Tom Hennen has published and spoken on the issue of library standards for some time.  He believes that standards are important and that standards should set clear numerical benchmarks for all libraries in a state or region.   When he was the Director of Waukesha County Library System, his was one of only three counties in the state that succeeded in establishing mandatory standards for the 16 libraries in that federated library system.

He also believes that the American Library Association should develop new national standards for public libraries to replace those that were abandoned in the late 1970s.

Hennen Library Consulting can speak to the types of standards used in the various states and recommend best practices in the development of public library standards.

Here is a sample of work by Hennen on the issue.

Forward to Basics

Back to basics is a common expression.  If public libraries are to flourish, they must move forward to basics, not back.  A system of library standards should be established that identifies:

  1. Minimum standards for all public libraries in America that only a very few could not achieve,
  2. Advisory standards that all libraries should strive for, though only some will reach,
  3. Benchmarks of excellence for libraries that only the very few achieve. They will help disseminate their best practices for all to emulate.

In the middle of the last century, Lowell Martin in A National Plan for Library Service wrote:  “The first hard truth that confronts an observer of American public libraries is that they have stopped far short of their potential.  The second is that in isolated places and in partial fashion, they have performed an educational function this is unique and significant.”  At the dawn of this new century, one is still hard pressed to come to any other conclusion.

Fifty years ago, public library leaders like Carelton Joeckl and Lowell Marin thought nationally in their planning.  National library standards reached their zenith in the Johnson administration.  By the Carter administration, the standards baby was thrown out with the input bathwater.   Almost everything was re-defined in terms of output measures.  Lacking any national standards, most states began or revised their own state standards.

The wider national framework of business practices and research has consistently influenced library planning and research.  There have been efforts at using benchmarking, total quality management, and similar methods, especially in academic libraries, but as John Moorman noted in the January 1997 issue of Public Libraries, there does not appear to be much professional consensus on either public library standards or evaluation methods.

The library map of America is littered with many autonomous local agencies with wholly inadequate buildings, untrained staff, and useless collections.  Citizens have been robbed of an invaluable educational resource.  When such agencies are allowed to be dignified with the name of “public library,” all adequate and excellent libraries everywhere are demeaned.

Attacking the Myths of Small Libraries.  By Thomas J. Hennen Jr.  American Libraries 17:11 (December 1986) 830-834.

American Library Association Public Library Standards – A Chronology

With thanks especially to: Redmond Kathleen Molz and Phyllis Dain, the authors of:  Civic Space/Cyberspace:  The American Public Library in the Information Age. 1999.  The MIT Press.  This excellent book explores the history, present circumstances and future prospects of American libraries. It is the source for many of the statements below.

