Goal:Reviewing stories of individuals and libraries facing crisis so you can develop questions, ideas and a positive approach for today’s learning experience, and to help you deal with the library financial crisis. Rather than provide all the answers, I want to help define issues you can discuss with your library team, and others today and beyond.
In May 2003, with no water and as little hope of survival, Aspen mountaineer Aron Ralston, 27, used a pocketknife to amputate his own arm and free himself from a boulder weighing 1,000 pounds that fell and trapped him for five days in a remote desert canyon in eastern Utah. Pinned in a 3-foot wide slot canyon south of Moab, Utah, Ralston cut through his own arm below the elbow, applying a tourniquet and administering first aid before rigging anchors and fixing a rope to rappel to the bottom of Blue John Canyon and hiking out to meet rescuers. Ralston had been hiking alone when the boulder fell and pinned his right arm as he was moving through the narrow slot. He told rescuers that on Thursday morning he realized he would not survive unless he took drastic action. He had run out of water on Tuesday.Aron’s response is unthinkable to most of us. It is an extreme situation. We, too, are making painful decisions in libraries and nonprofits. Some libraries are not surviving because of their decisions.What lessons to be learned from Aron and others as we face what appears to be a prolonged period of greatly reduced funding for libraries?
Nonprofit management experts have a lot to share about how to survive tough times. These are three themes that come up again and again. Let’s look at each, and outline how you can learn more about them today.
Aron, like emergency management personnel working in Haiti, focus on the core, or central problem, the basics, the essentials. Aronneeded to free himself from the boulder to get the water to survive. Natural disaster victims need water, and basic food in the first days. He assessed his tools at hand – pocket knife, first aid kit, and first aid expertese, to make his tough decision. What values and services are the most important to your library and community? What assets and tools do you have to preserve and leverage? Those are what you should focus on in a crisis.
Core services may differ, but in general when patrons define our core service, it’s open hours. A recent Library Journal survey asked librarians which service cut is felt the most acutely by patrons. 74% of the 657 responding libraries said “loss of hours” “Loss of materials” is only 14%, and “loss of services” 12%.
So here is what libraries around the country are actually cutting. Notice that only two of these cuts directly impact the public. Historically, libraries have always sought to cut less visible staffing or internal expenses as opposed to reducing services in a way that hurt the public. A key question for you to consider today is – when is it necessary or appropriate to hurt the public when we cut the library budget? Here are some case studies from large libraries. Although there are only 2 really large urban libraries in PA, there are some lessons we can learn from the plight of these systems, who are being hurt proportionately more than smaller libraries.
BPL cut hours in January 2009 after Mayor Bloomberg proposed a 21% cut to the library's budget. They eliminated Sunday service at the main branch and at five neighborhood libraries because their unionized workers get overtime for Sundays, and the savings per hour were enormous. But it was a particularly bad blow to neighborhoods like Borough Park, where most residents observe the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday and can't use the library then. But public outcry led to negotiations, and the City Council and the mayor found money to restore service, though BPL was forced to layoffs, hiring freezes, and reduced spending on books, programming, and training. Fewer staff are doing more work, as use continues to increase. Overall, public outcry did have some positive effect.
Meanwhile, in Hawaii, where the state operates the public libraries in a unified system, they made a decision to reduce hours, but wanted to focus on their core value of service to children. They decided to stay open whenever schools are closed. Now further cuts are being made due to the tourism downturn and reduced state revenues. “We’re now starting to hear from people realizing the library is threatened,” says ByrdeCestare, executive director of Hawaii’s Friends of the Library. “But unfortunately it takes a situation like this to get a response. We can’t take our library for granted.”
When your library makes cuts, how visible will be they, and how can you leverage them for additional government support and donations to the library? The director of the Curtis Memorial Library pictured here, in Brunswick, Maine says, “librarians are really good at covering up their financial problems…we hide the truth, and make do with less and less, but personally I want my patrons to notice and feel the impact because then they’ll become champions for us.” The three “survival tactics” sessions this afternoon will give your library team an opportunity to explore this and other issues related to service decisions and communications.
