Parsimony

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My library, like libraries everywhere, is coping with a reduced budget. More frighteningly, my library is trying to take measures to safeguard against an uncertain future–  or, to be more accurate, an all-too-certain future, one that will bring uncomfortable economic and political changes. We’ve recently announced some startling new policies to brace for the upcoming storm, though I am relieved to note that we have had no layoffs, which is nice, as I cannot seem to beg, borrow, or steal my way into a job interview.

For now I am going to heed the better part of valor and say no more about my own library’s particular approach, other than to say to any administrators in my audience that I wholeheartedly approve. You’re doing the right thing. Instead I will speak of libraries generally, and the need for them to make some serious changes to the way they do business.

The New York Times today published a wholly unsettling article, Mounting State Debts Stoke Fears of a Looming Crisis. To summarize: the states are facing some insurmountable debts. This is bad.

Now public libraries draw most of their operating budgets from their immediate localities, rather than from state budgets, but states provide partial financing. Besides, whither goes the state, so goes the smaller government. There’s bad news economic news at present, and worse news is surely on the way. Accordingly, public libraries need to tighten their belts.

I am a huge fan of public libraries. They pay my salary, obviously, but let’s ignore that for the moment. Public libraries offer free access to information, one of the key ingredients of a functioning democracy. Public libraries offer access to books and to computers; they offer training in information literary and computer literacy; they provide a safe haven in a dangerous world.

And this is where public libraries need to focus their efforts. We need to show that we are essential, not expendable. As today’s NYT shows, panicky governments are laying off police officers and closing firehouses. And– forgive me– but as a taxpayer, if I had to make a choice between closing the fire station or closing the library, I’d opt to close the library. But, speaking again as a taxpayer, I’d rather have my taxes raised to make sure that both the fire station and the library remained open.

I repeat: the challenge for libraries is to prove that they are essential, not expendable. Anything they can do to reduce their own operating costs will help them stay viable.

Reducing operating costs, however, means that they will have to offer fewer services. There are two big ways they can do this:

First, libraries can reduce their budget lines for collection development. They don’t want to, but they can. In particular, they can reduce their spending on items that offer entertainment value. By providing free access to information, they help democracy function smoothly– but James Patterson doesn’t have a damn thing to do with democracy. We don’t have to buy as many copies of bestselling novels. We can make people wait longer on the holds list to get the new Vince Flynn.

In better economic times, I would never suggest this. The danger of this approach is that it makes patrons (also known as “taxpayers”) less happy with the library. But in a scary economic climate, I’d rather spend less on bestselling movies, feature films, and music than risk having the library closed entirely.

Understand that I think providing entertainment to adults is a really, really good idea– perhaps not fundamental to democracy, but still extremely important. Providing entertainment, especially in print, is imperative for children: it sets them on the path to education and prepares them to make informed decisions in the future. Literate adults do not NEED to read for pleasure, but it is a very good idea to keep them reading as much as possible. Books makes them better informed and more well-rounded. Same is true for other media, and besides, people who have entertainment at their disposal are usually happier (and, if I may be cynical, when you’re reading a book you’re not doing anybody any harm; you’re staying out of trouble).

But even if the library buys fewer copies of the latest bestsellers, there are still other options. There are older books and movies and CDs on the shelves. You normally don’t want a 2002 title for science or health or financial information– but if you just want a good murder mystery, you can read through some older titles while you wait for the current bestseller to come in.

The second way libraries can reduce their budgets is by eliminating staff positions, or by replacing expensive staff with cheaper staff. Now I happen to be a big old coward and I hope that I am never in a position where I have to eliminate jobs. Easy enough for me to sit here and type out my thoughts on how things ought to be done; with no administrative power at my disposal, it’s easy for me to talk about ways to fix things. I don’t have the responsibility to follow through with any of it, even if I wanted to. But this very unpleasant point does need to be mentioned, because the single biggest operating expense of a library, or of any workplace, comes from payroll.

