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Audit calls Public Library’s equity into question

Monday, November 3, 2014 by Alex Dropkin

Despite not having a formal definition of “equity” available to the public, the Austin Public Library insists that it uses equity as a guiding principle in all decisions.

The city’s public library system challenged a report presented last week at City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee meeting claiming that its performance-measure data, particularly in the case of equity, are inconsistent and lacking. The report found that the library is not up to par on having a firm, documentable definition of equity and evaluating the equity of its own services.

“While the Library has made efforts to remove barriers to service, it has not documented and communicated what equity means in terms of library service delivery and currently tracks limited performance-measure information,” according to the report, which audited the public library system from fiscal years 2012 to 2014.

However, Brenda Branch, the library’s director, says that while a definition isn’t available electronically or open to the public, the library does have a document detailing how the library defines equity and has used it her entire time as director — nearly 24 years.

“Whenever we have to make a decision, we use this document to guide us,” Branch said. “What equity means to the library is that we assure that all citizens of Austin have equal access to library services and programs.”

Branch pointed to the library systems’ closing-hours policies. City Council recently approved a budget that allows for expanded library hours, staring in January.

“Everybody will be closed the same hours — and it’s four hours on Friday — instead of somebody being open longer on Thursday,” she said. “It would’ve saved a little bit of money, but it wouldn’t have been as equitable.”

Committee members wanted to know how the library could better track equity and use that data as performance indicators. Council Member Bill Spelman asked if the libraries could use data on non-English materials for this purpose.

Dana McBee, the library’s assistant director, told Spelman that testing is underway to collect data on the library’s non-English materials and evaluate its reliability.

“Making clear how equitable the decisions are that you’re making is one way of helping people understand that if they can’t find everything they’re looking for at their branch — well, actually things are tough all over, and you can’t always find everything you’re looking for everywhere,” Spelman said. “But you try to be equitable with respect to all communities.”

In addition, Council Member Laura Morrison wanted to know how the library’s plans for growth take equity into account.

“I’m wondering about what are our plans for future libraries,” Morrison said, asking if the library systems have an expectation for how many people each branch should serve.

According to Branch, Austin’s libraries follow the industry standard, which is one branch for every 3-mile radius, serving 25,000 to 30,000 people. There are more locations in East Austin, Branch said, and future plans include larger hubs in each of the city’s four quadrants.

The report also criticized the consistency and reliability of the libraries’ performance-measures data. Assistant City Auditor Patrick Johnson, who presented the report to the committee, pointed to data on reference questions and door counts as examples of being recorded inconsistently.

Branch explained the problem as a matter of staffing.

“At one point, we did have a business analyst in the library’s administrative office that focused on our performance measures and data collection and so on, and we needed that position elsewhere,” she said. “We realize now that we need that position again in the administrative office.”

Committee members were far more concerned with the report’s findings on equity, however.

“I was less worried about the reliability than I am about equity,” Spelman told Branch. “I think that’s the more interesting issue.”


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