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Resetting “Normal” — in “TETs*”

Posted by Editor on March 22, 2010

I  was  fortunate to attend a meeting of the Maricopa Library Council last week. All in attendance were at the beautiful Tempe Public Library representing a variety of libraries and library types in the  valley including public and  academic libraries. I was  very impressed with the  creativity their accounts of managing libraries in difficult times and when I saw this column by Roy Tennant in LJ, I thought of them.

Resetting “Normal”

March 19, 2010

I’ve been thinking lately about the “*tough economic times” (pronounced as “T-E-Ts” around our office) and their impact on libraries. Many public libraries are having their budgets slashed, being forced to close branches, and in some extreme cases being forced to close altogether. But those are only the most obvious and immediate effects, and similar troubles are visiting all other types of libraries. In addition, we are beset by many other organizations and companies doing things that previously were our sole purview.

These factors are forcing a new “normal” for libraries the world over, although more acutely in some areas than others. These are changes that will be with us for many years to come, and I would suggest that some changes are permanent. Now my crystal ball happens to be in the shop being repaired, so whatever predictions I make here are suspect. Actually, all of my predictions are suspect, but I digress.

  • We will have fewer staff. People are usually the single biggest part of any library budget, and are often the only budget item large enough to absorb major cutbacks. We are unfortunately experiencing this right now.
  • The staff we have will be focused on essential activities. What’s essential? What isn’t? There’s the rub. What librarians think is essential may not be congruent with what others think is essential.As we are increasingly inspected by those who provide our support, we will find it necessary to pay attention to what our users and funders think is essential.
  • Technology will continue to be used to create additional efficiencies. We have gained a tremendous number of internal efficiencies through automation, although most of those efficiencies were simply plowed back into otehr services (e.g., the decline of many cataloging departments often coincided with the rise of systems departments). However, I believe a key difference this time is that the efficiencies will not be plowed back into the organization, they will be necessary to deal with decreased levels of support.
  • Services and open hours will be cut. This is, of course, already happening. With fewer staff it becomes dificult to stay open as many hours as you had before.
  • Locations will be consolidated. Again, in many locales this is already happening.
  • The fiscal pressures that libraries are under will transform the library systems marketplace. The library systems marketplace has been a zero-sum game for quite some time.The only way for a vendor to grow was to buy or steal customers from its competitors. Now we are entering a new phase, where not only is there no new money to be had, it will shrink. Pressures on vendors to cut prices will be difficult to ignore. They will likely include libraries going to open source systems and paying a vendor only for support as well as new offerings that exert downward price pressure on the market.

These are just a few of the forces that I think will be forcing libraries to a new “normal”. Not that this is necessarily bad, it largely depends on how we respond. If we find ways to refocus our efforts on where we really add value, and on adding value that our users and funders actually value instead of what we think they should, then this could presage a new golden age for libraries. As a whole, I tend to be an optimist, but the task before us gives me pause. It will not be easy, nor obvious what needs to be done. But it has already begun and the sooner we take control over it, and guide our operations down to the new normal with as much of our added value instact as we can mange, the more likely it will be that we will find the new normal to acceptable.
Posted by Roy Tennant on March 19, 2010 | Comments (1)

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