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ACPL scores high marks on national library ranking

We’re #5 on the HAPLR index. What the heck does that mean?

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2004-11-08


The Allen County Public Library system has a lot to cheer about these days — a massive, multi-million dollar renovation project well underway, and just last month, the Hennen’s American Public Library Ratings (HAPLR) index ranked us 5th in the entire nation among library systems in our population category.

HAPLR ranks national libraries in 10 separate population categories on a scale of 0 to 1,000. The majority of libraries fall somewhere between the 270 and 730 range. The ACPL scored 776, putting us in 5th place out of 94 libraries in our category (libraries serving between 250, 000 to 499,000 people). This is actually the third year in a row we have taken the 5th spot.

Cheryl Ferverda, the ACPL’s Community Relations and Development Manager, tells me we missed the #4 spot by a measly two points. So, what would it have earned us those two extra points? A first edition Dickens? More people borrowing Gibbons rather than V.C. Andrews? It’s hard to say. “It does give people pause sometimes,” Ferverda says. “What is this (HAPLR index) really? What does it really mean? Is it a true reflection of what the library does?”

Turns out it is, and it isn’t. Started in 1999, the HAPLR index and is the brainchild of Thomas J. Hennen, who was inspired by Money magazine’s annual ranking of the best places to live. Hennen explains that in the “Quality of Life” category, the magazine uses doctors per capita, commuting time to work, five star restaurants, and libraries. “But when I looked into the detail, I found out all they were doing is asking ‘how many books do you own?’” Hennen says. “And I thought, that’s not a good measure of a library, I could do better than that.”

9,000 public libraries across the country submit their data annually to their respective states, and then the Federal government compiles that data from all 50 states into one large database. HAPLR uses that data to compile the index, looking at numbers such as how much money the library has spent on materials per person within the county, the size of the library staff, how many times materials are borrowed, the average number of items checked out every visit… actually, the list gets pretty involved and complicated, and goes right down to the number of visits to the library per hour. “It’s almost like a mathematical genius has to go through it and figure out what it really is,” Ferverda says.

Indeed, deciphering the calculations that go into the HAPLR index is not for the faint of heart, or at least not the mathematically uninclined. Hennen crunches the numbers from the federal database on libraries and uses 15 measures to devise his index. Nine of these are output measures, like how many circulations per capita, and how many visits per capita. Six of these are input measures, like how much money the community spends on the library, the library staff, the hours the library is open, etc.

“I’m scoring both,” Hennen says. “You can’t just have a lot of money, you have to have something to show for it, and you can’t (run the library) on a shoestring either, because that indicates that the community isn’t stepping up to the plate. You have to do both. The community has to support it reasonably well, and the library has to do reasonably good things with the money provided in order to rate well.”

Critics of the HAPLR index say that empirical data only gives you a partial picture, that some things that go into making a library good are unquantifiable. With a 5th place ranking in our population group, no one in the Allen County Public Library system is complaining about the HAPLR index, but Ferverda says it doesn’t take into account what might be the ACPL’s biggest claim to fame. “It doesn’t say that this is the library to go for genealogy,” she says. “You’re not going to find a bigger, better genealogy department in a public library anywhere. We’re bigger and better than New York, we’re bigger and better than Chicago.” And the HAPLR index couldn’t take into account, for example, how many people came from other areas of the country to use the genealogy department here. Or theoretically, if a library’s massive collection of books consists mainly of used Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks from the mid-80s.

Hennen concedes that incorporating factors like the quality of the book collection or the services offered might be impossible. “I think my rating system does it somewhat, because you’ve got to trust that if you have a decent staff selecting the books, and you have a decent book budget, it’s going to give you a fairly good outcome most of the time. But if you wanted to do more qualitative stuff like that, like you would with a restaurant, it would take an army of investigators, and I’m just one. That goes beyond the scope of a hobby.”

Yes, that’s right, he said hobby. Crunching national library statistics is a hobby for Hennen. “There’s a joke in my family that I think in rows and columns,” he laughs. His day job is as the Director of Waukesha County Federated Library System in Wisconsin, and he’s also the author of a book on library planning called (appropriately enough) Hennen’s Public Library Planner.

Probably one of the biggest criticisms of the HAPLR index is that it doesn’t take into account electronic and internet services. Hennen recently wrote an article for American Libraries dealing with the top libraries in the country for electronic and internet services, but he doesn’t trust the data to include it in the index, at least for now. “Very comparable libraries spend very comparable sums, and get wildly different results,” he says. “I don’t think that’s credible, and I think that’s because there’s not a consistent way of reporting what’s going on. That’s actually true of web sites in general. There’s a whole lot of debate on how you do ratings for web sites. Is it by hits? Is it by the number of minutes you spend looking? Is it by eyeballs? It’s such a new field. So I’ve got the numbers, but I don’t find them sufficiently credible to incorporate them into the index.”

Interestingly enough, both Hennen and Ferverda compare the HAPLR index to an SAT score. As Ferverda says: “It gives you a number to rank you, but it doesn’t say that, for example, when you wrote an essay, your essay is that much better than somebody else’s.” An SAT score in the top percentile is nothing to sneeze at, of course, and Ferverda explains that whenever a library makes the top ten, it says a lot about the way the library is run, and more importantly, about the community’s involvement. “When you have a system that consistently does the sorts of things that our system does, it is only due to the fact that the tax payers support us, and continue to support us.”

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