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.)

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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?

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?

Saint Crispin’s Day

This was at the top of an email from NJLA I got last week.

TO: NJ LISTSERV MEMBERS

FROM:  PAT Tumulty, Executive Director

RE: Updates-Advocacy

DATE: March 18, 2010

1. NJLA ADVOCACY RESPONSE

Make no mistake, if the current proposals affecting state and local library funding pass, NJ libraries will have to close their doors.

Gov. Christie’s budget calls for a 74% decrease in funding for statewide library services.  This cut includes the elimination of all statewide library programs and services.  What does this mean to NJ residents?

250 of the state’s 302 libraries will lose access to the Internet on July 1st

130 libraries will lose email service July 1st

124 libraries will lose their websites or access to them July 1st

Statewide interlibrary loan and delivery of library materials will cease on July 1st

The Talking Book and Braille Center (known as the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped) will close on July 1st

NJ resident’s access to electronic databases such as RefUSA and EBSCO will cease on July 1st

Group contracts which bring down the cost of other electronic resources purchased by libraries will cease on July 1st

In addition, libraries will lose $3 million in state aid

At the same time the state is eliminating funding for library programs. Assemblyman John DiMaio has introduced A2555 which eliminates the minimum local funding requirement for municipal public libraries.

This assault on libraries must be stopped!  Here is what you need to know:

170,000 people enter a NJ library every day

The library programs eliminated from the Governor’s budget represent little more than $1 per capita in state funds.  And since library programs have been flat funded for 20 years it is hard to believe these programs have caused the state’s current fiscal crisis.

Local library funding targeted in A2555 typically represents less than 3% of local property taxes.

That’s a hell of a way to start a Wednesday.

Here, within these budgetary apocalyptic pronouncements, lay the very instruments to test the mettle of any librarian. We proclaim ourselves champions of information access, intellectual freedom, and a providers of materials and services to all who cross our threshold regardless of politics, economics, or social standing. Yet here, laid bare in tomes of numbers and figures, the value of such ideals has been coldly calculated by our fellow citizens within the Office of the Governor. This is no mere indictment by a passing critic of the machinations of government spending; no, dear friends, these are individuals of equal intelligence and a shared conviction for public service. Though these traits we share, what one thing we possess over them is our understanding of the far-reaching implications of the vastly expanding information universe.  In this grand age of information, the closing of a library is not simply a denial of the modern world of knowledge, but a denial of the modern world. This is the deeper potency of the communication revolution, the removal of barriers for the sharing of information and information resources. This is our shared professional frontier, the culmination of generations of predecessors, and our home.

We are but a number now, zeroed out on a buried budget sheet, but in the days ahead it is our charge to bring context to those lines. It is up to librarians, all of us, and any and all who read the words written herein, to take up this cause now. That now is the time to educate budget makers as to our return of investment; now is the time to demonstrate to the voters the breadth and width of the offerings of the modern library; that now is the time to raise our voices and make ourselves known for what the institution has become:

That libraries are a lynchpin of valuable public services, universal information access, and shared community commitment to the betterment of our friends, our neighbors, and ourselves.

***

For inspiration in days ahead, I suggest this from the Bard of Avon.

What can you do? (This is a continuation of the email above.)

  • Become a Library Champion (NJ residents)
  • Join the Facebook group Save NJ Libraries
  • Watch Capwiz for NJLA’s call to send a message to your Senator and Assembly representatives opposing the elimination of statewide library programs and A2555. 
  • Get Trustee Boards, Town Councils, County Library Commissioners, Friends groups, community organizations and School Boards to pass resolutions in opposition to these cuts (schools rely on these databases too – and the cuts to school libraries are already going to be bad).

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