I sat in on a very depressing audio conference from the Urban Libraries Council this Wednesday, The Future of Public Funding.
We all know the demand for our services is increasing exponentially in the current economic climate. Unemployed customers and those going back to school for retraining come to us to apply for benefits and jobs, get computer skills training and classroom materials. Patron usage is skyrocketing as people look to us to supplement their media and entertainment spending with our programs and materials. Yet local budgets are dwindling, and since our revenues are often dependent on property taxes, where revenue changes typically take a year or two to show, the next couple of years will just get worse.
Libraries are looking for ways to economize and staff attrition hasn’t done enough. Wage freezes, layoffs and service reductions are already happening. Just this week Colorado’s Aurora Public Library announced closures and California reported that media specialists are being laid off. Libraries are working with other local departments on less painful efficiencies such as sharing delivery services or administrative positions, but this won’t solve the revenue shortfalls completely. A RAND Corporation report on sustainability commissioned by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh suggests that the best ways to achieve this are by analyzing then implementing the best organizational model for funding independence (e.g. creating a library district) and/or by possibly merging library entities. Conference participants also spoke of postponing projects, eliminating less essential services and courting benefactors (of course, their incomes are also down).
So what else can we do to get through the tough times ahead? I think advocacy and collaboration will become more important than ever. When presenting our cases, we’re not just advocating for the library, but rather the most vulnerable – the unemployed and the poor. Other government agencies looking to economize have privatized services. This often means online access only, which forces the neediest to compete for library computers to apply for food stamps and Medicare (and they often have limited computer skills and require our help with this process). The library has become a lifeline for so many people, and as we help them find jobs and improve skills, local economies will improve as foreclosures stall and sales and income tax revenues increase. Make the case that we are a big part of the solution, and cutting our budgets will hurt everyone.
We can also show our worth by finding ways to collaborate with other departments to lessen their financial pressures. In some libraries we already alleviate pressures on local agencies by providing after hours and online access to assessor’s data or giving the local employment office and chamber of commerce space and equipment for classes and consultations. Increasing these partnerships will give us more ammunition to fight budget cuts.
So I do see a glimmer of hope for the future. If we do all this, we’ll be leaner, more efficient and more integral to the community than ever. Then when the good times return, the increased revenues won’t need to go to basic services and we’ll be able to fund those special projects and services that can do so much to brighten our resident’s lives.