How public library systems in New York State make service decisions: Case studies at three cooperative public library systems

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Abstract

Public library systems in New York State have been in existence since the 1950s. They have been providing services to individual public libraries by facilitating resource sharing among them and enhancing their capacity to provide quality services to users. The public does not always have knowledge of public library systems since they are not directly served by public library systems. Knowledge of public library systems is important when it comes to understanding their accountability, especially when they have faced repeated state budget cuts in recent years. This study will help to fill this gap of public knowledge by looking at services provided by public library systems and the decision-making process in public library systems when they make service decisions. Three New York public library systems were selected for multiple case studies. Member libraries' budgets were found to be an important factor which affects what services these three public library systems provide and how they make service decisions.

INTRODUCTION

Public library systems in the United States started during the 1940s and 1950s (Joeckel & Winslow, 1948; Long, 2005). They were designed to take advantage of economies of scale by facilitating resource sharing among individual member public libraries, strengthening and equalizing services provided by member libraries to their communities. Services provided by public library systems to their members cover areas of library services, administration and operation (Childers, 1988). In New York State, there are twenty-three public library systems; most of them are mainly funded by state aid. Depending on the variance of funding sources and governance, there are three types of public library systems: Consolidated, Federated and Cooperative. There are three consolidated public library systems in New York State, four federated public library systems and the other sixteen are cooperative public library systems. Cooperative public library systems are created by agreements of boards of chartered member libraries, which retain their autonomy. As a state funded program, public library systems in New York need to submit a Plan of Services at every fifth year and submit an annual report for the progress of this five year plan. The most recent five year plan is from 2007–2011.

In 2004, members of the Public Library Section (PLS) of the New York Library Association (NYLA) posed a series of questions about the place of public library systems in the 21st century. A survey was conducted by NYLA PLS in 2005 and the analysis of survey responses revealed concerns and issues from member libraries of different sizes regarding a potential public library system merger (Ren & Andersen, 2008). The lack of knowledge of public library systems among the general public and the NYLA PLS survey findings inspired the researcher to further study public library systems in New York State. The research focuses on the services provided by public library systems and the corresponding decision-making process to help understand their accountabilities.

RESEARCH QUESTION

This research is to answer the question of what services are provided by selected cooperative public library systems and how they make service decisions; and what are the factors affecting this process.

RESEARCH DESIGN

This study chooses to use multiple case studies to learn about the service decision-making process in New York cooperative public library systems. Due to the limitation of resources and time, this study only includes cooperative public library systems in New York State based on the fact that most of public library systems in New York State are cooperative.

For such a research topic, especially in public library systems where decision-making practice has not been studied and documented very much, the case study is the preferred research method to accumulate knowledge. The case study method is selected also because it is most appropriate to answer the “how” question and to study the phenomena that are hard to separate from their context (Yin, 2003). According to Yin (2003), multiple case studies provide more reliability to the research findings by replicating the study in multiple settings with diversity. By focusing only on cooperative public library systems, this study tries to reduce the variances from different types of public library systems, and provides an appropriate ground for comparing the three cases.

Factor analysis was applied to a group of demographic variables identified from the 2008 New York public library systems annual report. Three factors have been identified. The further cluster analysis on these three factors helped the researcher to categorize the sixteen cooperative public library systems into three subgroups. One case was selected from each subgroup. These three cases are different in their funding levels, member composition, geographical size and service activites.

Face to face interview was the main data collecting method used in this study. The interviewees include system directors, relevant staff members, member library directors and one board member of the public library system. Nine interviews have been conducted in three sites in total. Documents and field notes were also used. The interviewees were identified by snowball technique, where the interviewee in the first interview helps to build the connection with the other two organizations.

The interview transcript was analyzed by coding, labeling and categorizing. The patterns were compared across the three cases.

PRELIMENARY FINDINGS

  • 1Member libraries' funding levels affect the services provided by the studied cooperative public library systems;
  • 2Member libraries' funding levels affect the service decision-making process at the studied cooperative public library systems;
  • 3The studied cooperative public library systems in New York State make rational service decisions. Their decisions are data driven, needs driven.

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