A long, long time ago, when the earth was still cooling and dinosaurs roamed far and wide unburdened by thoughts of their own extinction, the library’s budget was a casually understood thing – there was always a little more than the year before, and the important thing was that you didn’t get carried away. A librarian might go four or five months into the new fiscal year without having any kind of definite figure on what was supposed to be spent, and when the numbers were eventually revealed, the librarians were always relieved, because they had been on the low side and had tons of wiggle room. On the other hand, every librarian knew they had to spend as much of their budget every year as they could, because if they didn’t, someone might think they didn’t need all those books, and allocate the funds somewhere else.
Then the recession came, and the people who put together library budgets wore passively concerned expressions, but it didn’t go much deeper than that. Librarians are civil servants, not accountants, and a good librarian has a voracious appetite for spending money on the written, spoken, and electronic word. Much of their day is spent just going over what is available to them – and what is the point of going over this material if you don’t want to grab at least a few big handfuls of it?
Then a few more years passed, and things actually got tough for other parts of the city, like the police department and the fire department, and the city asked library administration to brainstorm and come up with some good cost-cutting ideas that would chip away at the seven-figure deficit. And so they did.
Both library management and the attendant union took turns blowing the others ideas out of the water. Consolidate positions and re-distribute duties? Hah! Think again. Eliminate Sunday hours from the library schedule altogether? Well, gosh darn it, the public has really come to depend on the library being open on Sundays. It would break their hearts to walk up to the front door of the library on a Sunday and see the doors locked.
The rank and file were also asked to think of ways to save money, and even though they had to do this kind of thinking off the clock, they did it. One of the first ideas they suggested was getting rid of most of the current library administration. They suggested taking out some of the fluorescent light bulbs out of each bank of lights, or at least leaving the lights off by the windows until dusk. One of the more memorable ideas was to print out inter-office emails in only one or two specific fonts, as it was somehow determined that some of the more ornate, serif fonts used up to 42 percent more black ink that the others, and the resulting savings in ink cartridges – over a year – might soar into the dozens of dollars. Maybe more.
One of the cost-cutting suggestions that actually made it into practice was the installation of motion-sensitive on-off switches in the employee restrooms. No longer would an employee have to remember to flip the switch off. After thirty or forty seconds of an empty restroom, the switch would know that it was OK to turn the lights back off.
Old habits are hard to break, however, and one or two employees continue to turn off the motion-sensitive switch as they exit the restroom. The next employee will rush in, frantic after an hour on the check-out desk, close the door, and be in utter darkness as he punches the wall trying to find the switch, mumbling and cursing in the dark. At least I do.
The most recent cost-cutting idea implemented had to do with a job freeze. The idea was that people would die, or retire, or find better jobs, and when they did, they would not be replaced. The remaining employees wouldn’t be working harder – they’d be working smarter. However, no one retired, there weren’t any better jobs to go to, and not enough people died. We all just hunkered down.
The Principal Librarian of the city retired, and in short order, the rest of the librarians at the top of the labor pyramid realized you absolutely needed a Principal Librarian. A Power Point presentation was put together for the city council, and the city acquiesced, but warned them to cut the budget somewhere else. The solution was break-taking.
Cut the number of pages. You know, the ones who do all the work. Pages are the least well-paid people in a library staff, and are also the least powerful. They are at the bottom of the same labor pyramid. Hell, it’s not like it’s supposed to be a career, anyway. So administration began cutting the number of pages.
They sent out an email saying basically that these were tough times for everyone, but you had to do what you had to do. If there was work to be done and no page to do it, the next position up the pyramid - the library clerks – would do it. In essence, we’d get the same amount of work done for only a little more money. And they repeated the mantra that working hard wasn’t the big deal, it was working smart. Everyone agreed that administration knew exactly what they were talking about, because the same kind of thing had worked out so well for them.
Don Borchert is the author of “Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks and Gangstas in the Public Library” (Virgin Books, 2007). He has worked in a public library system in Southern California for the past seventeen years. Submissions for Backtalk should be 850 to 900 words and sent to Michael Kelley at email@example.com