If you walk into a Maryland library looking for a specific book, you stand a 63 percent chance of finding it. If you are looking for information on a specific subject, there is only a 45 percent chance that you'll be successful. And if you are just browsing, you have a 77 percent chance of finding a book that grabs your interest.
These are some of the results of what state officials call the largest survey of library users ever conducted in the country. Last fall, 25,000 persons were polled in 60 of the state's 270 public libraries.
J. Maurice Travillian, the state Department of Education's library specialist, said the survey indicated readers in counties such as Montgomery are less likely to find what they want in their well-stocked libraries than readers in smaller counties, such as Garrett and Kent, that have fewer libraries and books and less money to spend.
"Satisfaction is higher if expectations are low," he explained.
Montgomery County readers reported only 58.6 percent success in obtaining specific books and 37.1 percent success in finding specific subject material.
In the smaller Prince George's library system, however, library users had a 73.2 percent chance of finding specific books, and 50 percent said they could find information they wanted.
"That doesn't mean people from Montgomery County can go and find what they want in Prince George's," Travillian said, but rather that Montgomery residents' taste in books was harder to satisfy.
Montgomery's library system circulates nearly 6 million books a year and has 350,000 registered borrowers, who read an average of 10 library books a year. Prince George's libraries circulate 3.5 million books a year to 160,000 borrowers, and county residents read an average of only 5 1/2 library books a year.
"Montgomery has one of the largest and best selections in the country, but their users just want so much in the way of library services," Travillian said.
Suburban libraries usually are used much more heavily than those in cities or rural areas, he noted, and "the richer the suburb, the higher the use. . . . No matter what Prince George's does, library use will never be as high as Montgomery. It's not a reflection on the libraries."
Statewide, Maryland's library book circulation of 7.4 books per capita was the highest in the country last year, according to Bowker's American Library Directory. New York had a per capita circulation of 4.37 books; Pennsylvania, 3.08 per capita; and Virginia, five per capita.
Baltimore County, with a circulation of 13.1 books per capita, has the largest per capita circulation of any library system in the country, and Montgomery has the second largest.
Travillian said much of the reason Maryland libraries have done well is "because we're a largely suburban state."
It is impossible to compare libraries fairly, he added, because the statistics reveal more about the nature of the readers than about the libraries. Smaller, follow-up surveys are planned annually to help libraries decide where improvements should be made.
Travillian called the low success rate in finding specific subject material "the soft spot" in the system and said libraries will have to develop skill at predicting reader demand.
The study showed Maryland residents make nearly 11 million visits to their public libraries each year, and that most browse, rather than look for anything in particular.
These readers are the easiest to please, Travillian said, but "most people, if they can't find something, say they're still satisfied."