Volume 29, Number 2, Summer 2007

Making the Case for Public Libraries in Maryland

Sharan D. Marshall, Director, Southern Maryland Regional Library Association

Looking for help in making your case for your public library? Maryland public libraries wanted help. We needed some real data to help us convince state legislators to increase state funding for county public libraries and regional libraries. With this goal in mind, we set about doing a statewide survey of the public’s perception of public libraries. And what they had to say about us blew us away!

Working with funding from LSTA grants and in partnership with the Maryland State Department of Education, Division of Library Development and Services, and Maryland’s public and regional libraries, the Southern Maryland Regional Library Association (SMRLA) spearheaded two statewide survey projects. The first survey was conducted in the fall of 2003; the second, follow-up survey was done in the summer of 2006.

Steering and advisory committees were established for both projects. Steering committee members for both survey projects were: Irene Padilla, our state librarian; Susan Paznekas, a member of Padilla’s staff; and myself as SMRLA director. Advisory committee member included county, regional, and special state-funded library staff from across the state.

After much discussion, we agreed that the scope of the survey was to determine the public’s perception of the value of libraries and the return on investment of government dollars invested in public libraries. We identified as the primary audience for the survey results “funders of libraries'” primarily state legislators but also federal and local legislative entities.

We issued a Request for Proposal to contract with a vendor to design, conduct, and analyze the survey results, including some demographic information about participants. The firm selected for both projects was a marketing research company based in the Washington D.C. metro area. There were several project deliverables including the survey instrument, preliminary and final reports, and presentations to several key library groups within our state.

Working with our vendor and with input from the advisory committee, the steering committee developed questions in several general categories. These included questions about quality of life and basic service delivery, the value of public services and rating libraries within that context, impressions of libraries, economic development impact, funding, library usage, and demographic questions. For the updated survey in 2006, we attempted to keep as many of our questions the same in order to have comparative data.

Results from the first survey were extremely positive for public libraries. So positive in fact that, when we were getting ready to do the updated survey, we braced ourselves for the possibility of lower numbers. Happily, that was not the case; results of the 2006 survey surpassed those from 2003.

Marylanders love their public libraries –- something we “knew” anecdotally, but now we have real data to back this up. Library usage is growing in Maryland; nearly 80 percent of residents have used their public library in the past couple of months. The public gives us a 3.4 G.P.A; much higher than any other government service. Nearly seven out of ten residents view public libraries as an essential service. Eighty-eight percent of our residents say that public libraries are “a good investment” and a strong majority wants to see more state and local dollars invested in public libraries. Wow!

Following the first survey, many of us held events for state legislators and presented the data in PowerPoint presentations. During the legislative session later that year, we were successful in getting a funding bill passed and signed into law, which increased the state’s per capita funding to county libraries by 87 percent over four years and nearly doubled state funding for the three regional libraries over that same period. We are currently working on marketing the results from the 2006 survey.

Want to learn more? To view the complete 2003 and 2006 statewide surveys, including methodology, visit the SMRLA website.