On April 8, 2019, Jennifer Anne wrote a Twitter thread explaining how the rising cost of books, combined with shrinking budgets, has made it more difficult for libraries to buy materials. She also explained how the high costs of e-books prohibits libraries from buying as many e-books as they might like. Her insights provoked a telling response. Concerned readers suggested possible solutions and asked how they could help. What prevented readers from taking action before? Quite simply, the general public remains largely uniformed about the state of their public libraries. And this is largely the fault of libraries themselves.
I spend a lot of time promoting support for libraries on the blog and I do a fair amount of research on them to do so. However, facts about the financial state of public libraries are not widely publicized or readily available to the public. Indeed, only by talking to a worker at my local library did I discover last year that the library budget had been drastically cut ten years ago and never raised to that point–even though operating and materials costs had gone up. To the public, my library seemed to be doing well. Exciting renovations have occurred and more have been projected. But this is largely the result of fund raising, which is best suited for one-time projects and not to paying for staff or resources. The flashy renovations my library completed diverted attention from the fact that hours had been cut and never raised, most staff are reduced to working part-time, and new purchases have become limited (most of the new releases I want have to come a different library). If anyone notices these issues, they are likely simply to complain to the library workers themselves, as if it is their fault they have no money for materials or programming, and are not being offered more pay or longer hours.
Because my library is funded by tax dollars, they do release an annual report detailing each year’s revenue sources and expenses, as well as fun facts like how many people currently hold library cards or how many people walked in the door in the past twelve months. However, without any context, these numbers are not very useful to the public. Their revenue, for instance, may seem quite large to anyone simply looking at the number, when in fact it means shortened hours, fewer new books, fewer magazine subscriptions, and fewer subscriptions to online resources. Obscured, too, is the information that the revenue remained static for ten years. Without librarians explicitly explaining their funding and their costs, the reality of their situation is likely to remain a mystery to the public.
I am not sure why librarians do not talk more openly about their finances, but I cannot help but wonder if it is because they are so often struggling against public officials who believe libraries are obsolete and that their funding should be cut as a result. Perhaps libraries worry that revealing their struggles will make them look weak, that public officials will use their financial situation as a reason to close them instead of to support them. No one wants to throw money at a failing enterprise, right? But look at everything libraries manage to do with small budgets–and imagine what the could accomplish with larger ones. If libraries were open with their patrons about their struggles, their patrons would undoubtedly come forward with offers to help.
Libraries are wonderful resources for the community and they advocate quite effectively to serve the needs of their patrons. However, libraries also need to advocate for themselves, and not just behind the scenes. Libraries should be honest with their patrons about what their financial situation, what it means for materials and services, and what steps could be taken to improve their situation. If libraries remain silent, patrons, quite simply, cannot be expected to help.