Libraries spend most of their money on four things – staff, buildings, collections and technology. Chairs become wobbly if their four legs are not balanced and public libraries become wobbly when their priorities are not balanced.
As we have learned from the economic collapse of 2008, public library systems can lose carefully orchestrated spending balance very quickly.
Just over half of 800 US public library systems surveyed in 2011 reported budget problems but very few reported that any library location had closed. In other words, budget cuts were far more frequently made to collections, technology and staff.
The public clearly identifies with the library as a place, and they fight for library buildings to remain open, even when this means reduced hours, poor collections or inadequate technology. I remember attending the retirement party for a long-time CEO of a large library system. She stated, in her brief talk, that one professional regret was that she had never been able to close a library branch, even when branches needed to close. In cities such as Philadelphia and Miami and many others Mayors and Councils have promised their residents, after huge rallies of “support” for public libraries, that no library branches would be closed. Sometimes these promises are made in opposition to the recommendations of library boards. When cuts are made to collections or staff levels or technology, the public outcry is rarely as loud. (The latest update from Miami indicates that staff cuts have been temporarily avoided by emptying library reserves, not a sustainable solution).
The Most Common Strategy is Not Always The Best Strategy
The most common cost reduction strategy employed by public libraries is to reduce branch hours. So, closed buildings are heated and cooled and roofs are repaired and technology stays locked behind doors and collections sit on darkened shelves and staff are moved from full-time to part-time status and the four legs upon which the library depends (staff, buildings, collections, and technology) become a little more unbalanced.
This can create an organizational death spiral from which it is difficult to recover.
Take a look at the 2010 KPMG report, Payment for Success, written as a template for reducing the cost of government in the UK. Page 58 of that report talks about public libraries. British public libraries already had faced several decades of reduced funding. The result was eroded staff levels, collections and technology but very few closures. After decades of such reductions, KPMG recommended that library buildings be given to volunteer community groups, using donated books. The library brand had lost its power.
The issue is one of perception. What is a public library? Is it primarily community space, a building that helps to define a town or a neighbourhood? Or is the public library a service. If it is a service, available funding has to be balanced amongst staff, buildings, collections, and technology.
A library cannot wobble so badly that it cannot fulfill its mandate.