Depending on the Budget

While the chosen theme of the 2010 New Jersey Library Association Conference was “Everyday Advocacy: Libraries are Essential to Your Community”, the actual more accurate tagline should have been “…depending on the budget”. This phrase because the punctuation and sentence modifier for most of the conversations I had with people over the course of the two days. And when you are staffing a two full day conference feature, you get to have that conversation many times.

The overall conference felt more like a three day hospice, where all the attendees had the same financial relative who was on its deathbed. When statements about future endeavors was not being modified by the aforementioned phrase, the budget and its effects were the principle inquiry between old friends catching up and new acquaintances learning about each other. “So what does the budget mean for your library?” might as well been written on our nametags, a riff on other types of icebreakers used to encourage people to talk to each other.

At times, the answer was mild; most of the time, the answer was depressing. Layoffs, service cuts, hour cuts, financial difficulties with municipalities, and other tales of woe dominated the types of answers. For those not playing along with the home game, this would be in opposition to the Governor’s recent remarks about the state budget library funding cuts saying that it would not result in library closings or service cuts:

It’s not like because of this, public libraries are going to be closing. Municipalities are required to dedicate a stream of funding to libraries in their towns. And we do not believe you’ll be seeing any libraries close or any significant diminution of services for people to be able to utilize.

(This is where the semantic debate would begin. The state budget didn’t cause libraries to close, the municipalities that have funding lines did. Because when you close a $10 billion budget gap, it couldn’t possibly make municipalities scramble for other ways to close their own gaps caused by the removal of state assistance across the board that won’t result in layoffs, diminished hours or services, or even closings in institutions like libraries that have dedicated funding. [Cedar Grove, Edison, Neptune, Fair Lawn, Rutherford, Jefferson Township, to name a few.] Or, in other words, the stick of dynamite that was tossed into the avalanche zone didn’t kill the skiers, the giant wave of snow, ice, trees, and bad timing did. I would ask where people in other departments who are getting laid off will go for internet access, unemployment assistance, and job hunting help, but I digress.)

As much as I paint a picture of gloom and doom for the conference, I think the fairer assessment would be restrained hopefulness. While the budget boogeyman would feature in conversations, there were people looking and planning ahead to the future. It was fun to talk to people who were enthusiastically thinking about adding gaming programs, video game collections, and using or lending gadgets at their library. In relating my own personal anecdotes and others, you could see people making the deeper connection about how these programs can create stronger patron bases by bringing in new library users as well as creating more opportunities to educate them as to what else the library does. Even with the budget caveat, people were still looking to expand library offerings. That was a good reminder that library life is still going on in lots of places.

For myself, the mood went somber only when I was sitting in larger groups in the ballroom. I wondered how many people would be here next year at different times. But it was at one of these larger gatherings that one of the more interesting things of the conference happened, in my reckoning. It was right at the beginning of the NJLA award dinner, a myriad of awards recognizing both librarian and non-librarian accomplishments from the past year. When the MC was introduced, someone shouted “Long live the Highland Regional Library Cooperative!” and a group of people cheered. (Library cooperatives would be completely eliminated under the Governor’s budget proposal. They work to negotiate group contracts, find grants for innovative pilot programs, and provide continuing education and training to the libraries they serve.)

What drew my attention and made it a memorable moment for me was the complete lack of reaction to it from the rest of the room. I’m not sure if it was a matter of people not hearing it, not registering what it meant, or just not sure how to react in the quasi-formal setting, but nobody I spoke about it unless I brought it up. I’m really not sure what to make of it; I wouldn’t want to assign it more meaning without further conversations. But it was certainly something a bit different than the norm.

As this post starts around the phrase “depending on the budget”, I’d like to end with that phrase. It’s one thing to use it as a modifier for conversations about future library programs, services, and materials at the library; I think it has a better life being used to press the case for library funding. There are more people than directors, librarians, and staff that are depending on this state funding. It’s the members of the communities served that are depending on this budget line being restored. It’s the people who walk through the door every day, every week, and every month. It’s the moms and dads, children and teens, and seniors and grandparents. It’s students of all ages and walks of life. It’s those dealing with job loss and those on the job hunt. It’s information access at a critical economic time. It’s a government service that is a community linchpin.

There are more people depending on the budget than just us.

Advocate accordingly.

