Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians

#190, September 12, 2003

Or why you might want to hire me for speaking engagements or workshops. To see outlines for previous presentations I've done, click on Handouts

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Order My Books:

Click HEREto place a direct order for my books, The Quintessential Searcher: the Wit and Wisdom of Barbara Quint, and the forthcoming Net Effects: How Librarians Can Manage the Unintended Consequences of the Internet.

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What IS Ex Libris?

The purpose and intended scope of this e-zine

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E-Mail Subscription?

For a combined subscription to Neat New Stuff and ExLibris, please click HERE, complete the form, and click on "subscribe." To unsubscribe, use the same form but click on "unsubscribe." To change addresses for an existing subscription, unsubscribe from that form and return to the page to enter the new address.

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Highlights from Previous Issues:

My Rules of Information

  1. Go where it is
  2. The answer depends on the question
  3. Research is a multi-stage process
  4. Ask a Librarian
  5. Information is meaningless until queried by human intelligence
  6. Information can be true and still wrong

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Guru Interviews

  1. Tara Calishain
  2. Jenny Levine, part I
  3. Jenny Levine, Part II
  4. Reva Basch
  5. Sue Feldman
  6. Jessamyn West
  7. Debbie Abilock
  8. Kathy Schrock
  9. Greg Notess
  10. William Hann
  11. Chris Sherman
  12. Gary Price
  13. Barbara Quint
  14. Rory Litwin
  15. John Guscott
  16. Brian Smith
  17. Darlene Fichter
  18. Brenda Bailey-Hainer
  19. Walt Crawford
  20. Molly Williams
  21. Genie Tyburski
  22. Carrie Bickner
  23. Karen G. Schneider

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Cool Quotes

The collected quotes from all previous issues are at

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When and How To Search the Net

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Wanna See Your Name in Lights?

Or at least on this page, anyway? I'd like to print here your contributions as well as mine. As you've noticed, articles are brief, somewhere between 200 and 500 words -- something to jog people's minds and get their own good ideas flowing. I'd also be happy to run other people's contributions to the regular features like Favorite Sites on _____. I'll pay you the same rate I pay me: nothing.

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Drop me a Line

Want to comment, ask questions, submit articles, or invite me to speak or do some training? Contact me at: marylaine at

Visit My Other Sites

My page on all things book-related.

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How To Find Out of Print Books
Suggested strategies, resources, and finding tools.

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Best Information on the Net
bestinfo/default.htmThe directory I built for O'Keefe Library, St. Ambrose University, still my favorite pit stop on the information highway.

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My Word's Worth
a weekly column on books, words, libraries, American culture, and whatever happens to interest me.

Subject Index to My Word's Worth at

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Book Proposal

Land of Why Not: an Appreciation of America. Proposal for an anthology of some of my best writing. An outline and sample columns are available here.

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My personal page

SUBJECT INDEX to Past Issues

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Neat New Stuff I Found This Week
September 12: news from Baghdad, weird instructions, dinosaurs, and more.

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My resume

NOTE: Remember, if anybody wants an autograph for their copy of my book, Net Effects: How Librarians Can Manage the Unintended Consequences of the Internet,, e-mail me and I'll tell you how you can get the message you want, inscribed on a paste-in-able slip of paper with my ExLibris caricature on it.

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By Marylaine Block

There are two schools of thought about how public agencies should deal with budget cuts. One is the "keep-a-stiff-upper-lip-and- gamely-carry-on" approach. The other is known as the "Washington Monument Strategy," as in, if the National Park Service takes a budget hit, it shuts down its most visible tourist attractions so that the public will complain and demand that funding be restored.

In theory, the first approach is more public-service-oriented. It says our responsibility is to give our patrons what they want regardless of whether they have given us the money to do it properly. We don't make waves. We just lay off personnel and ask the remaining personnel to do twice as much.

We try to continue core services with fewer people. We keep all the branches open, though with fewer staff and shorter hours. With barely enough staff to provide reference service and computer assistance in the main library, we cut outreach and educational functions. We stop teaching people how to use Word and Excel and the internet. We cut bookmobile service and stop delivering material to retirement communities and daycare centers. We stop visiting schools to show kids homework resources. With more people lined up waiting for help from fewer people, we almost certainly end up giving shorter answers to the people who approach us, and no assistance at all to the lost people at computers whose bewildered faces we once would have noticed.

In practice, however, I don't think we're doing the public any favors here by cutting the very things that make a library more than the warehouse for books and computers so many politicians and business leaders seem to think we're providing, and degrading the public's idea of what constitutes good library service. By quietly stretching ourselves beyond our limits, we risk making ourselves more like Borders in the worst possible way: offering ill-organized collections and equipment, and providing nobody but ill-informed clerks to answer people's questions and help them use the machines.

We can't do that. Because if we allow our libraries to become no better than the chain bookstores, no deeper than the internet, why SHOULD taxpayers support us?

Of course when we make the consequences of budget cuts visible, we have to be prepared to take a lot of flack. Many people were outraged when the Seattle Public Library and all its branches simply closed for an entire week in August to save money. When library directors close branches, they have to expect protests, which may be focused on their decisions about where to cut rather than on the city council's budget cuts.

I think we ought to make the cuts visible and painful anyway, for two reasons.

One is staff morale. The primary duty of library directors may be to the public, but they also have a duty to make sure that the stated responsibilities of each staff member can actually be accomplished with the time, money, training, and materials provided.

The other reason is that a dangerous mythology is rising about publicly funded services, the idea that you can get more service with fewer tax dollars, that you can:

  • eliminate two fire stations and still have firetrucks arrive at your burning house within minutes;
  • cut funding for public hospitals and still have swift emergency medical service for everybody who needs it;
  • cut 8% one year and 15% the next from state universities and still expect them to provide a rising number of students with a good education;
  • 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, and read Steven Cohen's reply in Library Stuff,

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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,

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    You are welcome to copy and forward any of my own articles for noncommercial purposes (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:

    Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
    Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2003.

    [Publishers may license the content for a reasonable fee.]

    Please do NOT copy and post my articles to your own web sites, however. Instead, please copy a brief excerpt and link to my site for the remainder of the article.