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.