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Friday, January 8, 2010

A New Lifeline for Libraries?

The reality of our economy in 2010 is sobering if not depressing. Too many businesses have failed. Unemployment is up. Foreclosures are up across the country. With the litany of all the bad news out there, some public libraries are facing the crisis of closing their doors for good. Just when people need the resources the most. Public libraries have been at the mercy of government budgets for years. Always, it seems, the last on the list to receive the funds needed to manage the department. Whether it be on the local or state level, the amount of dollars spent to continue library services is never enough. Creatively finding a money windfall is about the only way to survive in this economy. Where does this windfall exist?
Libraries are seen as the nonessential item on the budget line because it is seen as “entertainment”, “free” or “internet”. All three of these words cause headaches if not heartaches for librarians and library advocates. If the library is entertainment, than in most people’s mind it is an “extra.” In hard times, no one has disposable cash for fun. That should be doubly true of government spending. If the library services are free, than why are taxpayers asked to approve a mileage to keep the library running? Free is equivalent to saying ZERO. Any agency, business or person should not want to be connected to the number zero under any circumstances. It is makes it too convenient to reason that if it is free, than it is easy to toss out. The Internet carries its own baggage of problems, ranging from information overload to social networking and games. The rise in internet access at home has contributed to the notion that children can complete their homework at home. Who needs the library when the world is at your fingertips? Simple question, but one that is rarely answered well by librarians and their advocates.
Gaining support for public libraries should begin with clearly defining the role it plays in the community. Trying to be everything to everyone will never work. General Motors went that route by providing so many different product lines. When times were bad, supporting the various product lines became too costly. Libraries should stick to what they do best: research and development. Traditionally libraries were established as places of self-learning. With all the new ways to use technology to gather information, libraries can continue this tradition in exciting ways by promoting the types of services public libraries provide in a business terms. Every company has a Research and Development department which is dedicated to helping the company move forward, and have a jump ahead on future trends that will help them succeed. Using this principal for libraries, it is educating the community to be better users of information to advance themselves and in turn strengthening the community as an ideal place to work and live. Beatrice Priestly pointed out in Library Administration Management, (Summer 2008) “by helping persons to become educated and develop skills, the library serves to generate human resource to the community.” To take it a step further, engaging even the youngest of the community in the day to day activities of the library is considered an act of developing future citizens who not only are information savvy but understands the value of the library. There still remans the problem of cash strapped city and state governments that are failing to meet other financial demands. There has to be a better solution.
The economic crisis can be the opportunity to seek ways to manage libraries in a private business model. Local and state government continually have too much on their plates in the form of doling out the dough. Budget meetings seem to be similar to thawing a quarter on the table to see which department can scramble to get it first and watching the hilarity of forty different departments falling all over themselves and colleagues just to get that one shiny quarter. Public libraries have already begun to rely in part to “soft” money such as grants to aid them in fulfilling some services. It has become a necessity since budgets are tight even in good times. If this is the case than why aren’t more libraries considering the private/public option of library management? The need to move beyond the traditional government funded libraries and create an effective way to stay open to serve the community. In privatizing the library, everyone benefits. The oppostions to privatizing libraries range from that it will hurt the community it is intended to server to hurting the library profession as a whole. If we were to look at libraries from a business perspective the idea of hurting the community has no merits. Frankly, any business person knows that if they don’t know the community they are in, then they are doomed to failure. If the privatized libraries were run by library professionals, the integrity of the library service and profession is preserved. Looking at the current situation it is important to ask how productive is it to run a library on less money, part-time librarians and shorter hours? Library managers are already at the point where they don’t serve the community well because of the fact they have to do more with less. The reality is that the focus on how to manage and fund a library must change from government model to a private business model. It is either do this or libraries become extinct.
It is a shame when any community loses its library due to lack of funding or intreats. It is sadder still when librarians as professionals hold themselves back by not looking for “new” avenues to support the future success of libraries. In the meantime, it is important as professionals in the field to support the libraries who dependent on milage's passing to stay open. Taking on the responsibility of library advocate can be soothing to a librarian’s soul. However, at the end of the day it is important to remember when the budgets are in the red, it’s time to find another lifeline in order to survive.
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