The first reaction many library administrators have when learning that significant budget decreases are likely to occur is panic: “We can’t do this!” The second one is worry: “I don’t know how to do this.”
Whether you feel your cuts are fair or unfair, it’s time to turn that worry into action. Take a few deep breaths. There are some constructive things you can do at this early stage.
Timelines vary widely. What is yours? It’s the number of weeks or months you have between the day you learn that cuts are likely and the day when decisions will be made about the depth of those cuts. Six weeks? Three months? In many instances, the timeline may be fairly long, six to nine months or more. A long timeline has both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, you have a significant period of time to plan, advocate and communicate. On the minus side, your staff will feel anxious for all of these months, and it will be up to you to be both honest and positive in your messages to them.
If you take action to reduce the impact that cuts will have on your library’s services, your timeline will serve as the framework to help you organize those efforts. Every library has a unique set of circumstances and a timeline that might be longer or shorter than another’s. The first set of activities, listed below, should take anywhere from two to four weeks, depending on the length of time you have and the resources available to you.
If you learn that your household budget is going to be stressed due to a job change that will reduce your personal income, what’s the first thing you do? You look at your expenditures and determine which ones are fixed and which ones are discretionary. Where can you cut back? Do you eat out three times a week? Once a week may be all that’s in your new budget. Love those premium cable channels? You can learn to love the basic package too.
You get the idea. Your library’s budget can be approached the same way. Some costs are out of your control: Your library has to be staffed, lit, air conditioned and heated all the hours it’s open. Your computers, printers and copiers must function all the time. But some other costs are well under your control. For example:
- Materials are a big part of every library’s budget, and you can start there.
- What purchases can cease for the time being?
- Which can be cut back? New DVDs? Journal subscriptions?
- What about programming? That’s painful to cut, but if it adds to your costs in terms of staffing or supplies, it’s expendable.
- How about printed materials? They can add up too.
- The computers you’d planned to replace this year? That purchase may have to be deferred.
In other words, the place to start is with what you spend. Pare back now, and the cuts you dread will be a little less painful when they are a reality.
Because the problem of decreased budgets is so widespread among libraries of all sizes everywhere, chances are you have professional colleagues who have been – or may currently be – in your shoes. Talk to them! There is much to be learned from the experience of others.
Open, positive communication is important during the entire process of budget-cut planning and implementation. At every stage of the change process you will be an important source of information to a broad audience. Your staff, the general public and your decision makers will be looking to you for accurate information.
Communicate with Your Staff
You can be absolutely certain that your staff will be anxious and perhaps discontent from the moment they realize that cuts are coming. Who can blame them? For your staff, it’s about more than library services. Their jobs are on the line. Uncertainty always fuels the rumor mill. Gossip and rumors will fly, and it will be your job to keep them at a minimal level by communicating openly and regularly with your staff.
But how much communication and what kind? Believe it or not, it’s possible to communicate too much, and too much communication can cause people to worry more. You may be approached by staff members who want to know every detail and nuance of your budget challenges. Assure them that you will cut everything possible before turning to staff reductions, but resist the urge to share all of the “what if” and “it’s possible” scenarios. That will stress people despite your good intentions. One simple rule: Make it a point never to share information that isn’t firm.
Communicate in a variety of ways:
- Send e-mail memos to your staff throughout the budget planning process. E-mailing gives you the power to craft your communications carefully, and it gives staff opportunities to respond to issues that energize or concern them. It invites dialogue.
- Use your intranet to post minutes of administrative meetings in which the budget concerns were discussed. This sharing of information gives those meetings a transparency that your staff will appreciate and will help them feel “in the loop.”
- Use your intranet, too, to invite staff members to submit ideas (perhaps anonymously) for budget reductions. Don’t underestimate the insight that your staff may have. You can’t think of everything.
- Hold “coffee and conversation” meetings with staff members. It will be a great trust builder and will allow you to keep your finger on the pulse of your staff’s anxieties. If you’re a director of a multi-branch system and there are management staff between you and many of your frontline employees, consider making these coffee and conversations management-free so that your more cautious staff members feel they have direct access to you without worrying about what their supervisor might think of their ideas or concerns.
- Always let your staff know that you are listening and that their opinions matter. Empowerment is important, because the situations people fear most are the ones in which they feel powerless. All of these ideas encourage open exchange, build trust and empower your staff.
Communicate with Your Board, Trustees and Friends
Let this group of insiders know about your budget challenges as soon as you’ve informed your staff. Tell them you will be looking at all parts of the budget for areas that can be reduced and that you may be calling upon them for their help and advice.
Communicate with the Community
- Be sure you let people know that the library will be experiencing cutbacks, but that its staff understands the community’s challenges and is part of a team that is working to ensure that community needs are met.
- Tell them that careful planning is underway.
- Let your community know that library services will be maintained at the highest possible level, even when hours and staff are reduced.
- Make sure that changes in services are communicated through every channel open to you. Use:
- Your library’s website
- Your city/county/township’s website
- Signs, flyers and bookmarks inside and outside the library
- Conversations between your frontline staff and people in the community
- Your community newspaper and its website
- Local radio and TV
- Keep your messages positive and remind staff to do the same. Remember that it’s not your patrons’ fault that your budget is being reduced. Declare your library a NO WHINING zone.
Libraries that have had the good fortune to be included in surveys in which individual community members are asked to value or rank their community’s services are in wonderful place indeed. Why? Whenever community service rankings occur, the library always comes out near the top because people consider their library to be an essential service. Public safety (police and fire) may rank higher, but you can be sure that your library will finish very strong. For this reason, one excellent advocacy strategy is to convince your governing body to survey its citizens about what services they value most in these tough economic times. Surveys can be done easily on the city/county/township’s website and inserted in city-wide mailings such as water bills.
When the results come in and your library finishes in the top rankings, you will have gained valuable justification for keeping your budget strong. You won’t have to “plead your case” because the people in your community will have spoken. They will make that case for you. Your job will be to be sure that decision makers hear and understand individuals’ strong feelings of library affection and support.