I’ve always intended to write this blog as anonymously as possible, so I’m not going to discuss specifically where we are located, but a little bit of background about my library branch is important to this story.
I manage an urban library branch with holdings that run between 35,000 and 40,000 items. We are located in one of the more impoverished areas of the community that we serve. Our branch is bordered by a subsidized housing project, a retirement apartment complex (also subsidized), a public charter school and a relatively large-scale community garden project. The vast majority of our patrons come to the library on foot rather than in cars. The public charter school uses my library branch as their school library and even though in some respects this seems unfair, we are glad to have the metrics that this generates for the branch.
Public library funding, as many of you know, has been under attack for many years. The state in which I live is certainly no exception to this. My library system has attempted to deal with this by automating everything that they possibly can in order to save money on staffing. Administrators seem to believe that this has been effective. I’m not certain that middle management, front-line staff, and library users would agree. While some level of automation is useful – machines will never eliminate the need for human interaction, nor should they. Also noteworthy is the fact that the vast majority of my time is now spent troubleshooting technology issues – compensating for malfunctioning technology – and training both staff and library users on the use of library technology. Rather than reducing the need for staff, library automation has simply changed necessary interactions and in my opinion caused those interactions to require even more specialized expertise.
On the one hand, we like to tell ourselves that we are committed to excellence in customer service, while at the same time we continue to make reductions in staff – justified by additional technology and automation – which unfortunately can’t help but cause customer service to suffer in one way or another.
If there are other library professionals out there who have weathered the fiscal storm, I’d be interested in hearing how you’ve coped with this. I know that it’s a trend that isn’t unique to my experience, and that it’s even happening in many other fields.