Ask ELi: Do Most Cities Our Size Have a Public Library?

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Monday, November 6, 2017, 7:09 am
Sheryl Knox

Editor’s note: Back in August, in an interview with ELi’s Alice Dreger, an MSU administrator who is personally against the income tax proposal asked whether it makes sense for a City of East Lansing’s size to have such amenities as an aquatic center and a public library.

East Lansing resident Sheryl Knox took up ELi’s call to readers to participate in nonpartisan reporting and researched the question of how East Lansing compares to other cities in terms of size and library services. To do this work, she used primarily the 2016-17 Michigan Public Library Survey Statistics (file located here) and 2010 census data for Michigan municipalities as provided by Wikipedia.

Here’s what Sheryl found.

The short answer: Do most Michigan cities of East Lansing’s size have public libraries? Yes. In fact, 100% of Michigan municipalities the size of East Lansing have public libraries.

The background: Every officially recognized public library in Michigan has a legally defined service area based on its foundational governing documents. Sometimes this service area correlates to township, city, or county boundaries, or groups of collaborating entities that can include school districts.

The Library of Michigan determines the population of each library’s service area after every decennial census. Based on the population served, libraries are then divided into 6 classes:

  • Class 1: 3,999 or less, of which there are 70 such libraries in Michigan
  • Class 2: 4,000-6,999, of which there are 79 in Michigan
  • Class 3: 7,000-11,999, of which there are 77 in Michigan
  • Class 4: 12,000-25,999, of which there are 77 in Michigan
  • Class 5: 26,000-49,999, of which there are 44 in Michigan
  • Class 6: 50,000+, of which there are 45 in Michigan

East Lansing Public Library is a Class 5 library with a population served of 48,579. This number includes MSU students as counted in the 2010 census. MSU students are eligible for library cards at ELPL and can use the services like all year-round residents. Even if we use the estimated year-round population of East Lansing as 19,600, as estimated in a recent ELi article, we still find 77 libraries in Michigan serving populations that size.

There are 40 municipalities in Michigan that are Class 5 size. Twenty-one of them operate a library (52.5%). The remainder (19 or 47.5%) participate in larger library systems and host branches. (Click here to see the full list.) In other words, all municipalities of this size in Michigan have public libraries.

ELPL is currently funded through a dedicated millage that was supported by East Lansing voters and is paid by East Lansing property owners. If the income tax proposal passes next week, it is not likely that any significant portion of income taxes will be used to support library services anytime soon, given the dedicated millage. The associated proposed property tax reduction will not reduce the library’s millage revenue.

The recent renovations at the library were not funded with tax dollars, but rather through private donations, including a $1.5 million anonymous donation.

A spreadsheet produced from the research conducted for this article shows some of the major metrics from the most recent reporting year for a group of ten peer libraries to East Lansing Public Library. These are all Class 5 libraries who serve between 40,000 and 50,000 people. They are also single building libraries, not systems with branches.

East Lansing’s library ranks first in population served, but tenth in the number of active cardholders. That is likely because of the large number of college students in the population count.

East Lansing’s library ranks fifth in square footage, sixth in collection size, fifth in annual circulation, sixth in annual visits. Our library ranks slightly higher, but still middle of the road when we look at some ratios like circulation per active cardholder (fourth) and expense per population served (fourth).

It’s worth noting that ELPL was closed for a month while under renovation during this reporting year, so this sample may reflect some aberrations. Deeper analysis would be needed to determine that. But it is likely safe to say that East Lansing’s Public Library is not an outlier in its peer group in Michigan libraries.


You may also be interested in these previous editions of Ask ELi to Investigate:

What's the population of East Lansing?

Does the Aquatic Center pay for itself?

What happened with the library millages?

Why so much vacant retail space downtown?

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