Six Preparedness Strategies for Librarians in Tough Economic Times
by Pamela MacKellar
Thinking pessimistically and taking defensive action are understandable first reactions to this difficult time—but they are probably not the actions that will serve your library and your community well in the long run.
It is no secret that library budgets are in a downward spiral like the rest of the economy. Library Journal’s recent annual budget survey indicates that per capita funding for libraries will decline 1.6%, and total library budgets will be reduced by 2.6% in FY 2010. President Obama’s FY 2011 Budget Proposal to Congress level-funds federal library support under the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA). Libraries—those institutions that have employed me as a librarian for more than a quarter of a century—are being closed, reducing hours, cutting materials budgets, freezing or eliminating library positions, imposing staff furloughs, cutting continuing education budgets, raising library fees and overdue fines, cutting outreach services, reducing library programming, and using volunteers and paraprofessionals to perform professional work.
Librarians are all too familiar with this bad news, and some of us have been advised to employ defensive tactics such as those I’ve mentioned by directors, administrators, government officials, and colleagues. Only 16% of library directors responding to LJ’s annual budget survey were “very positive or upbeat” about the financial future of their libraries, while 23% were “very negative or depressed.” Thinking pessimistically and taking defensive action are understandable first reactions to this difficult time—but they are probably not the actions that will serve your library and your community well in the long run.
The decision to move forward—building sustainability for your library and meeting the new information needs of your community head on—is in your hands. Now is the time to choose how you are going to face these challenges and to decide what actions to take. Your library’s future depends on it. Here are six strategies that will help you make informed decisions, be proactive, position yourself and your library ahead of the curve, and prepare for the opportunities that will come your way.
1. Have your library’s strategic plan in place. When your strategic plan for your library is in place, you know what you are doing, why you are doing it, where you are now, and where you are headed. Know your library’s strategic plan, and integrate it into what you do every day. This is crucial, and it will determine if you are going to ride the wave of this economic storm or thrash about and struggle.
This is the time to be honest with yourself about the integrity of your library’s plan. If you have not planned strategically, if you did not create a plan from the ground up specifically for your community and with your community’s participation, your plan may not be solid enough to see you through. Your library’s plan is its foundation, and if the library’s foundation is not solid, it will become painfully clear in tough times like these.
Take a good look to determine if your strategic plan is true to your organization and your community. It may be that your plan is outdated, unrealistic, or unclear. If necessary, update, adjust, revise, or re-create your plan to give you, your staff, the board, and your volunteers a meaningful purpose that will motivate you into the future.
Remember, the strategic plan is a living document for you to use. Its purpose is to guide your library through hard and easier times. It is a navigational tool that will tell you what to do next. If you are cutting back at whatever first comes to mind, or if you are waving your hands in the air not knowing what to do in a crisis, it is likely that your strategic plan does not provide a solid foundation for your library.
If you don’t have a plan, or it is not serving you well in this uncertain climate, it is not too late. There are many resources and tools available on planning for libraries—there is no excuse for not having a good plan. Once you have your strategic plan in place, use the information in it to design multiple projects that will meet community needs and address priorities. When you know what you are doing, why you are doing it, where you are now, and where you are going, it will be clear to you what actions to take.
2. Know your community. Communities are in constant flux. A community-needs assessment serves as a “snapshot” of your community and the information needs of the people you serve at one place in time. Librarians usually conduct community-needs assessments when they are preparing library strategic plans, typically every 3–4 years. To stay informed about your community’s current information needs, you must periodically conduct short surveys or polls, host small focus groups or conduct informal interviews, for instance. It would be rare for a community to remain unchanged during the years between assessments. Does your community “look” the same now as it did prior to the recession?
Possibly you knew that the economic crisis was having an effect on your community, and you predicted the information needs of community members would change as a result. You quickly implemented new services and programs to meet those emerging needs, and you were ready with job search information and employment resources when people started losing their jobs. If people found the information they needed when they needed it, it is likely that they will place a high value on the library as an information center. On the other hand, if you suddenly found yourself overwhelmed by droves of newly unemployed community members looking for information and programs on finding jobs before you knew what hit you, it’s safe to say that those people may not value the library as highly. For libraries to be valued in their communities, librarians must work to know their communities, stay ahead of the curve, respond quickly to changing conditions, be prepared to serve patrons in new ways, and provide relevant information services and programs.
If your last community-needs assessment was done years ago, if you think the people who use the library are the community, or if you react to changes in your community’s information needs belatedly, it is time for a paradigm shift. Make sure your community-needs assessment truly measures information needs, take current polls and surveys, track demographic trends in your community, analyze and synthesize census information, and incorporate news articles about trends in your community. Use this information to create a community profile, and keep it updated and ready to include in a proposal for funding.
3. Partner, collaborate, and participate. As budgets become tighter, it is more important than ever to maximize your resources by partnering and collaborating with other agencies, organizations, businesses, or clubs that are also striving to meet your community’s needs. Be visible. Get out of the library and meet with other agencies and nonprofits serving your community. Show up at meetings where collaborations and partnerships are formed, ideas are hatched, and funds are sought. You have something in common with others who understand the needs or problems in your community; however, you all have different and unique talents, perspectives, resources, abilities, and strengths to offer. Also, when you partner or join forces with others, you can share the responsibility of designing and implementing a common project. Projects that involve several organizations have the potential for making a larger impact and are more likely to be sustainable. You will meet new stakeholders when you participate with other organizations in your community, and you will increase your chances of finding new opportunities. Tell everyone about your project ideas and plans for the future and speak about them to clubs and organizations. If your usual pattern is to stay in the library, limit your work interactions primarily to other librarians, focus on serving your regular library clientele, and provide the same programs to the same segments of your community—this is a wake-up call. If you continue to operate this way, your library and your community will be at a disadvantage when it comes to creating new opportunities for moving ahead.
