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Sunday Reflections: What They Didn’t Teach Me in Library School – When the Finances Hit the Fan

As you may have heard, in 2008 the economy of the U.S. went boom.  Or maybe it went bust.  Either way, the proverbial crapola hit the fan.  Having worked in libraries for a while already at this point, I was used to campaigns begging community members to contact their local congressman and tell them they support libraries.  In fact, Ohio libraries are really well organized when it comes to legislative days.

But this time, it was different.  This time we weren’t putting signs up reminding patrons why they should support libraries, how and who to contact down at the state capital, or even asking them to vote for a local levy.  No, this time, words like pink slips and lay offs and reduced hours were floating around.

Ohio has traditionally been considered a landmark state for library support.  When my family would ask me if I wanted to move back to California, I would always say no for one simple reason: Ohio libraries have traditionally been well funded and at the state level (I do not know how they currently rank for funding, I do know that it has been cut).  Libraries from Ohio consistency seem to dominate “best” lists, in part because of their funding structure.  Like the rest of the world, that all seemed to change in 2008.  As the old saying goes, you can’t squeeze water out of a turnip.  Or maybe it’s blood.  Well, somewhere there is a saying.

2008 began what I like to call the dark years for libraries, and there was nothing that we
discussed in library school that would prepare me for what came next.  For two months we knew that lay-offs were coming, we just didn’t know who.  We would see the director pacing in the hallways with his head hanging low, a cloud of pathos hanging over him.  People began to snipe at each other, and about each other.  While previously we had all worked together as a cohesive team to keep the ship floating on a pre-determined path, we were suddenly scrambling every person for themselves to be the last one standing when the ship went down.  It was not pretty.  In fact, it was hands down the most stressful period of my professional life.  To this day I mourn the loss of what was one of the best work experiences I have ever had and people that I genuinely loved.

No one prepares you to see one of your best friends lose their job after 10 years of dedicated service.  No one prepares you to help them go and pack up their stuff and move far away to be with family and watch them struggle to find a new job.  No one prepares you for the survival guilt that you feel, and the sheer relief that at least for today you get to continue to feed your children.

At my previous library, this is how the financial crisis shook out:
First round: 12 people were laid off
Second round, 2 years later: An additional 5 people were laid off, hours that we were open were cut back, and everyone had their hours reduced

Cost of living raises had already been a thing of the past for a while now.  And like everywhere else, benefits were cut (they used to match a certain benefit but stopped) and health care rates went up.  And it seems like the first place that gets cut is professional development, which means any continuing education you want to pursue, including professional organizations and conferences, is on your own (now much smaller) dime.

In my current position (at a little branch that I love), I am now part-time (and live in Texas, but that’s because of my husband’s job and is another story).  When the full-time youth services librarian left it was mandated that they had to hire 2 part-time people so they can avoid paying benefits.  To be fair, an unfortunate number of businesses are now adopting this practice (and I have strong feelings about this and how it negatively affects the both the economy and our future, because all these part-time people are going to have inadequate retirement funds).  But it is my understanding that larger systems around the area faced lay-offs and more, so I believe my current system has had it easier than some (though I am new and certainly can’t speak for them or tell you their history).

Many library systems have been or still are in hiring freezes.  In fact, all you have to do is pick up a professional journal to see the financial struggles facing libraries all over.  In one form or another, most libraries are trying to fulfill increasing demand for services, materials and technology (both new forms and sheer number of), with less staff, service hours and funds.

Not all libraries have been hit the same, and many libraries now have local operating levies if they work in an area that allows for them (I believe something like 85% of the local levies on the ballot in Ohio passed).  Libraries are operating with reduced budgets, which means fewer materials, fewer staff, and fewer open hours.  At a time when our local communities need us most, we have less resources to help them meet their needs.

This year will be my 20th year in libraries.  I love being a librarian, I love knowing that every day I am helping individual people take steps to make their lives a little bit better.  But like the rest of the world, the last 5 years have been a traumatic experience for libraries.

Here is where I should give you some practical advice for dealing with budget cuts, but I don’t really have any to give.  The truth is, they hurt.  They hurt staff morale, they hurt your pocket book, they hurt your ability to do your job to the best of your ability – they hurt your ability to serve your community.  It’s cliche to say stay positive and be thankful that you have a job, because of course you are thankful that you have a job, but you are also stressing out over the grocery bill that keeps going up while the money in your check size keeps going down.  And it’s a cliche to say make the most with what you have, because of course you’re going to keep doing your best even though you now have to come up with teen programming ideas that require no money whatsoever and you have to cut all your book orders by half.  Being a librarian is a service profession, most people understand that going into it and have that passion for service, and those of us that understand how much our communities truly need us – well, we find ways to be there.  So, keep fighting the good fight. And keep reminding communities why libraries still matter, now more than ever we need them to understand.

Okay, so here I guess is an attempt at some practical advice:

  • Address staff morale and try to keep it up.
  • Be honest and open at all times in your communication.
  • If people must be laid off, make sure it makes sense and that you communicate how the decision was made (seniority, for example).
  • Let people know that you are all in this together, you are fighting for their jobs and their community.
  • Ask staff for input on ways to reduce costs; if you have an idea – share it. 
  • Provide positive feedback – often.
  • Don’t give in to the gloom, reorganize and re-energize.
  • Communicate to the public why you are making changes and what changes are being made, sometimes this can help rally support.
  • Allow staff time to mourn and complain, it really is a big deal, but give them guidelines for doing so (come talk to me any time, but please don’t bring your co-workers down).
  • Seriously analyze services.  You can’t keep doing the same amount of work with less people and less hours and less money.  Evaluate, prioritize and make any necessary adjustments.  Then give the staff talking points to share with patrons because they are going to ask.
  • Create reasonable, and achievable, job expectations for the new paradigm.
  • Make sure cuts are thoughtful, fair and don’t affect one department or group of people tremendously while leaving others untouched; nothing beats down staff morale and causes division more than having the people on the lower rungs of the latter suffer while the people at the top make no sacrifices at all.
  • Community PR, Community PR, Community PR.

 How has the economic crisis affected your library?
Please talk with us in the comments. 


  1. One of the things that I appreciate about my library is that cuts are made visible to the public. If we have to make cuts and our tax payers don't notice, they will assume we had too much money to begin with and will never vote for a levy increase.

  2. I agree, I think it is important 1) that we really evaluate what we do and adjust accordingly, you simply can not do the same things with less and 2) that our public understands what cuts we are making and why. I am glad your library is doing this. Thank you for your comment. Karen, TLT

  3. Gosh – this is so tough. I am a HUGE fan of my local library system, and have been so blessed by their fantastic children's programs and always-fresh selection. But now I'm so curious about their future… Thanks for turning our attention back toward this issue!

  4. Anonymous says:

    I love your attitude of do what you can with what you have. This is truly sad, because with a down economy even more people utilize the public library. I am a school librarian, and yes I am glad to have a job. But we are in year three of no budget at all. And it will continue another year — according to our state legislature. So we are at the stage of do more with nothing. And letting our patrons know about it is frowned on.


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