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July 23, 2003

Free Range Librarian, Volume 1, Number 2

Free Range Librarian
Volume I, Number 2 (September, 2002):

Tough Times Call For Tough Love

Karen G. Schneider

"What keeps us library types going when the dotcoms are going bust is this: We have a business plan that has stood the test of time, a plan in which generations of librarians have believed in passionately, a plan that has inspired countless library users and city councils because of its simple elegance. What we have is a bargain with history as well as brilliantly simple historical bargain. Libraries promise to share knowledge and seek wisdom. We keep that promise, whether it is with print, what we used to call non-print, or with electronic sources. We do it at bargain prices. For this society rewards us. Not much, it's true. But we have a staying power that other less clear business plans (like NetLibrary or other dotcoms) never approached."
-- Thomas Hennen, librarian, author, and purveyor of Hennen's American Public Library Ratings (HALPR)

I find it deliciously ironic that in this incredibly tough budget year, lavish corporate entreprises such as Worldcom and Enron collapsed, while little old Librarians' Index to the Internet miraculously survived, courtesy of continued (if reduced) funding through our state funding source, the Library of California. It's a credit to how much we are appreciated (and to how little it takes to keep us going).

Nevertheless, there have been rough moments when I had to ask myself, if we were cut to the point where we could not pay our staff for all or part of our budget year, what would we do? Would we "just leave up the site," as someone suggested, while we looked for other funding? I rejected that idea--leaving an abandoned Web site up sounded too much like Scarlett O'Hara dressing up in her mother's curtains and insisting to Rhett Butler that everything at war-shocked Tara was just fine.

But if I had chosen to darken our site, leaving a page up to let our users know that we weren't really in service, I know the bleeding-heart liberal in me would surface in the wee hours, tormenting me in its scolding voice for denying services to the information have-nots.

This is the first curse of the modern librarian: tough love hurts. Still, it's a necessary pain. Too few people understand that library services aren't really free--like all government services, they're just pre-paid. And as a profession, we haven't done a good job explaining to the public that books do not magically fly onto shelves, librarians and other library employees do not work for the sheer fun of it, and Web sites do not fix their own broken links. In large part due to the very factors that make us special--particularly our strong service orientation and our keen interest in the public good--we are all too expert at "making do," and that has made us easy targets for cuts.

Across the country, libraries are taking the responsible tough-love approach, making visible cuts and explaining their actions to their users. Libraries, to their credit, are reluctant to cut staff, in part because most administrators understand that librarians, in environmental terms, are the equivalent of old-growth redwoods--once felled, their positions will not grow back overnight. That leaves books, hours, and special services as the next logical targets.

At Queens Borough Public Library, the director, Gary Strong, has a long history in California libraries, and hence with budget crises. As a result of two massive waves of budget cuts--over 20% total reduction for the library's budget in two years--Queens eliminated its participation in the Connecting Libraries and Schools Project (CLASP), a lauded program that provides class visits, workshops, and other services to further lifelong reading. That sounds rough, but they had already reduced service hours and materials.

Still more visible cuts were introduced by Seattle Public Library, which recently closed its doors for an entire week, just prior to Labor Day, and plans to close again for a week in December. The libraries were shuttered, the Web site was darkened, and staff took unpaid leave. As SPL director Deborah Jacobs explained, the choice boiled down to closing the libraries on Fridays or taking these two furloughs--and it allowed the library to retain its old-growth redwoods, as it were, so that staff were spared layoffs.

This approach wasn't uniformly appreciated by the public or the media, but librarians definitely got it; just yesterday, a system director commented, "good move, but Seattle should have closed down during their busiest weeks of the year." In other words, this director suggested, their tough love could have been even tougher. (But Jacobs has to sleep, too.)

Brace Yourself: The Worst is Yet to Come

If you think tough love is hard this year, brace yourself for 2003-2004, when--rumor has it--budget problems nationwide will get worse, not better. Redwoods may have to be felled.

The real tragedy is that library services have to cut budgets at all. Most of us provide extraordinary services at rock-bottom prices, and most library directors I know are experts at squeezing water from stones. If library directors managed their budgets, Enron and Worldcom would not only be in business, they'd be turning a profit (can you see their senior executives sharing rooms at conferences, sorting donated books for the Friends' Book Sale, or--as I learned to do as a rural library director--using their own money to buy toilet paper?).

More to the point, the "across the board" cuts really are not equal to begin with, because most government services are funded better than their library counterparts--and the difference is primarily in personnel costs, which make up the bulk of most budgets. A recent study by the California Library Association concluded that library workers make less than non-library workers in comparable positions, and that these disparities are constant across geographic regions--and, perhaps surprising to some, unionization made no difference.

This year and next year, most of us won't introduce new services, improve salaries and benefits for library workers, or move into new technologies. We'll continue to provide our best services, and to some extent--because we really can't help ourselves--we'll even "make do." But when possible, more than ever, because we do care so much about those we serve, we'll use tough love to create teachable moments--because we owe it to those we serve to still be standing proud after the storm passes--and we have a business plan that insists we will ultimately prevail.


Free Range Librarian (ISSN Pending).
Originally published 9-2002.
Reissued 7-2003 at http://fr.bluehighways.com/

Posted by kgs at July 23, 2003 08:28 PM

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We need more of this type of writing. Are you going to write about the boring design of many libraries? What about wireless?

Glad you're back.


Posted by: Dwight at July 31, 2003 05:56 AM

Excellent column!

Posted by: Mary at August 4, 2003 11:16 AM