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.