July 24, 2014

Update: Vermont Library Lays Off Whole Staff; Librarians Protest

This article has been updated to include video footage of the “Hug” of the Athenaeum on January 12.

On December 3rd, 2012, the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum Board of Trustees announced it would lay off its entire library, docent, and information technology staff, then “ask them to consider applying for the newly formed Athenaeum positions,” Bill Marshall, chair of the Athenaeum Board of Trustees, said in a letter.

The first goal of the radical restructuring is to reduce costs: the library is eating into its endowment. It could be depleted in as little as seven years if spending continues at the current rate, which the Athenaeum’s Executive Director, Matthew Powers, said was between 10 and 20 percent per year, rather than the recommended 4.5 percent. The plan will cut personnel spending by eight percent, or about $40,000. Powers told LJ that personnel is the “single highest line” in the library-cum-museum’s budget. “Last year personnel costs were roughly $340,000 out of a total budget roughly of $500,000, and that doesn’t take into account the deficit,” he explained.

Although it is the staff restructuring that is raising the most controversy, Powers told LJ it’s far from the only cut. “Within the overall budget we reduced about $150,000; so we didn’t just look at the personnel budget,” said Powers. Other cutbacks affected general expenses and facilities. “No stone was unturned,” Power continued.

The other stated goal of the restructuring is to gear the Athenaeum up to meet the challenges of the rapidly changing world of librarianship, including a new focus on digitization, research and technical assistance, super-broadband Internet access, and off-site services, as well as more emphasis on programs and collaboration with other institutions. However, it is not entirely clear how the restructuring would place more emphasis on technology use and support, since it replaces a dedicated employee with an IT contractor.

According to Laurel Stanley, a retired academic library director, public library trustee, Athenaeum member and donor, and member of the Vermont Library Association Board, a new focus on these goals isn’t necessary. “They’re saying that the Athenaeum is behind in new services and technology and that’s just not true,” said Stanley. “The Athenaeum is definitely a leader in the Northeast Kingdom [section of Vermont], and measures well compared to other libraries in the state.”

According to a second letter from the Board, the Athenaeum is moving from a team of eight people working in the library—most part-time—to a team of four people, two of whom are full time. (Plus a new curatorial position which requires museum, not library, expertise, and a full time development position.) The letter compared the decision to the also-controversial restructuring at Harvard University, and also includes a Q&A section describing some background:

Q: Is there a future for public libraries?

A: Yes! Absolutely yes! There is an important role for public libraries, but it’s going to be different. Preparing for this new role for our library is the fundamental reason we are restructuring. Moreover, this change is occurring with great speed and we have some catching up to do. This is the reason we felt we needed to take a bold step forward, instead of small, incremental changes.

The Athenaeum’s new library positions include a full time librarian and assistant librarian, a part time assistant librarian, and a part time youth services librarian. Although the Board’s letter stated that the people hired into the four new positions will be qualified librarians, according to the job posting, an MLS is not required for any of the positions. While Vermont considers someone with a department of library certification to be a qualified librarian, Stanley told LJ, “it is highly unusual that a library the size of the Athenaeum would not have at least one MLS. You can’t tell me you’re going to do catching up and then say you don’t need an MLS.”

While the Athenaeum says the restructuring does not result in any significant cut in staffing, Stanley disagrees, saying the 130 hours of library staffing that the new positions provide will be insufficient to both staff the Athenaeum’s two service desks and children’s room for the library’s current 42-43 open hours per week, and provide the additional outreach services and programming called for by the plan. Likewise, expanding non-library positions such as a curator, a development director, a book keeper, and a custodian, while reducing library staff hours, is not focusing on library services, claims Stanley.

Stanley agrees that the budget must be balanced, but feels that “they’ve put far too much money into this art gallery, and library services has been far down” on the list of priorities.

Rural Librarians Unite (RuLU), a newly formed volunteer group, is organizing opposition to the cuts in the form of a “hug” for the library. On Saturday, January 12 at noon, the group will join with the Vermont Library Association and citizens of St. Johnsbury to hold hands around the library.

The demonstration is similar to that organized by 2012 LJ Mover & Shaker Christian Zabriskie in 2011. Zabriskie, founder of Urban Librarians Unite, coordinated a “hug” of the New York Public Library’s main branch, and Lydia Willoughby, spokersperson for RuLU, says that’s not a coincidence. “We contacted ULU before starting anything up here, and got their blessing. The ‘hug’ event was definitely influenced by their work at NYPL.”

The Vermont Library Association (VLA) said in a statement, “While the Vermont Library Association understands the Board’s responsibility for setting direction for their library during a time of financial stress, now, more than ever, Vermonters need libraries–and librarians. The Vermont Library Association feels that the board’s actions demonstrate a devaluation of libraries and the library professionals capable of leading them through a time of intense change in information resources and society.  Librarians are not replaced by the Internet–their skills and training enrich the Internet and facilitate access for all Vermonters.”

Both RuLU and VLA also called on supporters to contact the Athenaeum directly, as well as their elected representatives.

Willoughby told LJ, “While the timing of Rural Librarians Unite was definitely in response to the Athenaeum situation, the story was never about just the Athenaeum library staff…RuLU will serve as an activist force that libraries and librarians can go to whenever they want to get a campaign off the ground for any reason.”

RuLU’s future plans include building library and literacy services for correctional facilities and reentry programs in Vermont, an alternative email listserv for rural librarians to make action plans and share resources, support for safe physical spaces for vulnerable learners and library users, meet ups at independent bookstores, unconferences, collaboration with Every Library on State-wide advocacy, and reaching out to ARSL and other peer organizations. While RuLU is focused on Vermont right now, Willoughby doesn’t rule out expanding nationally/or and working with nearby Canadian libraries.

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The “Hug” drew a crowd of about 200 people, according to RuLU. Video of the event can be seen below:

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Senior Editor, News and Features of Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. L B White says:

    This sounds like a Board working against its Library, not for it. One wonders how much participation by the community was a part of this process, and whether the decision makers have any true understanding of the institution they are supposed to serve. Disgusting!

    I hope the town pours out in support in one of the loveliest libraries I have ever visited. The staff there did wonders with the miniscule budget it was given, and did their city proud. I doubt the same will ever, ever, ever be said about that Board!

    Linda White/ San Francisco

  2. Gord Ripley says:

    Librarians have been believing it is ‘business as usual’ for a decade now, but it just ain’t so. Kudos to the Board for attempting to rescue this library from financial collapse and irrelevance. I sympathize with the staff; I’m a librarian myself. But the world is changing, and lip service to change is not nearly enough. The Athenaeum is the tip of an iceberg. We’re going to be seeing lots more of this kind of restructuring down the road.