Monday, June 7, 2010

Are Public Libraries in a Death Spiral?

The year and a half that I worked for Intel was marked by a sharp recession in the semiconductor industry. Most of the industry was plagued with a boom and bust cycle; during the busts, most companies laid off staff. Intel had at that point managed to avoid layoffs, and Andy Grove, Intel's hard-charging President, wanted to protect that record. He came up with a program called the "125% solution". As an alternative to layoffs, Grove asked Intel employees to work 50 hours a week instead of 40, without a pay increase.  We were told that we would work our way through the recession by developing new products.

The management of the Technology Development division, where I worked, had a hard time with this plan. At the meeting where they explained the program to us, they anticipated the obvious question. "No, this doesn't mean you should cut back your hours to 50 from the 50-80 hours some of you have been working." Even so, most of us were relieved that there would be no layoffs, and the line workers felt the same way.

I apologize in advance if this article comes off a bit Grove-ish, but I've become increasingly worried about the future of public libraries. It's not just the large library budget cuts that seem to be pandemic across the country (see the list below if you need any confirmation) but it's the way that budget cuts are preventing preventing libraries from addressing the fundamental changes that are occuring in the ways that people interact with books.

A favorite budget-cutting tactic of public library directors seems to be curtailment of opening hours (with branch-closing a close second). To me, this seems like the worst possible thing for a public library to do. It's as if Andy Grove had told us that we needed to get rid of 25% of our customers. Public library funding comes from the public, and the best way to convince the public that their library deserves more funding is to get the public inside the library doors.

Public Broadcasting is a good example for public libraries (and a competitor for donor support). Does public radio turn off their transmitter when they need money? No, they put on specially good programming and have pledge drives. My local library puts donor names on bricks; I'd like to see libraries put donor names on opening hours.

Tough economic times are exactly when public libraries are needed the most. The assistance that libraries offer to people looking for work, training for new occupations, learning to read, or finding social networks makes public libraries valuable parts of their communities, but that doesn't happen when the doors are locked. I can imagine a future where public library services are online and always open, but that's not today's reality.

One argument for cutting hours might be that the visibility of these cuts makes it easier to restore funding when the economic cycle turns. This may have been true in the past, but I think that the funding that goes away this year will never come back. The way most people access information has changed profoundly since the last economic downturn. A library that reduces its hours is just training its public to meet information needs elsewhere, and that public isn't going to rush back. The library's funding will get cut again and again, and eventually it will have to close its doors.

The public library of the future has to stop being about collections and start being about helping people and communities. Google can't be a physical place where people offer access, assistance and education for the internet and the information it accesses; local public libraries CAN be.   It's these "new" directions that will attract renewed public support and funding into the future. But library directors struggling to deal with budget cuts will find it hard to also reposition their services to meet the needs of an increasingly internet-based society.

Although I don't like cutting hours, it's not like there are lots of alternatives. Libraries with slashed budgets have painful cuts to make. Difficult choices will be made on acquisitions, staff, buildings, user fees, organizational mergers and consolidations. If you're involved with a library that's going through this, don't give up.

Intel survived that recession, and gave us beer mugs to celebrate the end of the "125% Solution". But it didn't escape the endless spiral of economic expansion and contraction. The next contraction cycle combined with competition from Japan to force Intel to lay off many workers and re-examine its businesses. Intel left the DRAM business to focus on microprocessors. You can read the rest of the the library. (Or at Amazon)

Funding cuts in libraries (thanks to Gary Price at ResourceShelf, the Library Journal Funding Page, and LISNews for many of the links):
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  1. Huh. A friend of mine who invested in restaurants told me that the surest sign that a restaurant is in financial trouble is that it extends its hours -- it's a sure way to get a few more bodies in the door, but it's not sustainable because costs build up faster than the new revenue.

    I guess libraries realize no marginal revenue for bringing in another patron, so it makes sense that the failure mode would run backward.

  2. Soon, Starbucks visitors will have access to digital newspaper subscriptions, according to Read-Write Web:

    Subscription databases with that latte, anyone?

  3. I think the hour reductions are very hard for libraries, and especially public libraries, to avoid during budget crunches. Most public libraries have already cut materials budgets, subscriptions, etc. to almost ridiculous levels, and the only way to make big cuts anymore is to reduce the largest expense of all, people. With that in mind, and in situations where staffing is already barebones, the only way to reduce the personnel budget is to reduce hours. We recently had a 10% cut exercise at our public library, and there was no way to get around the face that the only to reach that goal was to eliminate position and in turn, cut service hours.

  4. We have formed a community non-profit, Josephine Community Libraries, Inc. to reopen our libraries in Josephine County, Oregon, after the county closed them all in May of 2007. As of December, 2009, they have all reopened. We have done this with a public radio model, leaving the libraries open and free to all, but funded based on a member model. More than half of our operating expenses are provided by dedicated, hard working volunteers in the form of free labor and expertise. We have only expanded hours since our non-profit took over operation of the libraries, and the collection has grown and been updated more than it had in the previous five years. Go to to learn more! We have an exceptional community, I admit, but this could be done in other locations as well, I'm sure.

  5. I think the idea of 125% is a great idea. One significant problem with that is that many libraries are staffed on an hourly vs. a salaried basis. You would have to change staffing structure fairly drastically in order to not run into a large cost increase. That said, once you go through the change there would be a hole slew of benefits.