 

savenjlibraries-jl

May 6th Rally

SaveMyNJLibrary.org

Library Budgets in the Perfect Storm

Just about a month ago, New Jersey Governor Christie proposed his version of the FY2011 budget. In addressing a $10 billion budget gap, he sought to make dramatic cuts to state spending. As part of this self-proclaimed new day of fiscal responsibility, he made a 74% cut to state library spending. Cut is a bit of a misnomer for this action; the better term I have heard used is a decapitation. The reduction of state library spending would result in the complete elimination of valuable library services and support programs such as intrastate inter-library loan, the Talking Book and Braille Center (formerly the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped), group purchasing contracts for internet access and databases, and the library cooperatives whose exemplary efforts provide libraries with additional savings through grant finding, tailored group contracts, and innovative pilot programs.

Going on concurrently, there have been dramatic cuts to state aid for education budgets. School districts have been scrambling all over the state in order to find budget solutions through layoffs, program or service reductions/eliminations, and cuts of aspects that are deemed "non-essential". Within this framework, the school librarian and library has come under the budget knife, resulting in the elimination of these entities from many school districts around the state. I would presume that the duty to teach research, technological literacy, and information vetting will presumed to be passed onto teachers (in addition to their other primary teaching duties, that is). I’m uncertain as to who or how the library would be maintained without a librarian or materials budget, but that topic is better suited for someone with more expertise. But what I do know is that library resources will be greatly diminished within this new school setting on the whole.

Academic libraries within the state face similar circumstances, though have a different set of solutions for them. Increasing library fees can compensate for the loss in state funding, but it is carefully balanced against the rising costs for students. The needs of professors and students in their fields of study and publishing will be scrutinized under a smaller information resource pie, potentially denying or delaying data for their studies, projects, papers, and research. Colleges and universities will no longer have “the best” resources available to their students; they will simply have “the best” they can afford under the new funding scheme.

In taking on the teacher’s union and perceived state budget largess, the Governor has made collateral damage out of information literacy. While I’m certain that this is not the Governor’s intent in making these dramatic cuts, it is the result that will happen. Under the mantra that he has been making cuts because the state cannot afford it any longer, he has sacrificed one of the few fiscally responsible government services that works throughout the state on an extremely cheap $1.25 per capita. Unlike many other agencies, libraries in the state of New Jersey have been fiscally responsible and budget streamlined for many years now. We fit within the Governor’s self proclaimed financial disciplines, yet we lose the most under the budget knife.

How is the reasonable? How is this fair? How is this a shared sacrifice?

More importantly, I am concerned by the results of this perfect storm. With the reduction or elimination of school libraries, the information resource pressure will be shifted to public libraries (as seen in Philadelphia libraries). With the reduction of state aid, the materials and services in the public library will be diminished as well (for the libraries that didn’t cut back their hours or close). This doesn’t change the same demand for library computers, services, and materials from people still looking for work, filing for unemployment, or seeking assistance for other government services. Nor does it change the increase in the amount of people who rely on libraries on a regular basis, whether it is for literature, education, or entertainment.

What government services covers all of the aspects that we do?

Where will these people go?

At this point, to be honest, all I am left with are questions:

Where will elementary and high school student go to get homework help and research their reports and papers? Where will these students go to get away from bad influences in their neighborhoods?   

What about the college students? Will they tolerate higher fees to make up the loss? Will they tolerate a smaller resource pool for their academic studies? Will they pass on New Jersey schools in favor of other colleges that have better information resources and materials? What about the professors that teach them? Will professors opt to teach at other non-NJ institutions because they won’t receive the same level of professional research support?

What happens to the vision impaired and other fellow residents with disabilities? Without the state funds (and the federal matching funds), the Talking Book and Braille center will close in 2012. Where will they go for their special materials, ones suited for their disability?

What happens to people looking for employment? Who will provide the same time and attention to these job seekers with their online applications? Who will provide basic computer classes to assist them to get off of unemployment and back to work? Who will provide them with a place that can be part of their routine, to provide friendly help, and to suggest new places to look?

Which staff members in the library, both great and small, are going to be tasked with finding or teaching training as a rate as cheap as the library cooperatives once did? Which staff members will be searching for grants, the same ones that the library cooperatives found and got for years? Which staff members will work towards negotiating a group price, the same way that library cooperatives did to save local taxpayers money for years?

(Note: While I have been told that there is a plan to consolidate the library cooperatives into one, I think that all the cooperatives are worth fighting for as they exist now. Consolidation is a compromise position, one that I do not accept right now.)