Standards Chronology

1917 Carnegie building program ceases, but Carnegie Corporation continues focus on research and development of public libraries.  2,509 libraries were built in the English-speaking world with Carnegie grants.
1933 National Resources Planning Board established by Roosevelt.  Carleton Joeckl at University of Chicago and others convince this board to pay attention to the needs of libraries.  The board grants funds to research library standards to Joeckl.  It is noted that one third of the nation is ill-libraried as well as ill-clothed and ill-housed and ill-fed.
1935 Carnegie Corporation was disappointed that some communities were not adequately supporting the libraries established with gift money.  It supported Carleton Joeckel at the University of Chicago.  He publishes The Government of the American Public Library Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935.  He calls for wider units of service and wider sources of funding.  This helps to move A.L.A. in the direction of advocacy for public library standards and federal funding for libraries.  ALA publishes its first “National Plan” for libraries.
1943 First ALA standards published jointly with the National Resources Planning Board.  Since the 1943 publication was titled “Post-War Standards for Public Libraries,” the authors were clearly looking to the future.
1946 Public Library Service Demonstration Bill.  Concerned that the National Resources Planning Board program was too ambitious for a newly Republican Congress, Carl H. Milam, ALA Executive Director, and other ALA leaders pushed a more targeted approach to federal funds for libraries.  The name was later revised to Library Services Act.
1948 Carleton Joeckl and Amy Winslow publish A National Plan for Public Library Service (Chicago: American Library Association, 1948.  Its inscription reads quotes Chicago City Planner, Daniel Burnham: “Make no small plans for they have not the beauty to stir our souls.”
1950 Social Scientist Robert D. Leigh writes The Public Library in the United States.  (New York: Columbia University Press, 1950)  Sponsored by the Social Science Research Council at the behest of the American Library Association and supported with funds from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.  He challenged the library community to examine its “Library Faith;” and consider the tension between quality selection and public demand for materials.  He defined six fields of knowledge and interest to which the public library should devote its resource.  These are very close to the roles set in the 1987 document noted below.
1956 Congress enacts the Library Services Act, the first federal funds for libraries.  It is focused on rural libraries that are deemed to be sub-standard.  At the same time, the American Library Association publishes its new standards document: Public Library Service (Chicago: American Library Association, 1956)
1964 Library Services and Technology Act.  Thanks to the demographic shifts in Congress resulting from the move from rural to suburban America, the rural focus of LSA is changed to allow buildings, city funding and system funding.  The next issue of the standards will reflect the change.
1966 American Library Association publishes Minimum Standards for Public Library Systems  (Chicago: American Library Association, 1966).  The standards reiterate the comment from the 1956 version that: The introduction notes: “Libraries working together, sharing their services and materials, can meet the full needs of their users. This co-operative approach on the part of libraries is the most important single recommendation of this document.”
1977 Vernon E. Palmour, became the chief investigator of a U.S. Office of Education funded research project to prepare a manual for community libraries engaged in long-range planning.  In earlier decades at Baltimore County Library System, he and others had pushed the “give them what they want theory” of book selection and services.
1980 ALA publishes Vernon Palmour’s “A Planning Process for Public Libraries.”  This volume marked the abandonment of standards in favor of planning for outputs.  The decade-long endeavor of the Public Library Association to revise the 1966 public library standards came to a close.
1987 Planning and Role Setting for Public Libraries, by Charles R. McClure, Amy Owen, Douglas L. Zweizig, Mary Jo Lynch, and Nancy A. Van House,   (Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 1987)

This revision and simplification of the 1980 document was intended primarily for use by the small and medium-size public library, the document identified eight distinctive roles for library service roles.

1998 Planning for Results: A Public Library Transformation Process, by Ethel Himmel and William James Wilson.  (Chicago: American Library Association, 1998)   The 1987 roles are replaced by “fourteen service responses that are community needs-based, situation-sensitive, and more specific, but at the same time more flexible…”
2000 At least 18 states now have their state standards available on the web.

Who Could Set New Standards?

A critical question to ask is who will define new standards?  Until 1966, A.L.A. took an active role in setting standards.  Since then, A.L.A. has concentrated on variations on planning and encouraging libraries to set their own standards.  Individual state library agencies assisted by state library associations have taken on the job.  Who should take the lead in setting new standards?  Should it be the National Commission on Libraries Information Services, the U.S. Department of Education Institute for Museums and Libraries, or the Public Library Association (PLA)?  PLA would be the most appropriate to this author’s mind.

Carnegie Corporation spurred the push for standards and wider units of service.  Carnegie was disappointed by the failure of individual libraries built with Carnegie grants to garner sufficient support to thrive.    Standards, it was hoped would help.  Starting in the 1930’s, the University of Chicago and Carlton Joeckl, among others, were encouraged to push the American Library Association in the direction of national standards.   In our day the Gates Library Foundation is spending millions to place computers in the most disadvantaged libraries but has not seen the need for balancing the books and bytes.  Perhaps one day soon it will see the need for encouraging both bootstrap libraries and libraries that have the best practices.

Who will resist new national standards?  The state library agencies, citing the need for more local standards, will probably do so.  Many libraries at or above current median levels of numeric standards for their state will object.  They will have complaints about minimums becoming maximums, holding back the best, and so forth.   Allowing for benchmark standards of excellence to which the top tier of libraries can aspire will help to alleviate these concerns.

