GUEST COMMENTARY | Libraries Change to Accommodate Changing Times
by Judy Thompson, President, and the Wilkinson Library Board of Trustees
Jan 17, 2013 | 3181 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print

By the time this article is published, it will have been announced that the Board of Trustees of the Wilkinson Public Library decided at its January 10 meeting that its decision to close the library on Sundays will stand. Prior to that decision, there was a long and animated discussion within the Board, including comments from the public who attended, focusing on what we heard from the public on January 8.It is important to summarize some key points from those discussions.  

Cost Savings and Sunday Closings

The decision to close on Sundays was a direct result of an initial decision to reduce the size of the staff through attrition by 2 FTEs (full time equivalent staff). While the library’s budget “cliff” as a result of declining property values does not occur until 2014, the Board felt it prudent to begin the process in 2013. This could allow us to make staff reductions by attrition in 2013 rather than by outright layoffs, which could be necessary if we waited until the 2014 budget process. Once that decision had been made, the next step was to determine how best to manage the library with two fewer FTE’s. The decision to close Sundays was based on the fact that spreading the existing staff time over six days rather than seven days had the least impact on overall services and that Sunday had the least library use. Closing on Sunday also means savings in costs like electricity and janitorial services.

Some members of the public have asked how it saves money being closed for five hours on Sundays if the library will now open an hour earlier on weekdays. Opening at 9 a.m. instead of 10 a.m. on weekdays does not add extra cost for the library, although it does add some burden for staff. At risk of simplifying, because we are open 10 hours daily during the week, the library effectively has two shifts of people covering that time.Some people may work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., while others may work from noon to 8 p.m. The time in the morning before opening and overlap time allows the staff to focus on non-customer service activities.  Non-customer service activities include ordering materials, tending to management duties, developing content for websites, planning programming, and maintaining the library’s computers and facilities.  

So in the morning when we have staff in the library already, we don’t have to pay extra for them to be available to open the doors to the public an hour earlier. The difference is that those morning personnel will now have to fit their non-customer service activities into a shorter time period and balance it with their customer service requirements. The Board agreed with management that this was something that could be done to replace the hours that were lost with Sunday closing, recognizing that it did not necessarily serve the same people but did serve the community as a whole.  

When an attrition-based personnel decision is made, it is impossible to know the exact cost savings. We conservatively estimated that each FTE that is eliminated might save at least $40,000 annually. The additional savings in utilities and janitorial services related to Sunday closing would be approximately $6,000. Further, we saved additional funds in 2013 by taking the first steps in re-aligning the staff health-care benefit package to market realities although rising premium expenses offset some of that. So in total, for the 2013 budget, the Board took steps to cover approximately $100,000 of its projected $380,000 annual deficit in 2014 and beyond.

It was the Board’s intention to give library management the next six to seven months’ time to put a plan together to close about a third of the budget deficit with additional cuts. The Board believes that prudently it can cover another third, an estimated $125,000, for each of the next four-plus years from its reserves, but this still leaves a $125,000 gap. In 2013, the Library has budgeted to implement some revenue enhancement / fundraising programs. This is really a test case for the Library, as we have not focused on revenue development in the past.But in 2014, the target for revenue enhancement/fundraising increases to $125,000. The Board is very sensitive to the fact that we need to minimize competition with other local nonprofits in our development efforts by the type of activities we do and who we target. We also recognize that it may take several years to reach the desired level. Additionally, fees for programs and services are being considered but they can likely only cover a small piece of the gap. So the revenue development effort is definitely a question mark – and if it falls short in amount or timing, still more cuts will need to be made.

The Evolution of Libraries

There were a number of people who attended the January 8 meeting who believe that programs serve no purpose in the library, and that a library should be a silent place that is a repository of books (and maybe music and DVD’s). It is the Board’s view that programs play a vital role in imparting Information Wisdom and Knowledge to a community. While we know from feedback that this a widely held view in the community, it is even more important as you look at the changing landscape in book publishing and information/communication tools.  When most of the Board was growing up, the Library was the only place to go to do “research.” In the digital age, the possibilities for access to information have multiplied astronomically. And the library’s role shifts to incorporate providing access to digital information in all types of formats. Even more importantly, libraries are helping patrons develop the skills to find information and discern its credibility – in short, to develop 21st century literacy.  Our kids and young adults deal with information differently than older generations, and it is critical to take that into consideration as we develop programs for them. But it is also important to get them into the Library if we are going to help them develop 21st century literacy skill-sets. There are very few board meetings where the topic of teen noise isn’t discussed. And nearly every time we look at a drastic solution, we get stories of the transition of a young person from a gamer to a chess player to a reader or to a poet. Isn’t that what we are really here for? At the same time, we are aware of a need for balance and the Board and the staff continue to work to that end.    

Additionally, book publishing as we have known it, is becoming unprofitable. No matter how much those of us who love the feel of a book in our hands do not want it to happen, there is an inexorable march to digital content and delivery.  And no doubt it will happen faster than even the “experts” expect. This doesn’t mean printed books will disappear, but housing and lending a collection of printed materials will no longer be the central role of libraries.  Across the country, the most successful libraries, like Wilkinson Public Library, are offering their patrons new paths to information, wisdom, and knowledge.  Chief among these is programming – a wide variety of informational programs to reach as many people as possible – to bring them into the library. So, too, successful libraries are becoming “lenders” of space for a wide range of purposes in addition to quiet reading and research space.  

Balancing the varied needs and desires of the entire community is the challenge the Board and the staff of the library faces.  

For a library to meet the opportunities of a rapidly changing world would be challenging in the best of times.  It is all the more challenging at a time of declining revenues. The Wilkinson Library Board of Trustees is committed to navigating these challenges prudently to ensure that the library is financially sustainable; mindful that cuts, while necessary, will always be painful to patrons and staff; and in the belief that no library can survive by retreating to its past. The public is always invited to library board meetings where your insight and advice is sincerely welcome.

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