, take a look at program topics at your local public library. Or you can do what I did and take a very non-scientific randomly chosen look at the programs being offered in the public libraries of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Denver. With cooking as the #1 most popular topic, only Los Angeles had anything with cooking in it consisting of three programs with two of aimed at younger audiences. I personally only know of one other library that has done cooking programs and that’s the Princeton Public Library. For a topic that two-thirds of the public say they are interested in, we are missing the programming boat on this one.

Health or medicine is a hit-or-miss affair as well, depending on the topics covered. There were at least a handful of programs ranging from finding health information online to children and mental health to (I’m not kidding) ancient secrets to looking & feeling younger. For my own library, we’ve had flu shot clinics and occasional programs for health and well being but the attendance for that is sporadic. As to politics and current events, I can’t find any events whatsoever. (Given how charged the political atmosphere is and the proclivity of librarians to think that it is a professional obligation to be politically neutral, I’m not really too shocked on this one.)

The four major public libraries turn the corner when it comes to business and careers. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a job resume class or business plan assistance. Finally, a topic we can say that we are addressing even if it only covers one-third of those people polled. The same can’t be said for travel/vacation and self-help/psychology programs which simply drop off the chart. (Not that we should consider dabbling in the self-help area given our basic difficulties helping ourselves to take action on a number of topics.)

Back to the question at hand: are public libraries actually in touch with the topics of interest? Our programming doesn’t reflect the interests as collected by the survey. While I will concede that a cooking program could require equipment not generally found in libraries, I would counter and say that either the equipment can be brought in or consider reaching out to the community and finding a kitchen (restaurant, culinary college program, or otherwise) that could host a cooking program. It’s just a matter of some ingenuity to start matching our programming to the topics that patrons are most interested in.


Second, this section of the graph leaves me a bit perplexed. Is it a cut of 56% from the 2009 number? Or is it a 56% total cut from a year not shown (presumably when funding was at a high point)? If I was to read this literally from left to right, it’s a 40% cut of the 2008 allocation followed by a 56.4% cut of the 2009 allocation followed by 62% cut of 2010’s. (Translated: If 2008 was $100 million, then 2009’s cut would leave $60 million, 2008’s cut would leave $26.16 million, and 2011’s cut would leave $9.9 million or 1/10th of what allocated in 2008. This cannot be.)

Also, where are the actual dollar numbers? While percentages are nice, numbers give a better sense of context to the cut. Otherwise, this looks like a USA Today bar chart graphic.


*sigh* And now we arrive at the 30 Helens Agree* section of the graphic.

Third, to me this graphic section represents a disconnect between statements and action. I am guessing I could get the same high agreement numbers with phrases like “Birthdays should be fun” and “As an adult, I should be allowed to eat Oreos for breakfast”. Everyone might agree to these statements, but I don’t see these numbers translating into political support. Hence, there is a disconnect between these saccharine sweet statements (“I love puppies!”) and getting these so-called library supporters to call their school board, administration, or town or state officials.

Considering the high amount of agreement, you would imagine that some budget decision makers fall into that overwhelming majority (whether they are superintendents, deans, or politicians). The advocacy job should be easy in theory, but across the country librarians and their supporters are getting pounded at the decision making level. While some have been able to rally support for ballot questions for public libraries, that’s not a slam dunk either as the agreement percentages might suggest. I can’t think of any school libraries that have been saved due to the belief that “school library programs are an essential part of the educational experience because they provide resources to students and teachers”. Although, you could nuance it and say that the statement references school library programs and not school librarians. (If someone has evidence to contradict this last point, please share. I’d rather like to be proven wrong on this one and that school librarians have been saved because of this or a similar belief.)

Considering how abstract the context of the statements are (so, how much tax money would it take?), it’s hard not to agree with them. It goes to prove that people like libraries in theory, they just aren’t thrilled when they get the bill. To me that represents a dangerous area for touting those agreement percentages for it lulls library advocates into a false sense of security when it comes to drumming up actual financial support for the library. People will agree to a statement like that but it doesn’t mean they’ll actually carry out the steps required to support it.

And, I have to wonder aloud, who are these people who disagree with these statements? Are they the ones who were just honest enough to say “No, I disagree” by actually thinking about what would be required? Are these the same one out of six dentists who say that you don’t need to brush after every meal? They can’t all be old cranks whose idea of government spending is “anything so long as it is on me”. Who are these people? They walk among us!


So, there we have it: our program offerings do not match those topics which are the most interest to our patrons, the numbers just tell us that we are down from where we were before, and that flowery pro-library statements are nice for people to agree to. I can’t hold the infographic creator entirely responsible for this since the data is coming from our own sources (Library Journal, Institute of Museum and Library Services, and ALA). But rather than simply passing a feel good pretty graphic, a little consideration should be given to the contents. It might have more than what it appears to say.