General Observations on Standards

Most often when we think of standards, we immediately jump to the numerical standards such as the number of books per capita, hours open, or computer workstations a library of a given size should have.  Equally, if not more important, are prescriptive standards.  These prescriptive standards enquire about the existence of a challenged materials policy, bylaws for the board, Internet acceptable use policies, and the like.  There are no numbers here, simply an answer of yes or no to things that it is deemed every library should be doing.  Does it really take a planning process to discover that a library needs bylaws for the board or a selection policy?  Of course not.  Standards that require all libraries to have such policies and procedures ought not to be optional or “discovered” by community analysis.  They are simply necessary.  They are necessary nationally, not state by state.

It must also be noted that while technical standards, such as the MARC standard for cataloging are important, they are not the primary focus of the present discussion.

In 1956, the same year in which federal aid for public libraries was first enacted, the American Library Association published a compendium of standards for public libraries designed to be used by local boards and governmental officials. Clearly, the import of this document was its recognition of the value of library systems. It stated unequivocally this dictum: “Libraries working together, sharing their services and materials, can meet the full needs of their users. This co-operative approach on the part of libraries is the most important single recommendation of this document.”

The 1966 revision of the public library standards reiterated this premise and was entitled more precisely Minimum Standards for Public Library Systems, 1966.

By 1980 A.L.A. had abandoned standards in favor of locally defined planning processes.

Minimum Standards

Minimum standards are, or should be, met by every library.  Theoretically, one might say that if a library does not meet the standard, it can be called a reading room, a coffee shop with books, or something else, but not a public library.

Minimum standards get some attention and lip service, but few states have implemented such standards for any but the narrowest of measures.  Most often these minimum standards include certification of library staff and hours of service.  Wisconsin has just added absolute minimum standards hours, collection size and budget to its standards, although the standards, like most state standards, are advisory.

Target Standards

Many states have target standards.  These involve moving target standards pegged to some proportion of the median measures for a given library population.  There is none of that Lake Woebegone “everyone is above average” mentality in such standards.  By definition a given percent of libraries will be substandard.  Because so many libraries cannot, by definition, meet the standards, they are always advisory.

It is these target standards, on a national basis, particularly the numerical standards for collection size, expenditures per capita, and the like, whose lack is most often lamented by libraries seeking improvements.  However, those libraries well above the targets fear such targets will hold them back.  They urge community-based planning instead of hard standards.

Benchmarking Standards

Benchmarking standards are found in total quality management (TQM) circles. Benchmark standards are intended to indicate excellence and best practices that can be emulated by others.  In 1979 Xerox used Benchmarking to improve their warehousing operations by replicating the efficiencies achieved by L.L. Bean.  If corporations in one industry can find value in comparing to corporations in entirely different industries, how can libraries claim to be beyond comparison?

Since 1991, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has awarded the Baldridge Award for Quality in American businesses.  The award and the attention it draws have greatly increased the interest of both business and the public sector in the techniques involved with Benchmarking and Best Practices.

As long ago as 1985 Christine MacDonald at the Toronto Reference Library, now part of the Toronto Public Library System, conducted the first known library benchmarking study of its Public Service Department.  Comparing practices to other peer libraries led to a number of innovations and changes that improved efficiencies.  Involvement of the staff at an earlier stage of the benchmarking process would have enhanced the process, MacDonald notes.

Arno Loessner at the University of Delaware has recently (1999) tried to match Delaware libraries with other peer institutions with the hope of establishing a mentoring process that allows Delaware libraries to learn from peer libraries that have achieved excellence by some definitions. There is much more development on such benchmarks in the private sphere with the ISO 9000 quality standards and the Commerce Department’s Baldridge Awards than is found in public libraries.

For most businesses, it is an axiom that if an agency consistently meets or exceeds all expectations, soon enough the customer’s expectations will change.  The result is a never-ending treadmill of higher quality and higher expectations.   The axiom’s converse is not deemed to be true in a competitive environment.  That is, customers usually change businesses when a firm consistently disappoints them.  The exception to that rule is in a monopoly setting.  Where once we in libraries may have felt we had a near monopoly, with the Internet barking in the foreground and cyber-cafes and mega bookstores baying in the background; few public librarians feel immune any longer.