==

Despite it all, I believe that New Jersey libraries are worth fighting for. Hell, I want to demand 110% funding restoration. After being flat funded for 20+ years, we deserve a raise. We’ve done wonders with the limited funding ascribed to us this long, imagine what we could do with a million more. But for now, I gather my strength and my wits for the funding fight ahead.

April is almost gone. May is upon us. June is close behind.

There is no time like the present. Surely, these are trying times. Let them test our mettle and resolve, for we will pass since our cause is the patrons we serve. We fight not for ourselves, but for the greater good of the society around us. We know that intuitively, for we do it every day when we step through the doors into our libraries. We are public servants dedicated to the common good that all libraries represent. This is our chosen calling. Together, we can weather this budget storm.

It is the right thing to do. And it is the thing to do right now.

Onward, I say!

Who is with me?

All (Advocacy) in the Family

4527362346_8f5a81bc6c[1]

I’d like you to meet my parents. This is my current favorite picture of them; it was taken during their formal night out on a vacation cruise. With all of the advocacy meetings and talk I’ve had in the last couple of weeks, I have been thinking about them. For me, they represent the two tiers of library supporters that are needed in order to preserve (or possibly even expand) library funding in the future. Allow me to elaborate.

mom-cruise

This is my mother Ann. She is a regular patron of the Cherry Hill Public Library. On any given week, she is borrowing books, movies, and television series. When I was growing up, she would take my brother and I to the library to borrow books and movies. In hearing about the cuts to library funding in New Jersey, it has inspired her to write a letter to the editor that she is going to send to the local papers. To my knowledge, she has never done anything like this before. I was so proud of her when she read me her rough draft; I certainly hope they publish it.

 

dad-cruiseThis is my father Bill. Unlike my mother, he is not a regular library user. This is not to say that he would not use a library, but it’s not a regular deal. However, he is also a library supporter. He sees the value in the services provided as a community good; he understands the importance of information access. With a background in finance, my father is also appreciative of the positive rate of return for taxpayer money invested in library services and materials. I know I can count on his support not simply because he is my father, but that he is informed as to what the library does for the community that I serve.

I’ve been thinking of my parents as they represent the two important types of library supporters: overt and latent. In practical terms, my mother is the person that libraries have coming through their doors everyday. They would be the low hanging fruit of advocacy since they already understand what the library has to offer. It’s not a giant step to connect them to our funding cause and encourage them to take action.

The library supporters like my father, on the other hand, present a different question. How do libraries reach the people in the community who support the library on ideological grounds yet never grace our doorsteps? While I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can educate my father about the value of the library, there are many others out there like him who do not have an advocate for a wife, son, and daughter-in-law. 

So, here’s the question: how do we reach people like my dad?

The Reference Singularity

Last week, I was at my favorite watering hole with a group of my fellow librarians enjoying an evening of beer and socializing. During this gathering, Pete Bromberg was telling me about his upcoming presentation at ALA Annual, the RUSA President’s program “For the Love of Reference”. When I got home, I looked up the write-up in the online preliminary program. This passage caught my eye:

We want to explore the twin appeals of information discovery and serving users that drive the devotion to reference and readers’ advisory work.

I have written about reference before in terms out how the interviews could possibly be measured (and maybe re-labeling reference service as an “information concierge”), but I had not really considered examining the interaction itself and the implications of all of the possible outcomes. When I start to turn this idea over in my head, something really caught me. Imagine the reference interaction as this: an intersection of time and space in which you (as the librarian) have the ability to influence the resulting experience.

From the moment of inquiry, it presents a vast array of potential outcomes. We tend to think of these results in a binary fashion (the two potential endings of “Yes, we have that/Here is the answer” versus “No, we don’t have that/I cannot provide an answer.”), but the reality of outcome pathways is far more nuanced. The prevailing underlying thought that finding materials or information is good and that the opposite is bad is not just misguided, but completely wrong. I would contend that there is no such thing as a good or bad outcome; there is only good or bad reference (customer) service.

In my mind, good or bad reference experiences do not hinge on the resolution of the inquiry, but on the type of customer service a patron receives. How much does the result matter when the experience was unsavory or unpleasant versus engaging or personable? I don’t think there is much of a stretch required to prove this contention, either. There are examples within our own lives in which the overall experience of the encounter have made us more or less likely to use a service, store, contact, or material. While outcome may have bearing as to whether or not a person uses reference services in the future, I think it is a minor factor in comparison to the impressions formed from the encounter.

