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For a little while, it sounded like great news. San Diego’s county library system was named to a national list of “Star Libraries,” compiled by Library Journal. The publication rated libraries coast to coast by circulation numbers, visits, “program attendance,” and public internet computer use, based on data provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. San Diego got five stars and 989 points in the November 2009 results, but that soon drew criticism.

“In the LJ Index calculations, San Diego County’s incredibly high score (889% above the group average!) for Public Internet Use cancels relatively low scores for Circulation (48% below), Visits (29% below), and Program Attendance (20% below),” wrote Thomas J. Hennen Jr. — a librarian from Racine, Wisconsin, who runs his own library ratings service — in a comment posted on the Library Journal’s website on November 23. Hennen noted that San Diego’s reported internet-use sessions were 16.5 million and that the real number was likely closer to 1.5 million. “For 16.5 million sessions to be correct, on average, all visitors had to have used the Internet terminals an average of 4.2 times every time they visited the library! That is highly unlikely.” Then he posed the question, “How does this affect the LJ Index Star Libraries roster? With the more reasonable 1.5 million number, wouldn’t San Diego’s score fall from 989 to 450? Rather than 5 Stars for being 4th ranked out of 36 libraries, they would fall to 22nd ranked and no stars.”

That brought a next-day response from Library Journal’s Rebecca Miller acknowledging a problem. “While the circumstances are embarrassing for San Diego County Library,” she wrote, “the LJ Index did precisely one of the things it was designed to do: shine a spotlight on inaccurate data so it can be corrected.”

Interviewed this week, county library director José Aponte acknowledged the error but says that circulation figures for his system have grown considerably since the 12-month period ending June 2007 covered by the survey. Then, total circulation was about 4.9 million. For fiscal 2009, it was 8.3 million and is currently headed for 10 million, he reports. “I wouldn’t be surprised that today we are an all-star library.” As for the cause of the original reporting issue, Aponte adds, “The library made a good-faith effort to meet the protocol as directed by the state’s data coordinator.” Ira Bray, the data coordinator at the state library, agrees. “It was something I should have caught. The fault is mine. It was human error.”

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