The Well is Dry, What Can We Do?

These past few years libraries have either had their budgets held flat or had them cut every year.  It is sad to say that the “lucky” libraries are the ones that have had their budgets held flat.   Yet, library resources continue to increase in number and price.  I am sure it isn’t a news flash or secret to the sales people (although it seems like it when we see the invoice) but libraries have no more money.  We have trimmed all of our fat.  We are skin, bones and a little bit of sinew holding us together.  All superfluous resources were cut years ago.  We are now making hard cuts, getting rid of journals, packages, databases, that we would have never imagined cutting.  We are slicing our book budget (ebook and regular) to nothing.   Yet prices continue to rise. It is sometimes frustrating and depressing to see demos of new products because you can no longer focus on the product and its potential when all you can think about is the price and what you might have to cut.  There is no budget room for new products, we are cutting things we have and don’t want to cut.

I am not going to get into a whole thing about which companies are making a huge profit at the expense of libraries.  Companies make money, that is life.  That is the way it is with Nike, Apple, banks, etc.  Why do you think Nike and Apple make a lot of their products outside of the United States?  Because it is cheaper and it can help boost their profit.  That is life with companies, they make a profit and they squeeze as much profit out of things as possible.  Companies selling to libraries are no different just because what they sell is for the “greater good” or they sell it to predominantly non-profits.  You don’t see medical supply companies cutting hospitals a break because what they sell is for the “greater good.”  You certainly don’t see drug companies doing that.  For profit companies and non-profit companies all want to make money, the details are in the tax codes and what is considered “profit.”  Rest assured they both want to make money.  Why should we expect anything different from library companies? 

Libraries have no more money, they cut to survive.  A library company that has diversified may have originally reduced their risk but now that libraries are robbing Peter to pay Paul, these companies may be shooting themselves in the foot.  If they increase prices on items, we have to make cuts on something in the library.  The more things a company owns/produces increases likelihood we are probably going to cut their stuff in our library.  It isn’t out of malice, they just happen to be large provider of many library things.  

For example AT&T used to be the sole provider of my household’s link to the outside world.  They were our Internet provider, our TV programming, our home phone, and our cell phones.  I was sending close to $400/month to AT&T.  As much as AT&T gets dogged, I actually liked their products and their service.  The Internet worked fine, U-Verse was great I loved its DVR capabilities, and I still get a dreamy look in my eyes thinking of my iPhone.  But, AT&T was quickly growing out my budget.  Despite loving all of those things and thinking of them as necessary, we dumped U-Verse and the iPhones.  We kept AT&T Internet and the home phone went to a 300 minutes monthly package (similar to cell phone talk plans).  We don’t get cable. We get digital TV through an antenna and Netflix through our X-Box.  Instead of $400/month I spend roughly $125/month for TV, Internet, home phone and two smart phones.  AT&T used to get all of the $400, now they get $50.  Like I said, I loved their service for all of their products, but the constant increases in costs and my own flat budget led me to cut things completely. I wasn’t willing to find extra money through a second job or elsewhere to increase my family budget. I am saving a nice amount of money, but it was a huge pain in the butt to do the research and make the cuts. If they had kept their prices I wouldn’t have bothered to cut them. 

Librarians don’t like making the cuts, we have long since past the easy things to cut.  Now the cuts take time, require more and more research, and are frustrating.  However expecting the library vendors not to try and make a profit while we are making cuts is a little bit like me expecting AT&T to give me Internet, U-Verse, home phone and my iPhones for around $125/month….It just isn’t going to freaking happen.  So what can libraries do?

Most libraries are have already dumped a lot and are now down to the bare bones.  So while the idea of cutting is still an option it is getting more and more drastic.  We are probably now at the point of finding a “second job”.  We need to start looking for more funding.  Grants and awards are a good start but they are usually only temporary.  Perhaps endowments are an option, but those take time to grow.  Charging for services, as bitter of a pill that is to swallow, might be something to consider.  However, funding from administration is still going to be a key source of money for most of us. How can we increase our funding from administration in a down economy? Perhaps we need to be thought of as department considered necessary to prevent further loss of money, kind of like the legal department.  

