Thursday, August 07, 2008

Cutting Hours or Cutting Materials

On PUBLIB today, there was a post which I am putting below. My comments will follow, and I'll post the link to my comments to PUBLIB. Of course, any and all are free to comment. Because I did not ask permission, I am not posting the name of the organization wrestling with this issue.

Hello out there,

I'm a new subscriber to the list, having just joined to post this question (although I was a subscriber many years ago). In these tough economic times, we're having to make some difficult choices. We are trying to find any data, anecdotal or otherwise, to support or refute a decision one way or another. We have been searching the literature but not doing too well - it's sort of a tough concept to put into search terms, due both to such common words and the many synonyms of them that appear in the journals.

Put briefly, is it better to cut hours/days of operation or acquisitions?

Or, the way it was phrased to us to look into:

XXX Library has been asked to consider cutting deeply into its Library Materials budget in order to fill personnel vacancies, which might allow some library branches to expand public hours. If you cut deeply into your materials budget, did your circulation and/or visitor statistics decrease? By maintaining or increasing public hours, despite cutting your materials budget, did your circulation and/or visitor
statistics increase?

Many thanks for any information you can share.

What is presented here is the proverbial rock and hard place question. Or when I was asked once at a City Council budget hearing "Which branch would you close?" I answered, "That is like asking me which is my favorite child, and I have three!"

There is no right answer!

When I first worked at the Bridgeport Public Library I was told that one of the reasons why that library had such a great collection was that during the Depression, the Library paid its workers with "scrip" which was honored at local stores to save its cash to purchase library materials. Even in the 1980's the result of the depth of the collection was evident.

I can say that as a business librarian, it really impressed me to walk into the [closed] stacks and see every single Moody's Manual ever published. And there are many more examples.

Unfortunately, in the 1990s, the City hit very bad financial times, and cut both staff and acquisitions, that began a death spiral for the reputation of the library. By the time I returned as City Librarian in 2000, my predecessor had done a yeoman's job of increasing both, but neither adequately to meet the needs of a city with so many economically disadvantaged. In my tenure, there was a constant battle to increase both, with only collection funds being increased more than the cost of living. We even reduced hours modestly once.

In the position I just left, the discussion is beginning for the Fiscal Year (January - December) 2009 budget. There will be some tough choices. In the last budget cutting cycle, that library was able to save collection resources by "being lucky" and having several long-term employees retire.

My ALA colleague (and dare I call him: friend?), Jim Casey, frequently argues on PUBLIB that cutting Sunday hours is punishing the public. And while I agree, I would also note that it is the very same public which pressures elected officials to reduce taxes, in nominal dollars, without thinking about the impact in real dollars or in services. The City of Eau Claire (Wisconsin), has used all possible options, and now is facing the prospect that the funding base (given the state-imposed "levy limits") will only support a city operation which is 2/3 the size of the current one. What will go?

I do not know the answer. I do know that cutting hours can send a strong message to the public, and *may* rally support (not will). As I told the staff at my last staff meeting, it is not a choice I like making, even if it sometimes in my job to make that choice!


  1. I'm not a public librarian so my comments may be completely out of line and you should feel free to ignore them. (I'm a medical librarian with 25 years of experience, 18 as director of two different academic medical libraries). I would favor hours over collections. In this day and age, when ILL and consortial arrangements enable us (if we make good use of those tools) to get hold of ANY item pretty quickly, I think that making ourselves available as many hours as possible is key. What's worse? -- somebody showing up to the library and finding that it's closed at the only time that's convenient for them so that they never bother to come back, or coming in to find that the item that they want isn't there, but that there's a bright, caring, sharp, human being who says, Sorry we don't have that, but I know how to get it for you quick!

    Smart caring people can always figure out solutions and it requires people, available people, to establish the personal bonds with your community that will rally them behind you.

    I speak from some experience. We're having a tough time in my state right now and my overall budget has been cut 12%. I'm freezing some positions to save money, but I'm also cutting collections by 25% in order to maintain personnel. I'm gambling that the relationships we build, and our creativity in making sure that we get people to what they need will outweigh the inconvenience of not having as much stuff immediately available at their fingertips.

  2. We had a former director whose philosophy was always to threaten to cut hours whenever faced with funding issues. Her thinking was to make the public "hurt" therefore voting to increase taxes paid to the library. This was something that always worked for us because those that supported the libraries wanted them available (even when they didn't use them). One thing that also helps us is that the library fund is a separate tax than the rest of our county taxes which reduces the general bureacracy's ability to hit our funds.