It is time to encourage America’s best libraries go through a quality assurance process similar to that used by private industry using the ISO 9000 standards.  This would assure that libraries would have the necessary documentation on planning and development to allow other libraries and library schools to study their best practices.

The following, relevant to those concerned about library comparisons is from David Ammons’ article Raising the performance bar…locally was in the September 1997 issue of Public Management magazine:

Minimizing the “cringe factor.” Many local officials have cringed at the thought of interjurisdictional comparisons, contending that the unique qualities of each unit render comparison irrelevant. That argument has lost much of its credibility in the wake of highly publicized successes in the private sector by benchmarking partners from entirely different industries. If Xerox can usefully compare its operations with those of L.L. Bean, then a local government’s distinctness from others in the same “industry” is unlikely to render performance comparison meaningless.

Local officials would be well advised to face this fact: interjurisdictional comparisons will be made. Those comparisons can be anecdotal, pseudo-systematic (for example, “quick and dirty” studies that often sacrifice precision, consistency, and validity for simplicity and speed), or systematic. The first two types–anecdotal and pseudo-systematic comparisons–rank highest on the cringe-factor scale.

Confronted by a citizen or a reporter comparing a local incident with the “way things work” elsewhere, government officials without a more systematic basis of comparison can only hope that they have a favorable anecdote that will counterbalance the unfavorable story. Rarely are such encounters comfortable or satisfying.

Pseudo-systematic comparisons can produce similar levels of discomfort for local officials. Simplistic comparisons of the per capita expenditures of several local governments are a common example. Typically, these comparisons, which are hastily calculated using the “bottom lines” of local government budget documents, purport to show the relative efficiency levels among the units included. But often they ignore important scope and quality-of-service differences. Official refutations of alleged inefficiencies rarely receive the press treatment accorded the initial story.

Public sector benchmarking:

In the public sector, benchmarking has been used in a variety of ways.

Private industry benchmarking as used in ISO 9000 – focus more on process details.

Targets as benchmarks – As one example, Oregon benchmarks define a strategic set of goals for the state that can be stated in terms of outcomes.  Oregon focused on youth services in 1989.  Note that this had a major influence on state library grants and library focus.  See for instance Ammons.

Performance statistics as benchmarks.  – Such measures focus more on outcome details.  The measures can be either statistical or anecdotal, official or media/pundit driven.  – Some have asked if the HAPLR Index would have had the impact that it did if not for the reluctance of many professional librarians over many years to make any comparisons at all.

The Balanced Scorecard approach attempts to provide performance measurement across four main areas:  financial, customer, internal business  processes, and learning/growth.  The approach is intended to link performance and action measures and linked to an organization’s vision and strategy.

As the National Partnership for Reinventing Government notes in “Balancing Measures: Best Practices in Performance Management,”  [t]he old method of management, which focused only on the bottom line, no longer works. If the customer, stakeholder, and employee are not part of the solution, they will forever be part of the problem.

The aim of the EQUINOX Project is to address the need for all libraries to develop and utilize performance measures for the new networked, electronic environment, alongside traditional measures, and to operate these within a framework of quality management. The EQUINOX software will be an integrated Quality Management System (QMS) and Performance Measurement System (PMS) software application tool for traditional and electronic library services. EQUINOX will be the first system to provide librarians with an integrated tool for managing the `hybrid’ library. One searches in vain for any comparable U.S. efforts.

Electronic Measures

The most talked about area of library standards development right now is, of course, the area of measurement of electronic and Internet use.

We need proper standards to begin to adequately address the important issues of Internet use and electronic use in libraries, but neither ALA nor anyone else in nationally seems able to address this critical area.

Others, notably Bertot and McClure and the European Equinox project are attempting to standardize electronic measures. To date consensus on this pivotal issue eludes us.


The text below was originally presented to an OCLC Sponsored awards dinner for the 5 top-ranked HAPLR Index libraries in Ohio.

In brief, here is how he would like to use benchmarking tools to provide for a new type of grant program.