* 30 Helens Agree was a recurring sketch by the comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall. Here’s a clip that will get 30 librarians to agree.

12 thoughts on “Murder by the Numbers

  1. I do love this post. I think the disconnect is just that, as much as people would like to give libraries more money, and as much as they love libraries…money has to come from somewhere, and it’s an easy place to take money from. Maybe the love of libraries would translate into votes if they offered more cooking classes?? 🙂

  2. Andy – You put eloquently into words something that I’ve been thinking for sometime. I can’t help looking at data and asking more questions – in a community, were all services like emergency services also cut, and more or less than libraries? How is the library important? If you used the library to get a job, HOW did you use the library? A computer, a library staff member, or a program presenter? And you really hit the mark on comparing actual programs vs what our patrons may want. Think of it as writing a performance report for your library, instead of an employee. Vague phrases would never pass the muster as a real evaluation. Be specific. “Warm and fuzzy” doesn’t make it with me and I’m a librarian!

  3. My library (Morton Grove Public in IL) does cooking programs *all the time*. We invite local rock star chefs to give talks, monthly teen cooking classes, and lots more. They are always ridiculously popular. Glad to see we’re on target 🙂

    • In hindsight, it might be the smaller or non-branch libraries that are better suited to do cooking programs. They aren’t trying to do the ‘one size fits all’ programming approach that attempts to get the most amount of people coverage.

      So, if I’m ever out there, can I come see one of these programs? Will you sneak me in? 😀

  4. We have salsa competitions, Yan Can Cook is coming to do a cooking presentation, and we have many other food/cooking related programming. Plus we have some of our events catered by the local culinary school. This community eats like nobody’s business!! Anyway, I’m pretty excited about these.

    I’d also like to say that there are many kinds of foods that don’t require cooking and the Raw movement is getting pretty big so folks can look into that one too.

    And while I’m totally stoked to say that we also do most of the others… We never have any current events programs. I need to look at that one. Thanks for the good post

  5. Thank you for this post. I think it is great that you used a critical lens to analyze some questionable statistics. When we examining studies that offer consistent percentages in the 80-90s range, questions should always be raised.

    I agree that this is not a perfect info-graphic – especially in terms of conveying the budget cut information. But, as someone who did use this graphic on his blog, I still stand by it.

    I love visual information. It is a great way to catch the eye and spread a message. However, visual information is messy and easy to muck up. It takes a lot of time, energy and resources to come up with really really good visual data. Especially when the message it’s intending to deliver is complicated and convoluted. And yes, bad info-graphics can be misleading.

    The reason why I stand by this graph is that even flawed info-graphics serve the purpose of getting a general message across, and I think that was the intention of This wasn’t a research study using scientific methods trying to get published in Nature or New England Journal of Medicine. This was a blog post, trying to highlight the precarious situation that libraries are in. I mean, look at main audience: genealogists, Who are mostly retired grandparents who use public libraries to conduct local, historical research to support their hobby. I am not saying that this audience doesn’t deserve the best and most accurate information. But they are not librarians or information professionals who live day to day with the current threat of budget cuts. Again – this is a BLOG POST looking to communicate the current realities of libraries, and maybe even sway the pendulum of public opinion a bit in the direction of supporting social services. So a seemingly biased info-graphic containing fuzzy visual data is okay. Not perfect, not ideal, but okay – especially for a blog post.

    Is this a flawed chart? yes. Does it get the general point across? yes. Is it worth getting upset over? Maybe just a little.

    • I’m looking at it for its source material. While the funding middle is a choice by to present, the topics at the start and the statements at the bottom represent data coming from the library world. These are data points to which either libraries aren’t connecting the dots between hot topics and programming or making such “Everyone loves puppies!” statements that people would feel like Scrooge to disagree with (even though there were people who did disagree). To me, it represents a patron-library disconnect at the top and a erosion of the “I love libraries!” statement at the bottom. As to the statements, it certainly doesn’t translate into actual support.

  6. Pingback: Weekly Digest: April 16-April 22 « Agnostic, Maybe

  7. As much as I agree with what you’re saying in this post, I do see that the infographic makes an attempt to call people to action in the 4th portion of the graphic which you didn’t include. The graphic encourages people to “help support your local library” which is what libraries want patrons, politicians, and citizens to do.
    Just to be fair.

    • I link to the original at the top of the post and I say I break it down by sections. Yes, it does encourage people to support their libraries. I just have a problem with the rest.

  8. Pingback: 100 Days of Websites, day 15 » John Klima

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s