Winning the Budget Wars

Let a smile be your secret weapon

May 6, 2010

Library publications and blogs are filled with two types of articles these days: horror stories and fantasies.

First, the horror stories. These are the news reports of budget cuts, most of which are in fact quite horrible. Academic Library X is getting its budget cut by 30%; School District Y is firing all of its credentialed librarians; and Public Library Z is closing seven of its 10 branch libraries. There’s a budget war out there, and we’re not winning.

That’s where the fantasies come in. Any number of experts indulge us in fairy tales about how we can start winning the budget wars. Take your pick:

  • We need to do a better job of convincing the already-convinced general public of the value of libraries.
  • We need to do a better job of using Twitter and Facebook to tell everyone how important we are.
  • We need to deploy our technological resources in more cost-effective ways.
  • We need to develop new and creative streams of revenue.
  • We need to think outside the box. We need to change paradigms.

These are all fantasies.

Publicly financed libraries in schools, cities, and universities are basically supported through some combination of sales tax, property tax, and state income tax. Welcome to the triple whammy of declining retail sales, diminishing real estate values, and rising unemployment. You can’t get blood out of a rock. I know this sounds defeatist and pessimistic and it’s not politically correct to say, but it is what it is. Dreaming about innovative fantasies will not change a thing.

Tea and sympathy

So, what can we do?

Glad you asked. There are several things:

1) Don’t trash elected officials. Believe it or not, the vast majority of politicians love libraries. Why? Simple. Are they scholars and book worms? No. They love libraries because voters love libraries.

2) When the cuts begin and your city, school district, or university starts holding public hearings so that the budget-cutting process will be “transparent,” make sure you get your supporters out in droves to speak on behalf of the library even if you know it won’t do any good. Otherwise, the politicians may think that the library has no supporters. Make the cuts as difficult as possible for elected officials; don’t give them a free ride.

3) Think strategically. Commiserate with your elected officials about the terrible dilemma they're in instead of blowing all your political capital by attacking them. Instead, ask them to restore library cuts when good economic times return. Tell them you feel their pain. This will go a long way. You know why? The politicians are in pain. They love to expand services; not cut them. They hate this even more than you do.

4) Finally, don’t voice the same old complaint that we hear every time the economy tanks. “Our libraries are busiest when times are tough, because that’s when people are down and out and need a library the most.” This is very bad public relations. It makes the library seem like a charitable institution for poor people, and like it or not poor people carry zero political clout.

Instead, embrace the increased business. Keep meticulous statistics that you can unsheathe later on as a weapon in future budget wars. Also, get your elected officials into the library at your busiest times so they can see the lines of folks waiting for a computer. Better yet, focus on the children’s room during story hours, special programs, and summer reading programs. Mayor and council members, we’re all about the children!

Will Manley has furnished provocative commentary on librarianship for over 30 years and nine books on the lighter side of library science. He blogs at Will Unwound.