Even if we were to take the customer service aspect out of the experience and examine the interaction based all of the potential outcomes, I think that all but the most cynical observer would find the any potential result acceptable. For the inquiries that have their criteria met (in the form of an answer, material, or other solution), the librarian is successful in meeting the stated request. For the inquiries that do not have their criteria met, the librarian play a heavy role influencing the outcome pathways. For example, in a request for an author or book, this is where literature discovery occurs in finding other authors (ones that the patron may not have considered). In a request for research information, it turns into a search for a person or material that can answer beyond the walls of the library or the development of a new search strategy. This is the providence of serendipity, for sometimes in failure there are opportunities created for possibilities previously unknown or unconsidered.

Some might find the concept of serendipity as a convenient answer to those inquiries which are not resolved to the specifications of the patron. I would suggest that it is still an answer, just perhaps not in the form that the patron anticipated. And since all of the answers provided by reference services may not be simple and straightforward as outlined by the inquiry, it is the customer service during the transaction that matters more than the outcome itself.

For me, I know I can’t answer every item that comes across the reference desk. It’s simply not possible. However, the one thing I can control and do for each interaction is make it an exemplary experience. I treat them the way I would want to be treated if I was in their shoes: professional, personable, and completely engaged in their curiosity or need, no matter how big or small. I may not win every round of the reference desk question roulette, but I hope to win the patron over to try again in the future.

And that’s what I love reference.

 

(The title of the post is a play on the term mechanical singularity, in which the positions of a mechanism or machine results in subsequent behavior being unpredictable. I thought it was appropriate.)

Quick Note on Advocacy

As mentioned in a previous post, there are things afoot in response to the devastating 74% state funding cut to libraries in New Jersey. After starting the Facebook group, I’ve been looking for new and additional ways to spread the message and get people active in saving their libraries. In gearing up for this fight, there are some things that have caught my attention.

First, while the fight is statewide, the real efforts are local. As in, being able to explain to my patrons what the cuts means to them. Overall, my library system is not in bad shape; these cuts will not result in shorter service hours, layoffs, or other reduction in quality of service. The real cut is that our materials budget will be reduced by 25% along with finding money to replace the databases. My colleagues and I are working on the best way to portray that to the public in order to make our case. As the saying goes, “All politics are local”; so here we are in a position to show our patron what the cuts mean to them. It’s hard to ignore how this will negatively affect other libraries beyond my county (since the cuts felt will be more dramatic), but that’s a secondary case to be made.

Second, for a group of people who can make recommendations for materials and services, we really don’t seem to be comfortable with making a case for our own continued existence. I’m not sure what the deal is, whether it is a case of modesty or sense of political neutrality, but when it comes to articulating why libraries are essential to communities in an age of information (and the information economy), we seem to get all tied up in knots. Perhaps it is because we as an institution have never really been put to this sort of test. In any event, I certainly hope that people can get over their hang-ups and begin to speak up.

For myself, I try to make the case for libraries with each patron. It may sound silly, but I try to treat every request as being the utmost importance. I think of it this way: they have taken time out of their day to come to the library so it’s my job to make it a good experience. Sure, it doesn’t always work, and not everyone leaves with a smile, but I try to make their time at the library worthwhile. It’s something no publicity campaign can really do for us; it’s all about the individual and making that time spent in our walls valuable.

What more can librarians do?

#andypoll

twitter[1]For awhile now, I’ve been firing off poll questions on Twitter. It’s been pretty random at the start (in terms of questions), but it seems to have caught on. Twitter’s search engine won’t let me see the old results, but I have been able to find the questions so far since people have been nice enough to use the new retweet function. Here’s the list:

It is with this last question that I was able to devise a simple hashtag that I could track. What surprised me even more in searching for results is how many additional answers were out there. Before, I had guessed at the number of replies by doing a mention search for any “@wawoodworth” replies. Now, I have found additional results from people who left out my name but included the hashtag in their answer and/or retweet of the question. (This has also lead me to find additional librarians to follow, another added bonus.)

I hope to keep the questions and challenges going, so if you’re on Twitter, follow me and keep an eye out for #andypoll. See you there!

Edit: I have made a TwapperKeeper for #andypoll!