Friday, January 30, 2015

E-books Use and County Payments: Where's the Money?

Several times each year the Public Library Development Team hears concerns that the use of newer digital resources are not measured on the annual report, or that expenditures for digital resources such as the Wisconsin Digital Library Overdrive collection are not compensated through the county library payment process. 
image of tablet computer and smart phone
Tablets and smart phones now far
outsell dedicated e-book readers
This month, the Wisconsin Small Libraries Facebook Page featured a post suggesting that libraries "report...e-materials circulations in the notes field of each section. We need to push the state folks to count these circ numbers! If they see enough of us, perhaps they will update the forms."

The goal of this post is to clear up some misconceptions, outline the relationship of digital resources to traditional services, and show how the cost of providing those services is compensated under state law. Use of e-content is collected on the annual report, and expenditures for that content is included in the allowable expenditures for county payments.


A common perception is that counting e-content uses the same way as in-library checkouts will lead to higher county payments for the library. However, reporting those uses to the county for payments would be illegal, and likely would lead to a lower county payment. The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) must collect information about library use in a way that conforms with state library law.
In the development of the county payment system in the late '90s, there was considerable discussion between the library community and the legislature about how to accurately measure the relative use by non-residents to total library use. Since checkouts have been tracked and reported for decades, the library community agreed that circulation would provide the most reasonable and non-arbitrary measure. The county library payment system under Wis. Stats 43.12 is designed to determine the ratio of county use to total library use through checkout records that are typically tracked by computers. Because the formula is applied against all library expenditures, including overhead costs, personnel, and other programming, library directors and staff must avoid the temptation to think that each checkout by an eligible non-resident will result in a higher county library payment. It is the ratio of eligible non-resident use to total use, multiplied by the total library expenditures that determines the county’s obligation.

Because the county formula includes costs that the library contributes to the state or regional e-book buying pools, the expenditures are included in the county payment formula. Unless the relative additional use of the digital collection by eligible non-residents exceeds the ratio that is determined by in-library checkouts of material, there is no reason to expect that combining virtual use with the allowable in-library loans of library materials would benefit the library.

lithograph print depicting man and girl in library Also, keep in mind that the current county payment system ensures that a drop in overall circulation will not result in a reduced county payment, assuming total library expenditures remains the same. So if the use of your library has shifted from checkouts to program attendance, computer use, or even virtual use, the library will receive comparable compensation, if circulation drops at an equal rate among residents and non-residents (that is, the ratio of non-resident to total use remains largely unchanged).  

Besides the obvious challenges in determining resident versus non-resident downloads of e-content (since neither involves visits the library--use or download usually occurs from home or work), the current availability and use of broadband is concentrated in denser municipal areas--typically in the municipal areas occupied by the library.The likelihood that nonresidents are downloading digital resources at a higher rate than residents is truly questionable because of limited rural broadband and educational demographics. For example, many people in rural areas have a limit on their download capacity, or are restricted to dial-up speeds. Those download usage facts are borne out by comparative Overdrive use among urban versus rural communities.

Finally, use of virtual and downloadable content is already tracked and reported on the annual report--in Section 4, Library Services, number 9, Uses of Electronic Content. We request that libraries report use of e-books, e-audio, and e-video, and next year we will consider adding electronic periodicals, since use of services such as Flipster and Zinio has grown among the library systems.

Granted, statutory language for county payments to public libraries is convoluted and confusing. And, while the DPI must distinguish physical checkouts from virtual collection use on the annual report, it does collect the use of digital content. Also, the costs that libraries contribute toward the digital collections is already factored into the county payment formula under the current system. Until the legislature or library community can figure out a way that other types of library use can be tracked in an accurate, consistent, and non-invasive manner, we must rely upon physical checkouts as a fair and accurate standard for apportionment.

Written by: John DeBacher 

Public Library Development Team