Advocacy, Government, Libraries

Library Funding Series: Shifting from Negative to Positive

This is the second post in my Library Funding Series, a series of posts about my experiences and lessons learned from serving as the marketing and communications director for a public library during the 2008 recession and its aftereffects. Read previous post. 

In my previous post, I explained the funding reductions we were faced with in 2010. As I explained, we were had very little time to create a plan, but we knew we would have to reduce staff, service hours and branches.

At that time, a popular refrain in our community was, “These community institutions should operate more like a business.” We were in a business town, after all – Charlotte is a major city and commercial hub in North Carolina. So our first plan was based on business principles – to look at variables such as usage, size and other characteristics to determine which branches to close.

One scenario involved keeping our largest branches open because they had the scale and size to serve the most patrons. The problem with that was that we had small branches in specific towns, and those towns did not want to lose their branches. Talk began to circulate about them “breaking away” from the system and running their own independent libraries.

A second scenario involved keeping our most heavily used branches open, The problem with that was that usage doesn’t address need. Our most-used branches were often in more affluent areas, whereas branches with lower usage might actually be in higher need areas. No matter what scenario we presented, the community balked. The issue of “NIMBY” – which stands for “not in my backyard” – reared its head. The community was at odds with itself about what branches we should close.

The ultimate decision we made was to keep most of our branches open and reduce hours by 50%.  This was not a “business decision.” Most businesses would close a location and redistribute the staff to other locations. But what we learned was that our community didn’t want us to act like a business. We were their library and they wanted us to act like a library.

As you might imagine, community sentiment toward the library was not positive during this time. As I mentioned, they didn’t like any of our scenarios. Neighborhoods and towns were fighting over which branches should stay open. And the media was questioning the library’s integrity and ability to manege during this time. We needed a positive story. We needed a plan that people could get behind.

What we created was something called a “Sustainability Plan.” In addition to reduced hours, we agreed to close four small branches that were not heavily used and were physically close to other locations. We also agreed to consolidate some services – Facilities, Maintenance, and Security – with the County as a cost-saving measure. Finally, we asked for one-time funding from the City and Towns, as well as an increase from the County, to help soften the blow. Ultimately, we didn’t get everything we asked for, but we were able to implement most of this plan, and the one-time funding allowed us to not lose as many staff or branches as we had feared.

We also agreed to create a Citizen Task Force that would look at the library from an community perspective and make recommendations to help us continue to serve the community, recover, and strengthen our relationship with the County. Learn more about the Task Force. 

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