Library Loses ‘Star’ Rating

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The Newport Beach Public Library.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

The Library Journal published their annual index of “Star Libraries” in December and for only the second time in more than a decade, Newport Beach Public Library was not included on the prestigious list.

Library Services Director Tim Hetherton made the announcement during his activities report at the Board of Library Trustees meeting on Monday.

“I was somewhat disappointed because I don’t feel like our numbers are bad,” he said.

The index rates U.S. public libraries on six key measures of service: Overall circulation, circulation of electronic materials, library visits, program attendance, public internet computer use, and wi-fi sessions per capita.

NBPL has been ranked as a “Star Library” for 11 of the past 12 years.

Author of the index, Keith Curry Lance, explained in the Journal that each library is compared to its peers that have about the same amount of funding to spend, so that the evaluations are “apples-to-apples.” So they are graded on a curve and the strongest performers are the “Star Libraries.”

“As a result, a library’s star rating can change from year to year, not because that library’s own performance has changed, but because its fellow libraries have raised their own achievements, so they’re being graded on a different curve,” Lance wrote.

According to state data, in the $5–$9 million budget class, Newport Beach compares to Cerritos, Palo Alto, and Redwood City libraries.

Hetherton pointed out that amongst its peers, NBPL ranks lowest in just one category, public internet computer use. Cerritos, on the other hand, has exceedingly high per capita use in both visits and public internet computer use.

While Cerritos is a great library and has robust numbers of interest usage, overall, they are fairly “mediocre” in other categories, Hetherton commented.

Lance also wrote that while most star libraries are strong across the board, that’s not required, a “stellar success” in one category can make up for less than average in another.

Hetherton believed the lower demand for public internet use at the Newport Beach library was because of the affluent nature of the community and the widely available wi-fi.

Residents check out the new CdM library during the grand opening event in July.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

Board Vice Chair Paul Watkins noted that the surrounding community in Cerritos is focused on reading and early childhood development and is very “library-centric.”

“[We need to] recognize that [the listed peer libraries] are very different animals compared [to Newport Beach],” Watkins noted.

In that last few years, Newport Beach has focused on the e-branch, downloadable content, electronic and audio books, he said, as well as emphasis on their programming.

Over the past decade, programming attendance has increased by 142 percent, Hetherton explained.

“I don’t know what else we could do there other than adding a larger facility, like a lecture hall,” Hetherton said.

Hetherton reached out to Lance for further explanation but has not heard back yet.

“I really would like an explanation because I don’t think we’re far off compared to our peers,” he said.

Lance also works as a consultant to advise libraries on how to improve their rating. He is the co-creator of the Library Journal Index of Public Library Service and a long-time state and national leader in the development and use of public library statistics.

“We’re considering consulting him on this,” Hetherton said. “It’s definitely an option.”

Watkins supported the idea of reaching out or hiring Lance for help.

“We ought to pay the guy, if that’s what it takes,” Watkins said. “To get some idea as to what the key to the kingdom is.”

Board Secretary Doug Coulter agreed.

The process is a little mysterious, NBPL Foundation Chief Executive Officer Meg Linton commented. It’s very vague, there isn’t a strict set of requirements that need to be met in order to achieve the rating, she pointed out.

There was some discussion about the process and how Lance decides which libraries earn the star rating and how his consulting plays into that.

Although there are a number of factors that contributed to NBPL’s lack of star status for 2019, city staff encouraged board members to concentrate on other positive aspects of the library.

“Staff encourages the board to focus on our solid reputation in the community, our ability to provide sought after materials in quantities patrons require, our engaging programs, and our provision of downloadable content and streaming services,” the staff report reads.

People are happy with the services and materials, and that’s the most important thing, Hetherton noted, but it would be nice to have the recognition from the Journal.

“I do think it’s important,” he added. “It’s a source of pride. It’s become an expectation…that we get ranked [as a Star Library]. And not to get it, it stings.”

The board members agreed that the library was an excellent facility, which is appreciated by the residents, and didn’t want to “obsess” over the star rating.

“We have nothing to be ashamed of and we can shoot for the stars, if you will, in 2020,” Watkins said.

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