However, Boston Public is having a tougher time with public reaction to service cuts. This leads us to the second practice today, communicating effectively.The most challenging cut is when libraries and branches are closed. Hours are the core of patron needs, so the public always responds negatively. As a Boston councilman said last week, “I don’t think you can just put [closure proposals] out there or do it right away,” Tobin said. “People need time to prepare for that. These libraries are part of people’s lives. I think it’s tantamount to a death in someone’s family.”Sometimes the backlash is against the library, not the elected officials. Hundreds of people protested possible branch library closures at a dramatic March 9 Boston Public Library (BPL) trustees meeting. BPL President Amy Ryan presented criteria for judging the proposed closure of 8-10 of the 26 branches, still without specifying any particular branches. She proposed a wide variety of criteria, which seems to favor bigger, newer branches over smaller, older ones. Many people voiced skepticism about the openness and honesty of BPL’s decision-making process. Trustees are divided: one said “We’re going to have to make hard choices…The country’s broke. The Commonwealth’s broke” but another is saying “I will resign before I vote to close any branches.”Journalists reported that BPL’s decision-making remains unclear—including when and how a decision will be made. It is unclear where criteria came from or how they will be weighed. This indicates a communications problem. BPL spokesperson Gina Perille later said in an e-mail to the Gazette that many of Ryan’s criteria are “generally accepted metrics in library science.” Perille emphasized that public feedback will be influential. Time will tell how the public will perceive BPL’s process and communication for this difficult decision. What is your library’s plan for getting stakeholder input, and communicating with the community in this tough time? How can you turn media interest into community support? How can you turn customer anger into action? Look at the budget cuts sample in your packet from SIM.
There are positive library trends occurring. Core services are changing to meet demand. Bookmobiles and collections are being cut, while 23% of libraries are improving job hunting services. 21% are improving Internet access and programs, and 18% of libraries serving more than 250,000 residents are going to self-serve and self-check options. These new initiatives provide opportunity for partnerships, grants, and non-traditional funding.
In Elkhart Indiana, the unemployment rate is 18.3% and getting worse due to the death of the RV companies situated there. It is one of the most depressed communities in our nation. The state unemployment office only accepts claims online, no longer in person; you can file your monthly claim on Sunday to have a check mailed on Monday. Over 100 people were crowding the doors at opening on Sunday, so the library now opens one hour early for unemployment claims only., but it’s still not enough. All computers are turned exclusively to the unemployment website. The director told me there are few philanthropic resources in the area due to the RV industry decline, and Elkhart sits in the shadow of fundraiser ND University. Their latest solution is that they reached out to other government agencies, including Boys’ Clubs, to get them to open computing resources on Sunday to meet this urgent community need. What partners can you find to continue to core services? What can you share?
Finally, there is a general session this afternoon on fundraising. We don’t like it, but government funding for libraries will likely continue to decline for a long time. We need a whole new paradigm of funding, much like public television and radio have had to wean themselves off public dollars. Take this opportunity to reexamine your case for giving. Your donors need to understand the more urgent need and the concrete steps you have taken to be more efficient and effective and they will respond, just like so many people responded recently to the tragedy in Haiti. Using innovative as well as traditional approaches is important in this climate, and your team can learn more about this today.
Libraries are stuck between a rock and a hard place, like Aron Ralston, with financial drains on one side, and more demand for our dwindling services on the other. LikeAron, we have tools for survival: ours are talented staff, dedicated trustees and Friends. By focusing on the core basics, communicating effectively, rethinking and innovating our financial footprint, and sharing with each other today, we can emerge a more customer-focused and efficient library at the end of this tunnel.
Let’s not waste a good crisis – it can be an opportunity for libraries.