that you can gut funding to libraries and still expect library staff to answer your questions, help you with your computer problems, teach you to use the internet, provide books in print, tape, CD, and large print, entertain your unattended children, provide electronic databases, and be open whenever and wherever you want service.
All public agencies need to tell people this is a fantasy. They need to explain to the public what they do, what happens if they don't do it, and what it costs.
Some people will simply say it's a management issue, that lean budgets actually force managers to think of creative ways to cut costs and increase efficiencies. It's certainly true that we can work smarter and mitigate some, though not all, of the effects of budget cuts. As Judith Siess pointed out in her new book, The Visible Librarian [ALA, 2003], if 80 percent of our workload comes from 20 percent of our tasks, we need to make sure that the 20 percent is the RIGHT 20 percent.
We need to survey our customers and find out which services they value most, but not with any open-ended question. Instead, our survey should ask patrons to assign value to an itemized list of ALL the duties we are performing, including those they don't know about or take for granted, from behind the scenes activities like selecting and organizing the collection to paying for databases and computers to showing people how to push the print button on the computer or copy machine. In fact, we should conduct such surveys whether or not there is a budget crunch.
But long before the budget cuts come, it wouldn't be a bad idea to have in place a clear statement of what services our citizens have told us they regard as the most important, based on the survey results and use statistics which we'd include with the statement. It would include a budgetary breakdown of what expenditures of money and staff time are necessary to provide each service in descending order of importance. It would also have to include all the non-negotiable expenditures we must make to meet our legal obligations (insurance, security, lighting, parking, etc.) for each building for every hour it's open.
I think we should then make this statement available not only to our funding agency, but to our users. The people who seem least willing to pay taxes seem to be the same people who are fond of saying, "There's no such thing as a free lunch," and it's one thing they're right about. That's why we shouldn't shield citizens from the cost of the services they depend on.
With that document and supporting data in hand, we could not only justify our budget requests, but can also make clear right up front what the consequences of budget cuts will be. If the only way to cut the budget is to close a branch library, nobody will be able to claim this was a surprise, and those who insist the branch must be reopened will know exactly how much money they're going to have to come up with to do it.
Some people think the Washington Monument strategy is a dirty trick, something managers do because they refuse to cut the fat from their bloated budgets. But library budgets have never been bloated in the first place. Once we've sliced off all the fat and started cutting into the muscle, the Washington Monument strategy is the only strategy that defends the ideal of offering good library service to all our citizens. Using the strategy may start a dialogue we've put off far too long, about what citizens are getting in return for their tax dollars.
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As you might expect, last week's article on RSS by Steven Bell provoked a fair amount of discussion on the blogs from RSS proponents. Read what Jenny Levine, the Shifted Librarian, had to say "In Defense of Aggregators" at http://www.theshiftedlibrarian.com/2003/09/04.html#a4523, and read Steven Cohen's reply in Library Stuff, http://www.librarystuff.net/new_archives/000751.html
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No matter what you do, libraries are going to have to fight for their very existence. That means you are going to need your most valuable asset on your side: library users. Your communities will have to fight for you and with you. If that's going to happen, your users have to know in their bones that there is no comparison between a chain of book superstores, or an Internet café, and a genuine community library. They have to feel your "public-ness" - which is about much more than whether or not your funding comes from the state and whether your services are free. It's about that ephemeral quality that gives a community a sense of collective ownership over a space. You know what it takes much better than I: An ongoing, never-ending conversation between the library and the community it serves.
Naomi Klein. "Librarianship as a Revolutionary Choice." Address to the American Library Association, June 24, 2003, as reprinted on Library Juice, http://www.libr.org/Juice/issues/vol6/LJ_6.16.html
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