How can this be done? Again I am not sure,  I would love to hear from people with ideas.  One idea that bounces around in my head is that I remember one vendor talking about how their product reduced length of stay thereby reducing costs.  I sure wish they said something like “Institutions that had their product in their LIBRARIES reduced length of stay.”  It would be nice and helpful if there were library vendors that commissioned studies on the impact of libraries and library resources on a hospital’s profit, quality of care, etc.   (It could be designed where there were no conflict of interest.) But that is relying on a third party to help with our situation.  What can we do to prove our worth to administration? Maybe we need to get a “head hunter” for that “second job.” In multi person libraries do we need create a position for somebody to secure funds and to talk money with administration?  Do we need a buisness evangelist on our staff?   Some might say that is the head librarian’s job (or in the case of solos the only librarian’s job).  But when you are sick there are times when you must leave the care of a general practitioner for a specialist.   Are libraries that sick that we need to hire specialists?  I guess it depends on each library.

2 thoughts on “The Well is Dry, What Can We Do?”

  1. We are working through a mechinism to develop a formal partnering with our purchasing department. They have a contact(me) to request information on new products. Usually they only have the sales aid from the rep. If we find information that helps them make a purchasing decision that saves the hospital money, we would like to know. It is not direct, but if the decison would have been difficult to make, or the purchase more costly without our information, we want to know.

  2. When the well is dry, you have two choices: dig deeper, or seek water somewhere else.

    I’m in the atypical position of being a relatively new solo librarian in a hospital that gave up on library services years ago. Faced with across-the-board budget limitations or reductions, any organization and community hospitals in particular will reasonably target “non-essential” services and personnel for cuts. I believe there is a strong case to be made in most institutions that libraries (well, librarians, really) are uniquely qualified to support the essential activities of continuous learning and quality improvement in many other clinical and non-clinical departments.

    Finding time to make that case (digging deeper), however, is indeed difficult. Reaching out (seeking support elsewhere) can cause us to lose our own balance. For example, among several other non-“librarian” responsibilities I agreed to perform, I am coordinating rotations for visiting medical students (the rationale for how/why this happened is a bit of a stretch, but one of the original justifications for renewed library services was to support the research and learning needs of students and clinical faculty). This is ostensibly a temporary arrangement, and the plan is to hire a dedicated student program coordinator at some point, but my hospital has been locked-down on the hiring front for months. The upside is that our hospital’s affiliation agreements with (foreign) medical schools actually generate revenue, and from that revenue, I’ve been able to carve out a library acquisitions budget for the first time in years. I wouldn’t have had any discretion over those funds had I not been directly involved with the management of the student program.

    My day-to-day challenge is how to demonstrate my value as both an administrator AND as a librarian. Some days the balance is very lopsided (and not in the direction I’d like), but I make the most of my non-library duties. I still approach every conversation I have with a physician, nurse, risk manager, CEO, etc as an opportunity to demonstrate that a librarian is someone who can help support daily information needs and decision-making processes. I don’t have the luxury of simply serving those who walk through the library door. I tread regularly on other people’s turf. I facilitate. I expedite. I support. I listen. And when I can help, I help. I definitely bite off more than I can chew. I do so eagerly. My goal is to make sure that if the hospital library disappears again, people will notice – even if they’ve never set foot in the library.

    The way I figure, if I’m not helping somebody do their work better or more easily, I’m not doing my job properly. Most people in hospitals are overburdened; we’re all wearing multiple hats, doing things we never expected we’d have to do given our direct training and experience. But that’s OK sometimes. It’s how we grow. It’s how we figure out what we should be doing differently.

    Long-term, the direction I’m trying to move at my hospital is to integrate “library” services with informatics activities that share the same general goal of improving patient care by providing clinical and administrative staff the information and systems they need to work effectively in their own domains. Understanding how our users’ work is changing is essential to understanding how our own work needs to change. I don’t think there’s a universal dowsing rod that will tell us what to do, but the traditional library already failed at my hospital. Time to build something new.

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