  1. Use the HAPLR Index to identify candidates for library grants and recognition. Libraries so identified could then choose to enter into a grant process.
  2. Applicant libraries would be subjected to a peer review process that lets seasoned professional librarians rate the libraries. This will assure professional judgment of the libraries in a process similar to that applied to library schools for certification.
  3. The applicant libraries would also be tested with a customer satisfaction inventory using a national agency to assure that they are also providing customer service in an excellent manner. One of the possible methods would be use of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), a national economic indicator of customer satisfaction with the quality of goods and services available to consumers in the United States.
  4. The applicant libraries would go through a quality assurance process similar to that used by private industry using the ISO 9000 standards to assure that libraries would have the necessary documentation on planning and development to allow other libraries and library schools to study and learn from their best practices.
  5. Library Schools would provide field placements at the mentor libraries to allow new graduates exposure to examine the best practices of the top libraries.
  6. Virtual training centers would be established. They would use distance education technology to discuss and examine the best practices at the mentor libraries.  The distance education centers would allow library staff at all libraries to join a virtual community to examine the best practices at mentor libraries.
  7. Provide for a limited number Best Practices Library Grants to libraries that succeed in getting through all the steps outlined. These would be similar to Genius Grants and the Baldridge Quality Awards.  The library would receive prestige for the award and a cash grant from government or private foundation sources.  The awards would be granted without any strings with the assumption that the chosen libraries would use them to define improved practices for the future.  A major problem, of course is finding an appropriate funding source for such grants.

Total Quality Management

A very analog metaphor must be permitted in these digital times.  The library standards pendulum swings between inputs and outputs.  Today, the stress is on planning for outputs (see for example: Planning for Results), where once it was on planning for inputs (as in the 1966 ALA standards).   But, as Galileo observed while daydreaming in a church in Pisa, the arc of a pendulum when measured over time and from a variety of vantage points, inscribes a line and a circle as well as an arc.  This article will take us on a brief tour of the lines of library standards, the political arcs of best practices, and the quality circles of TQM.

Fifty years ago, public library leaders thought nationally in their planning.  National library standards reached their zenith in the Johnson administration.  By the Carter administration, the standards baby was out with the input bathwater.   Most everything was re-defined in terms of output measures.  Lacking any national standards, most states began or revised their own state standards.

Trouble arose.  It was American business, stung by recession and Asian competition, searching for new ways to make their businesses more competitive.  Realizing that downsizing improved profits in the short run alone, business increasingly turned to the quality circles and awards pressed by Deming and Baldridge.

As always, the wider national framework influenced library planning.  There have been occasional stabs at using benchmarking, total quality management and similar methods, especially in academic libraries, but as John Moorman noted in Public Libraries, there does not appear to be any professional consensus whatever on either public library standards or evaluation methods.

Libraries in the United States have developed in a decentralized pattern rather than on the more centralized model of European libraries because of several factors.  Libraries in the U.S. have generally been perceived as adjuncts to educational activities, and these activities are, by and large, deemed local or state prerogatives.

Terry Weech notes that Andrew Carnegie’s endowments of 1,400 public libraries led to a proliferation of libraries in smaller communities. The large number of small libraries in the U.S. is still an important factor in library cooperative activities.


We need to go forward to basics. We should have national minimum standards for all public libraries in America. We need national advisory standards that all libraries should strive for though only some will reach.  Most of all we need benchmarks of excellence for exceptional libraries so that the rest can learn from the best.  The Public Library Association should begin the process immediately.

Setting locally needed standards, as in the current Planning for Results process is, of course, to be encouraged.  But consider.  Would you fly an airline that set its own standards for when the wings should be de-iced?

Accounting has Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).  Public libraries need minimum standards that any American can expect in any library.  Beyond that we need Generally Accepted Library Procedures (GALP?).  Private businesses of all types are reaching for excellence using Benchmarking and Best Practices methodologies.  It is time for public libraries to do the same.

The profession should set minimum standards for libraries.  Let us compete for excellence by exceeding minimums, then exceeding targets, and finally soaring to total quality library service.  When libraries soar this high, let’s go forward to basics, and award excellence.

Forward to Basics: Expansion of March 2000 American Libraries article on Library Standards.

The article “Why We Should Establish a National System of Standards” by Thomas J. Hennen Jr.  It was published in the March 2000 issue of American Libraries, a publication of the American Library Association.