Moving on now to personal finances: I received my first, and quite possibly last, royalty check. The book that I slaved over for two years has resulted in a check for $1300, though after taxes this amount will come down to $900ish. (But I like paying taxes. They pay for fire stations and libraries and roads and stuff.) It’s nice to have this extra change during the holidays, but believe me, when you consider the amount of labor that went into the creation of the book, it is depressing enough to make an author cry. When you further consider that the book is not having any use whatsoever in getting the author any job interviews, you want to buy the author a nice stiff drink.

Do you hear me? Let me repeat that in case you missed it: you– by which I mean you, the person reading this– want to buy the author, i.e. me, a nice stiff drink. Though not right at this second, as the author is about to go to jail and probably shouldn’t have alcohol on her breath for it. Tomorrow evening, though, the author is teaching a computer class (remember: libraries offer instruction in computer literacy), directly after which the author would surely appreciate a nightcap.

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8 responses »

  1. Jessica, you are a hoot. I read your intro. info. about yourself with interest. I think we have a lot in common: introversion but a love of intelligent conversation and a love of reading. If you haven't read A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, I highly recommend it. BTW The Brothers K is the book that changed my life.

    Reply
  2. Pam: Okey-doke, A.S. Byatt is now on my To Be Read list. And yes, The Brothers Karamazov is one of those life-changers. I have a theory, to be tested over the next few decades, that you get one Life Changing book about every ten years. Dostoevsky happened to me when I was seventeen. John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany happened when I was 27. I'm eager to see what comes along in my 30s.

    Reply
  3. I would gladly buy you a nice stiff drink. Just sos you knows. Excellent, if troubling, blog post.

    Reply
  4. Might take you up on that, Ian.

    Reply
  5. eleemosynary archivist

    The politics of new acquisition funds allocation being a consideration does indeed enter the bread or circus equation. but having spent an inordinate amount of my time on the planet as an itinerant archivist I can only agree that public Libraries are a vital organ in any civilized social system.Should 'top 10' acquisitions be limited?Fer sure! Perhaps a politely formatted 'Hurry up and wait or spring for a donation to the friends of he library'notice could be formulated addressing the very real quandry which library admin confronts.Information access and educational content are paramount.Entertainment on the other hand, is an element that your services have also reintroduced to at least one stodgy old local reader.Exposure to Mangas & Willis et al have not only lightened a patrons reading list, but exercised a serious second generation effect on one or more third party readers. End of epistle. I still owe you a drink though.EA/tgb

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  6. eleemosynary archivist

    Lest one neglect co-miserating re:lousy proportional returns for long hours of heartfelt literary genre cataloging. Eccliesiastes said something to the effect that'thus has it been..etc. nothing new under the sun'. But your effort WILL have a disproportionately large effect upon some reader somewhere..In that actuarial certainty you should take comfort.And who knows, some philanthropic Rosenwald, Rockefeller, Frick or Royhatyn may yet have a secretary place a call looking for indecently well-paid help from the Zeller who compiled an archivaly (sp) significant catalog that a daughter, wife or mother found so inspiring. Meanwhile, don't give up hope for a wet bar in the employee lounge.. Welcome to a world populated by an elite crew of Abotts, Abessess and bibliophiles who have lived happily, but austerely trying to keep track of it all since somebody set a fire to the library at Constantinople…Speaking of fact, fable and denizens of Datacontrolville.. Happy Annunciation Day!50-year old out-of-town Jewish carpenter refused room at hotel; inkeeper claims the 13-year old girl was 9 months pregnant, but said the old guy wasn't the father..

    Reply
  7. e. archivist: We are already reducing our acquisitions of new bestsellers, so that's a start. There are other areas where we could reduce, too– and we do have a program in place to encourage people to buy new DVDs, watch them, and then donate them to the library. I'm pleased to leaven your dusty old reading choices with fun books; you'll notice that none of them, except for the newest Connie Willis, have been recent titles. I do hope to influence readers, though I think my debut book will not be the vehicle for it. It only sold 306 copies, and it's an annotated bibliography. I think perhaps something with a bit of a narrative to it might be more my pace.

    Reply
  8. Always up for a drink with a friend!As always, love reading your thoughts.

    Reply

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