Thursday, January 1, 2009

Squeeze play

As the economy gets worse, there's one place where business just keeps getting better: the public library.
...the Post Crescent noted in an article last week. Amen -- and just about every library staffer I know can corroborate this. The work keeps growing, even if the staff or the materials budget doesn't. We keep trying to get more efficient, and our strategies have included automation, training, volunteers and alternative revenue streams (grants, printing revenue, donations, etc.). But as the impact of a worsening economy continues to ripple through our community, concerns for the library will grow as well.

Then in a Dec. 30 editorial, the Post Crescent opined:
During this time of economic uncertainty and a projected $5.4 billion state budget shortfall, we should expect across-the-board cuts to state and county programs, to salaries and to jobs — deep cuts in some places. As Gov. Jim Doyle said during the dark days preparing for the next legislative session, "Everything should be on the table." We agree.
So, take a deep breath, folks. It may not matter how busy we get, how much difference we can make, or how much more we're needed -- if the money isn't there. This means lower wage increases for staff, decreases in insurance benefits, and obviously some people are considering other benefit reductions as well. Although our budget for the year is approved, our City Council is looking at imposing a hiring freeze -- and those of us who are ever busier would feel it more.

So what can we do?
  1. Don't panic. Douglas Adams' advice is always good -- we need to stay level-headed to provide the best service we can and deal with challenges.
  2. Keep perspective. We're not in this alone -- there's a global economic problem with particular implications for the public sector here in Wisconsin. We need to own our share. Just because libraries have to tighten belts doesn't mean we're a target. And if we're staying open and not doing big layoffs, we're ahead of many places.
  3. Trust in our value. "Everything is on the table" is hardly the same as"all is lost." We need to continuously re-examine our assumptions and goals, as well as our activities, but our importance as an institution is undiminished. Libraries have been socially vital for millenia; the Internet has, at least so far, increased the value of public libraries.
  4. Stay the course. Our strategies of automation, training, volunteers and alternative revenue streams have been effective, and we can find more ways to apply them. Although the economy has affected many people's ability to give, it has not stopped people from being generous to our Friends and Foundation. There's more work we can do.
  5. Work with the system. Our City Council, Mayor and our City Human Resources and Finance Departments may not have identical interests to library priorities, but our common interests are significantly larger than our differences. We're part of a federated library system and automation network with other significant common interests. We have a great Board and supporters. Together we can do our best for the community.
  6. Seek new efficiencies. 2009 will be a good year to go lean and green. Sustainable green practices can be more affordable in the short run while good for the library and the planet in the long run. And we can make a mindful effort to re-examine activities and processes for more efficiency. Our Technical Services staff is doing significantly more work -- through more efficient work flow and automation -- without significant staff growth. Our Business Manager came up with a plan to use different light bulbs that saves tens of thousands of dollars in utility bills. Our Circulation staff recently worked with our network to change the format of a routing slip in a way that saves a dozen hours a month in staff time. There's more that can be done.
Dang! Did I just do New Year's resolutions for the library director? If not, then here are some for me:
  1. Provide good community value -- ensure that our services are responsive, professional, friendly and efficient
  2. Speak up -- Communicate the library's value to help people make the best use of services, and to help funders understand needs and opportunities
  3. Advocate for our staff -- while helping the staff deal with the real impact of economic problems
  4. Keep planning -- we have a good long range library plan, technology plan and Foundation Plan. City staff is working to revise the City's strategic plan, and we need to do more planning with our Friends group. All our plans should be used, but re-examined to be useful living documents, not stone tablets.


loninappleton said...

A further resolution for 2009:

Resolved: The Appleton Public Library will hold board meetings in a space other than the board room for open meetings in which the public may choose to participate.

Guests or patrons in the board room face an intimidating seating arrangement facing the backs of board members, looking over shoulders to make comments and in general take the proverbial back seat during the meetings.

The goal in this is to increase public participation and not consider what the public has to say as an afterthought, intrusion or something to endure.

At one board meeting where significant numbers were expected, the venue was changed to one of the meeting rooms. This allows for easy entrance or exit, full view of the board members and a more neutral presentation space.

The request is to make this policy rather than elective.

Terry Dawson said...

We'll ask the Board to take up your concern. But you're right: the library is crowded. We have too few meeting rooms and some of them are too small. This leaves us with tough choices.

On many days, there are three, four, five or more meetings or public programs. It's hard to justify denying a community group the use of meeting space and spending the extra staff time to set up a public room for the Board -- especially when public attendance at Board meetings is the exception rather than the rule.

We've never failed to make comfortable seating available for members of the public attending meetings, to ensure they had the full attention of the Board during a public comment section of every meeting, and to ensure that they could clearly hear all discussions. Nonetheless, I take your concern seriously. Public access to public decision-making is fundamentally important.

We'll continue to plan for the use of the larger room whenever significant numbers are expected and the room is available. In the meantime, I'll ask the Board to consider your policy request.

Terry Dawson said...

I might agree or disagree with Lon's particular request, but his comment does suggest another resolution:

5. Be creative and open to ideas -- It will take creativity to deal with the many challenges, and good ideas can come from anyone in the staff or community.