Hard Times: Why Libraries Need Funding Now More and Ever

The older I get, and the more I grow as a professional librarian, I am steadfastly amazed at my optimism in how libraries change lives for the better and how all of us working in libraries give so much and ask for so little in return. It is with this focus that I began my pay equity journey. My goal has always been to improve the lives of library workers and ensure that they receive a living wage, quality benefits and a good work environment for their hard work and dedication in service to others. I believe that there is no finer compliment a manager can receive than to know that, under his/her leadership, staff like their jobs; and, that they can put food on the table, send their children to college and receive fair pay to live a full life.

The reality of our economy today makes it difficult to manage libraries simply because the funds to run operations, pay staff and remain open to serve the information needs of customers is in peril. Carl Sagan is credited with the following quote: “I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture, and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.” Indeed, how will this era be judged by those who come after us? Will historians and researchers see the contraction in funding for libraries as a low watermark in our own national history? That is for history to decide, but I believe we are living through this low point without the positive agenda needed to remain a beacon on the hill.

We need a Library Marshall Plan as part of the renewal agenda, and we need to help get information workers and those we help in our communities back to work. The continuous widening of the data pipe requires us to hire and pay library staff more, to improve training and make available an array of resources to connect people with the right information regardless of modality to research, find employment and access information to be informed citizens who contribute to our national identity, spirit and economy.

According to the American Library Association, there are approximately 122,356 libraries of all kinds in the United States. Assume that not all of these libraries can or will accept additional federal funding, and we’re left with approximately 100,000 libraries. For each of these libraries to be given $75,000 annually to either hire staff or improve collections or services, we would need to spend $7.5 billion. The President’s 2010 budget calls for 280 billion dollars in federal spending and sets aside $160 billion dollars for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other military spending. The demand for spending more on libraries is not meant to harm or take away resources from our soldiers in war, but rather to reprioritize spending to ensure that our access to information and our brain power equals that of our military might.

We are tested every day as managers in libraries work with budgets that, even in good times, leave us wondering how we manage to do so much with so little. In my current position, I have been part of the institutional process that lead to the layoff of two librarians and the reduction in hours of the College’s archivist. For someone who has successfully worked to raise library staff salaries, this was and remains a painful mark on my career.

It’s painful because the people who were let go or were reduced are so very good at their jobs. It’s painful because those of us who remain wonder if we are next. It’s painful because the loss of these staff spreads our libraries thinner when in fact we should be locking arms around each other and those we serve to support the libraries. It’s painful because those of us who remain loyal to the institution wonder if the institution will remain loyal to us.

Needless to say, we are all aware of the hard times. We’re told the cuts which impacted staff both in and outside of the libraries were necessary to re-align the budget and to keep our institution competitive. We all want our College to be a success and we hope for brighter days since the bad economy and loss of jobs can’t and won’t last forever. We are also aware that other colleges, library systems, non- and for-profit companies have laid off enough individuals to fill Manhattan with ten million unemployed.

No two situations are the same. My school is a very fine educational institution and a good place to work. The senior administrators, the staff and faculty are good people all working through a very bad situation. The layoffs were stressful for everyone. However, I can’t help thinking about those who lost their positions. While we may suffer through the anxiety of watching other people lose their jobs, we’re still bringing home a paycheck. Some of us in libraries across the nation aren’t as lucky. For those who’ve become unemployed, the task of finding a position and reclaiming the dignity of work can be daunting. To lose sight of this would separate us from one another and lead us to lose our humanity. While words of encouragement won’t pay the rent or put food on the table, my wish is that we move from this dark economic time and build a future that truly values libraries and those who choose to work in them, like in the Marshall Plan mentioned earlier.

My hope is that other Colleges will see what transpired at my school and that they will aspire to be an institution that works to keep staff employed in their effort to balance their budget. I hope that they will inspire others to do good work, and will continue to depend on their library staff to ensure continuity and growth of academic programs. I hope that dedicated librarians and staff who are so integral to the function of our campuses and communities are seen as educational assets and not financial liabilities.

David I. Orenstein, MLS, MS, Ph.D., is Director of Library and Information Services at Saint Peter’s College.