The entreprenurial library

I’ve been doing some catching-up on how people around the world use and view public libraries in 2013. There is good news–people love and use (and build and renovate) libraries!–but there is also sobering news. While public support of libraries is strong, public funding of libraries is in decline, and I don’t think the trend is likely to slow down soon. The problem: a generation of government workers is retiring, calling in their pensions and starting to use their healthcare plans. Governments, already bruised by the recession, and faced with a strong anti-tax sentiment, have to cut something. And the benefits of libraries, while absolutely tangible and even lifesaving in some cases, are hard to see in one election cycle.

This is why I had some empathy (though not a lot of sympathy) for Mayor Gimenez of Miami, when he claimed, after planning to shutter 22 libraries in poor communities, that “the age of the library is probably ending.” I thought this was another case of a politician needing to be educated about how libraries serve his community and empower his citizens. After chewing on it for a while, I think he means that he simply can’t see a way to afford them. He doesn’t determine the budget, or the tax rate–he’s an executive, not a legislator–and the ambulances still need to run and the roads still need to be paved. There are several serious problems with this way of thinking (see the poem “The Ambulance Down in the Valley”), the most important of which is that the rising costs of pensions and healthcare are going to squeeze all public services and infrastructure*. If the age of the library is ending, so is the age of firefighting, unless we can find some way to do it all.

Still, I can’t really see a way out of this one that maintains the financial status quo. You can’t just wish for bigger budgets. Look at what’s going on in the UK. Britons love their libraries as much as we do, and they use their libraries just about as much, but that hasn’t stopped 200 libraries a year from closing and many more suffering from the death of a thousand paper cuts. Where political resistance is too strong to cut the libraries outright, they cut the budgets for materials and staff to the point where the library is no longer liked, then close it. Once again, I don’t think this is out of maliciousness. I think there are plenty of British politicians who take their kids to the library, or would like to do so. While I don’t doubt there’s a lot of ignorance and pessimism, I think there are plenty of them that know–really know, that a Kindle is not a substitute for a printed book, Internet access is more than an Internet connection, and an Internet connection is more than an iPhone. I think, like Mayor Gimenez, they just can’t see a way to make it work. The smiles of children don’t pay retirees’ pensions any better than they pay librarians’ meager wages.

If our library system is going to survive the next twenty years, we need a surge in public commitment to our public libraries–and by this I mean money, not answering “yes” on a survey–but we also need predictability and diversity in library funding.  As a librarian, I can’t plan for the future if I’m always pulling my budget out from under the guillotine at the last minute. That is not responsible financial management. That’s just treading water until I’m too tired to do it anymore.

Librarians need to be paid fair wages as educators with master’s degrees. Libraries need to be adequately staffed and funded. We need up-to-date computers, broadband Internet, educational technology, broad-and-deep book collections, buildings in good repair, money for interlibrary loan, and money left over to try new things–not Bermuda money, but enough money. Otherwise, all we’re doing is staving off the inevitable. It would be one thing if the libraries closed because people didn’t want them anymore. But that’s not the case. People want them as much as ever, we just don’t know where the money is going to come from.

Our leaders’ ignorance and inaction on this issue–their misunderstanding of the stakes, their reluctance to confront this fiscal shortfall–suggests to me that librarians must take the lead in figuring out how we are going to fund our libraries. I don’t expect libraries to give up on public funding (and I don’t expect governments to give up on libraries), but in terms of thinking of clever new ways to pay the bills, we are on our own.

This is a fundamentally different problem from advocacy, which has been a going concern in the library community over the last few years. But while I write letters to my representatives with the best of ’em, I don’t think we need to do advocacy that way anymore. I’m not sure we ever did. People support libraries to the tune of 91%. That’s as close to a sure thing as there is in politics. We might need to work on better educating people about how libraries are funded, but it’s time to move away from the whole “how will we survive in the digital age” myth. It mis-characterizes the problem and, in some ways, minimizes it.

Instead, I think we need to direct a majority our attention and our passion for innovation and outreach toward the funding side. For some of our libraries that means ensuring a better financial future by passing a dedicated library tax, establishing a legal requirement for a base level of library service (especially access to public computers), or making it more difficult to close libraries without a vote. That’s where something like EveryLibrary comes in. But in places where that is politically challenging, or where public funding is particularly challenged, we need to bring more of an entrepreneurial spirit to our libraries. That doesn’t mean privatization (a word that every librarian and every citizen should recoil from), but it does mean some libraries should be prepared to support themselves if public funding falters.

Libraries that are needed, but facing closure, can lead the way. The story of UK library funding is mostly a tragedy and an embarrassment (and maybe even illegal), but creative librarians and communities have found innovative and inspiring ways to keep providing library services. These include:

  • Working to establish the library as a publisher or a provider of “publishing support services”
  • Reducing energy costs through renewable power
  • Working more closely with businesses (for example, by co-locating a library and a shopping center, or a library and a cafe)
  • Collecting used phones and computers and either refurbishing them or selling them outright
  • Building more multi-use and multi-audience libraries that can be supported by 2 or more strong institutions (e.g. a local government, a community college, and a university, like Forum Southend-on-Sea).

We should also keep a close eye on what is going on in Miami, where smart librarians are offering alternative plans to fully fund the 42-branch system, including having libraries take over 311 service.

These solutions create multiple income/cost-cutting streams for the library without compromising our essential mission to offer information, books and access to computers for anyone who wants them.

In order to ensure equal access, government needs to be a central pillar of our library funding system. But the rise of an entrepreneurial and problem-solving spirit could invigorate our public libraries after seven bleak years. Libraries may be the only government services flexible enough to pursue alternatives like these. A demonstration of vision and innovation on the funding side would be welcomed by officials and viewed with pride by our communities, especially in areas where hours and locations could be restored. Financial stability will allow us the breathing room we need to take the next step in delivering library services.

This generation’s Carnegies are already working in our libraries. If we can find ways to anticipate budget problems and solve them before they reach a crisis, city and state officials may be more willing to meet us in the middle–hopefully with a check in hand.

* Incidentally, I am not trying to pit libraries against retirees, or say we should take from one to “save” the other. That’s not a realistic or ethical solution. If the pie is too small, the answer is to make the pie bigger.