Why Nobody Knows the Library is Suffering...and Why It's All Our Fault
Several conversations both online and in person) with fellow librarians has me thinking about how very hard we work to make sure our services are not impacted by the significant budget cuts we've experienced over the past few years. And I find myself aggravated to the point of a blog post.
If you haven't already, you need to mosey on over and read the"Netflix in Libraries and Hypocrisy post by Meredith Farkas. In a nutshell, due to inability to buy media they need, libraries are using Netflix as a media ILL service. Which its terms of service explicitly prohibit. And yea, so libraries, Bastions of Fair Use and Copyright Banshees, are distributing content they neither own nor have the rights to, in a very teenager-like "Well, I haven't gotten in trouble yet" attitude. Because heck, if libraries can't afford it, our users still need it, and we promise to get it to them. Even if it goes against our professional ethics. Because our users need it. And so the foundation of service is sound...but the execution is not.
Over at Pegasus Librarian, Iris's post on the perception of what it means to be "doing well" highlights that just because you don;t see what cuts are made, and what losses are happening, doesn't mean those cuts and losses don't exist. Nor does it mean that they don't hurt, deeply.
I heard somewhere that an academic library should, in theory, receive 3 to 5% of the college or university's budget in order to properly develop. The Ivies come closest, but most of the rest of us languish around the 2% mark, and sometimes below, in bad years. Our collections get decimated first through less monograph spending, and then through rigorous serials reviews and cancellations. I've been at libraries who need to shrink spending even after those measures, which led to serious redistributions of work, closing and consolidating some boutique service points, and additional painful collections cuts. Furloughs. Layoffs. Not replacing staff and faculty who leave.
And through it all, we stiff-upper-lip it, and work as hard as we can to make sure our patrons feel very little of this impact. In most cases, the cutting of collections, consolidating staff and even layoffs don;t actually reduce the amount of work that needs to be done to keep library operations and services running. If anything, library staff and faculty take on more responsibilities (with static or reduced pay) to ensure the highest levels of service.
And still teaching faculty complain about the cute little media services center they no longer have, since it has been absorbed. They can't believe we can't order a thousand dollars worth of videos for them to place on reserve. Students are furious that the library does not purchase copies of required textbooks to directly support their coursework. And *everyone* gets pissed when library hours get shortened, not understanding the relationship between cut budgets and paying people to staff the building.
And why shouldn't they? Faculty get loudly aggravated when their curriculum is touched, when their department loses positions, and it makes the school newspaper (and perhaps the local one, too) when majors are sloughed off due to budget issues. Every student newspaper - and some national ones - decry the price of textbooks and the impact on poor college students every fall.
Librarians are polite and service-oriented. Our deans and directors may get red under the collar while pitching for funds in the provost's office, but to all outward appearances, we're doing just fine, and can we help you find something, dear?
Librarians do not agitate. People hear about the university budget cuts, but we rarely point out - loudly - what this means for the library, and those who use its resources. perhaps its time to let folks know what exactly lack of funds is doing to the libraries they use without thinking about what it takes to keep them running. No one would dare suggest that you can reduce teaching faculty and still maintain a high quality curriculum, but that's exactly the picture we paint when we let our library users think that our services and resources are unscathed.
Are we properly planning for the future? Not at the rate we're going, and not by grinning, bearing it, and pretending all's well, and we'll just work ourselves to death so nobody notices we've been cut to the bone. "Well," they must think, "I'm getting just as much service as I was before. They must not have needed that money after all. If we get flush again, why on earth should we give it back? They're functioning just fine."
We are not functioning just fine. We just find it too impolitic to say aloud. Are we afraid it would be rude? Afraid that we'll get back an "everyone else is suffering too, suck it up"? Interlibrary loan can only fill the gap for so long - most of us are finding that as we slash our collections and subscriptions, our ILL borrowing budgets are increasing astronomically, so it's not like it's not costing us. But our patrons wouldn't know that - we tout ILL as a free service.
I will admit I have been very lucky, but behind the scenes, I can see where the budget cuts are touching the library, and deeply. And I can see the massive amount of work librarians and staff put in so that our users are affected as little as possible. And while this is admirable and falls within our desire to serve, it can also have unpretty consequences.