4. Follow local funding trends. Seeking alternative funding will be essential for some libraries to survive. Stay in touch with funding opportunities that are available in your geographic area. Reports on regional foundation funding trends are available for downloading at the Foundation Center (http://foundationcenter.org/gainknowledge/research/regionaltrends.html). Do some research to find out what nearby library projects are currently being funded by government agencies, foundations, corporations, clubs, associations, and organizations. If there are corporations or corporate foundations that give grants in your area, go to their websites to find out what projects they have funded lately. Foundations and corporations often change their priorities over time or have a different funding cycle for each priority or organization type.
Visit your local community foundation and make an appointment with someone there to discuss your project ideas. Ask if they know about a funder that might be interested in your project idea. Your state and local funding directories are valuable resources for finding foundations and corporations that limit their giving to your geographic area. You can identify your local directory in State and Local Funding Directories: A Bibliography at http://foundationcenter.org/getstarted/topical/sl_dir.html.
At the same time, understanding the “bigger picture” of library funding trends will allow you to compare your library’s situation with others nationally and will provide you with talking points. The American Library Association’s The Condition of U.S. Libraries: Trends 1999–2009 (www.ala.org/ala/research/initiatives/Condition of Libraries 1999.2009_all.pdf) presents U.S. economic trends and summarizes trends in public, school, and academic libraries across several library measures, including expenditures, staffing, and services. This 2009 report is meant to inform and assist library leaders as they plan in these difficult times. Reports on national and topic-specific foundation funding trends and myriad funding statistics are also available on the Foundation Center’s website (http://foundationcenter.org). Armed with the facts about funding trends, you will be well on your way to identifying alternate funding for your library project.
5. Stay informed about new funding opportunities. Librarians are very busy people. At times, just getting our basic job duties completed by the day’s end can be plenty without adding grant research to our plates. Start to think about staying informed about new funding opportunities as one of your basic job duties. From the looks of things, library funding is not likely to increase significantly in the near future. If you don’t incorporate this duty into your job, you may be limiting your chances for alternate funding. It is time to face reality and do what is necessary to keep your library strong and moving forward. Once you identify some basic activities for staying informed and build them into your routine, they won’t be as time-consuming as you might think.
Here are some simple things you can do to stay informed:
• Subscribe to the Library Grants Blog (http://librarygrants.blogspot.com). My co-author and I post new grant opportunities for libraries on this blog regularly. Subscribing to this blog is a great way to get started looking for grants and to get an idea about what kinds of grants are available. This resource is limited to national grants, so you will still need to do the local research yourself. Links in each posting bring you to the actual grant announcement, application guidelines, and eligibility requirements. When you subscribe to the Library Grants Blog RSS feed, you will be notified about grants as soon as they are posted.
• Subscribe to online newsletters. The RFP Bulletin (http://foundationcenter.org/pnd/rfp) is a weekly summary of recently announced RFPs from private, corporate, and government funding sources. Each listing provides a brief overview of a current funding opportunity along with the date the RFP was posted and the deadline. Reading this newsletter from the Foundation Center is a good way to become familiar with current foundation grant opportunities. Primary Source (www.imls.gov/news/source.shtm) is a newsletter from the Institute of Museum and Library Services that contains brief articles alerting readers to new information about grants and best practices.
• Subscribe to an alert service. Grants.gov (www.grants.gov), a central storehouse for information on more than 1,000 federal government grant programs, provides access to approximately $500 billion in annual awards. Grants.gov Subscriptions (www.grants.gov/applicants/email_subscription.jsp) offers email subscriptions notifying subscribers about new grant opportunity postings and updates, with an option to customize your alerts based on advanced criteria. A Grants.gov RSS feed is also available.
• Subscribe to your state, local, or regional librarian’s discussion lists. Librarians will often share information about new grant opportunities on these lists. Check your state library’s webpage frequently for LSTA subgrants or other funding opportunities at the state and local level. Read your state library association’s newsletter and special library chapter’s bulletin for more local grants news.
6. Keep learning about grants and proposal writing. There is always something to learn about researching grants and writing proposals. You can stay current by attending continuing education classes, workshops, and webinars. Although there are national courses that may be out of your price range, there are many ways to learn at a reasonable cost or even for free. If finding the time for continuing education is challenging for you, there are many online classes that you can take in your own time and at your own pace.
• Take advantage of continuing education classes in grants and proposal writing offered by your state library agency, humanities council, education department, or arts council. Other departments in your municipality, school district, college, or university may sponsor proposal-writing seminars where you can learn about grants as well as meet potential partners. These are often offered free of charge within your organization or library system. Watch for workshops or guidance offered by your state library on how to apply for LSTA funding.
• Attend information sessions at individual foundations that are potential donors for your library project. Also, community foundations often offer informational sessions about their resources and provide services to help you with grant research and proposal writing.
• Take an online course, webinar, or tutorial. The Foundation Center offers many free, self-paced, online training classes and tutorials that will help you get started. WebJunction (www.webjunction.org) offers a Grant Writing Basics course for a reasonable charge, which varies depending on whether or not you are a WebJunction affiliate. There are many webinars on grantsmanship and proposal writing, and you don’t always need to attend in real time; you can access many of them in the archives after they have taken place.
How are you coping in these unpredictable economic conditions? Are you standing on solid ground, or are you being tossed around at the mercy of outside forces? Are you reacting by hunkering down and cutting back—or are you holding your ground, being proactive, adjusting to current conditions, taking calculated actions, and preparing for what is yet to come? The course you take is up to you. Good luck!