When libraries face budget challenges, why are branch closures off-the-table?

KenR1Guest blog by Ken Roberts of Ken Roberts Library Consulting. Ken was a presenter at the recent Future of Libraries Institute.

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.[1]

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[2] 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.

[1] LRG Trends Report on library spending, 2013 – 2014

[2] Based on LJ updates in September, 2013.

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6 Responses to When libraries face budget challenges, why are branch closures off-the-table?

  1. Karine Parry December 3, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

    This continues to be surprising to me all this discussion about libraries closing. For budget cut reasons, it seems reasonable to close certain branches if the alternative result is less than adequate quality of collections and poor service. Public library cuts is something I have experienced in my own professional career. Still, it seems as though the public support for libraries is still pretty strong. When I go to my local public library, I see families with children who regularly visit the library for their children’s educational needs and benefits.

    There are options for tutoring services and events to showcase talents. The library may be a focal point for the community, another home they could feel safe and secure at. Many businesses have been affected by the economic recession and collapse. If libraries could survive through these tough times with positions still posted regularly as open, then there should be hope for their future survival. There are enough educated individuals in the field to find a way to make things work, in my opinion.

    USC MMLIS candidate
    Marshall School of Business

  2. Ken Roberts December 4, 2013 at 1:02 am #

    I remember when an OCLS report, published about 10 years ago, predicted permanent budget cuts to the public sector because of financial pressures. The report was right. Given an aging population (In Canada and the US there will soon be 3 people working for every retiree; 15 years ago it was more than 10 people working for every retiree) and the financial problems that many municipalities now face, I don’t think that municipalities now facing budget pressures will ever witness a return to former levels of funding.

    When budgets are cut and option chosen is to reduce branch hours, the entire cut is too often taken by staff, with disastrous impacts.

    For example, let’s say that a library system has 10 branches and that the operating hours a every branch are reduced by 7 hours a week. Let’s say, as well, that 4 staff members are required to keep each branch open. So, 40 staff members will have their hours cut by 7 hours a week. 40 people will move from full-time to part-time status or have part-time hours reduced. Many of these people may lose paid benefits. Depending on the Collective Agreement, many of these 40 staff members might bump others whose hours were not reduced – perhaps those working at a Central library or in support functions. So, the disruption of lives is magnified.

    I think it is unfortunate that closing non-perofrming locations or older buildings that cannot be renovated to meet accessibility guidelines or modern standards of service is an option that is off the table before most budget discussions even begin. I worked in a library system that kept closing two small older locations and opening one newer one – with longer hours – to serve both former neighbourhoods. The strategy reduced the number of total branches from 27 to 22, with 2 more slated to close next year when a a beautiful new library is opened. When we closed inadequate branches and opened better ones, business increased and so did satisfaction. People respond to quality spaces.

    Clearly, each municipality will and should make its own decisions, based on many factors. I just think that all possibilities have to be responsibly explored.

  3. Wendy Newman December 5, 2013 at 7:40 pm #

    The good news is that people really do care about this, The bad news is the way the debate often takes shape. A public library branch that is open only a few hours a week ties up a collection and a great public space. It wastes money, forestalls investment in better facilities, and puts the rest of the system into a downward slope by across the board cuts to make budget. All reasonable possibilities have to be explored before the horse has left the barn; then the community decides.

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