So, even though there has been no budget cuts to state level New Jersey library funding, earlier this month the New Jersey State Librarian Norma Blake informed the New Jersey library community that the award winning and role model online reference service QandANJ will be ending June 30th this year. This was announced on possibly one of the saddest PowerPoint slides created for a library presentation.
From the press release on the LibraryLinkNJ listserv (since I wasn’t at the webinar; for non-NJ library folks, LibraryLinkNJ is the remaining NJ library regional cooperative):
Even with all of the volunteer assistance, the program still has the fixed costs for a coordinator, public relations and marketing and software licenses to name a few. When state budget cuts were enacted last year, the decision was made to keep QandANJ active at least through June of this year in order to incorporate NJLA’s South Jersey Works initiative. With local libraries experiencing budget cuts it has become more difficult to allow staff the work time to participate. These reasons have resulted in this very difficult decision being made by the State Library and disseminated by the grantee, LibraryLinkNJ.
(Here’s some context for people who might need it.)
QandANJ is supported by the New Jersey State Library, an affiliate of Thomas Edison State College, managed by LibraryLinkNJ: the New Jersey Library Cooperative, staffed by member libraries in the New Jersey Library Network, and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, an independent federal agency whose mission is to create strong libraries and museums to connect people to information and ideas.
But when it came to the actual decision to end the service, there was no consultation with any libraries involved in the project. Months passed without a future determination of the project until the Conversation with the State Librarian webinar on April 7th. The State Library basically held onto the ball as the game clock ran out, then declared the end of the service as a casualty of the local budgets.
It’s a pretty ignominious end to an incredible program, especially after years of praise from the State Librarian office.
Infolink, October 31, 2003:
QandANJ celebrated its second full year of service on October 1, 2003. For the occasion, State Librarian Norma Blake presented an award to each of QandANJ’s 37 participating libraries for their excellent service to the residents of New Jersey.
During a special luncheon ceremony, Ms. Blake thanked the participating libraries and their staffing librarians for all they have done “to make QandANJ one of the most important library services in New Jersey and the best Live Reference Service in the United States.”
Library Journal Librarian of the Year, January 15, 2008:
Featured on New Jersey governor Jon Corzine’s web page, another NJSL initiative is QandANJ, a virtual 24/7 information system through which librarians answer inquiries from across the state in real time. Karen Hyman, director of the South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative, came up with the idea and was about to start the program in her region.
“One of the most important things a state librarian must be is someone who knows a good idea when they see one,” says Blake. “I thought Karen [had] a very good one that would have statewide impact, so we came up with financial support to take that system statewide.” It is clearly a case of mutual admiration. “It has really been a golden age for all of us,” says Hyman, referring to library service after Blake’s arrival.
NJ State Library, September 2, 2009:
“QandANJ is certainly a New Jersey success story and we are glad to continue our partnership with the South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative, which has pioneered the service from a pilot project with a handful of libraries to a program that now relies on the expertise of librarians from across the state. As an online information service, QandANJ is a model for the rest of the nation,” said Norma E. Blake, New Jersey state librarian.
QandANJ is listed as the number one initiative accomplishment on the New Jersey State Librarian’s page.
And on a related note, Norma has ‘liked’ it on her Facebook page. (This is visible to anyone; you don’t need to be logged into Facebook to see it.)
So, what gives? How can it go from being so highly praised to a “budget” casualty? Did it outlive its value?
I did some napkin math. Using the library value calculator modified by the Mt Laurel library, an average reference question is valued at $15. In 2010, the service had roughly 26,000 reference sessions. I’d estimate that each session probably resulted in 2-3 questions, so for the sake of this post I’ll use an average of 2.5 questions per session for a total number of questions estimated at 65,000 questions. Plugging the numbers into the calculator,
That’s a value of $975,000, a number that is a return of investment of 325% of the $300,000 grant awarded to LibraryLinkNJ to run the service. It can’t be a value thing when it is a bargain of a service.
I find it very odd that 26,000 reference sessions is considered too low a number of value to a state population of 8 million, yet the 80,000 postcards collected during the 2010 statewide library advocacy effort was considered a triumph (or, stated another way, 0.325% of the population versus 1%) in the NJLA meetings I sat in on. Consider also that that these 26,000 sessions occurred during an incredible budget fight across the state of New Jersey, both at the state and local levels. There were libraries being closed, layoffs all over the place, and yet, YET, this number of sessions with this estimated amount of questions were handled by the remaining QandANJ volunteer staff. (The NJ proposed budget was announced in March and an actual budget was passed in June. This should give a time frame for the period.) The number of participating staffing libraries has gone from 50 to 43; not exactly a paralyzing drop as expected by the press release.
So, what’s the deal?
For myself, the decision is a complete technological step backwards. It represents a move that isolates portions of the New Jersey population that came to rely on the service and/or lacked the local resources to handle the inquiries. At a time when local libraries are still dealing with the deep cuts from the past year, a service that transcended those local cutbacks is being snuffed out. It’s just not right.
As it is funded by a grant, it doesn’t mean that the program has to stay with LibraryLinkNJ. As it moved from the now defunct South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative to LibraryLinkNJ, so I believe it can be moved again to an institution that wishes to carry on the service for the benefit of the citizens of New Jersey. Yes, it may not be in the same form as it was before, but the infrastructure is already in place. It can be rebuilt elsewhere.
The sadder part is that it has become an issue within the New Jersey Library Association. There is pressure to put off discussing the fate and future of QandANJ before our conference in two weeks. I’m not sure the underlying reason short of putting on our happy faces for each other like some sort of dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinner. But I think that’s equally wrong.
To my fellow NJ librarians, I wish to beg to differ to this sentiment. In fact, I think that the conference is a perfect time to get together to discuss this face-to-face. In looking at the NJLA schedule, it doesn’t look like there is anything going on after 8pm on Tuesday. The Ocean Place has a nice lobby and a bar right there.
What do you think?
UPDATE: The Reference Section of NJLA will be having a meeting on Friday May 13th about the fate and alternatives of QandANJ. With all due deference to Michael Maziekien (the chair of that section), I’d still like to meet informally on May 3rd as a show of support. I’ll see about tossing something like that up on Facebook.