November 17, 2017

Public Management Is Tougher: Tech drives increased need for libraries | Blatant Berry

John Berry IIIMy optimistic aging memory had me waiting for the economy to do what it used to do and recover enough so that the public and private nonprofit sectors by which most libraries are funded would catch up with the already recovered private sector. So I was a bit taken aback when Siobhan Reardon, the president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia and LJ’s 2015 Librarian of the Year, told me that wasn’t going to happen.

“We will be short of money forever. The public sector will never catch up; it’s never going to happen, John!” she asserted, adding that the creative use of funds would be a key management challenge of the coming decades.

“If you work in a municipally funded organization you have to be flexible, and you have to learn how to get the most flexibility with the limited amount of dollars you have,” Reardon said, adding that it helped a lot to have a library foundation that raises some $10 million a year and an engaged public that helps to make the decisions on how to spend what money there is.

Gail Bacon, director of the Belgrade Community Library in Montana, which won LJ’s 2015 Best Small Library in America Award, offered the same sentiments a bit more colorfully when we talked.

“We actually call our library the loaves and fishes library, like the old Bible story of Jesus feeding the multitude that we heard as kids. We don’t have enough staff, we are not open enough hours, we have no money for technology. Then we look back at the end of each year and say, ‘How did we do that?’ We have amazing community support and a strong, small staff, and that is how we get things done.” Bacon has had amazing success finding grants to fund literally dozens of programs and projects and a host of community partners to help.

The truth is that managing a successful, leading library in the public or private nonprofit sector, such as a public or school library, is a lot tougher than managing almost any private sector agency or firm. Not only is public money always scarce, everyone in the community sees it as their money and demands some sort of accountability as to how it is used. The public sector budgeting process is long, arduous, and complex. It requires approval from a half dozen authorities as it proceeds through the year or more that it takes to finalize in most jurisdictions. There are no simple bottom line measures to convince a miserly taxpayer’s organization or finance board that the money is well spent.

Despite the record-breaking use of libraries, there is still a misinformed group of citizens who think that technology has or soon will take care of most library functions and replace those institutions. We now know that the opposite is true. As information technology has proliferated and become more sophisticated, it has increased what libraries can do and made the need for them more urgent. The immense number of new information sources—and the easy ability groups with their own agendas now have to slant information or simply to misinform—make libraries more important than ever. Society needs an agency to capture all those possible data sources and curate or analyze them, and it must have citizens who use that agency to assess and evaluate those sources. Only libraries are mandated to perform this crucial work and employ the experts to do it.

Managing such an agency is troublesome at best. It is hard to get funding for experts who may report that your information is incorrect or biased. It takes ingenuity and hard work to write successful grant applications to finance efforts that deal with all the subjects on which citizens must be informed. Those skills are essential factors in the success of Reardon and Bacon and their libraries.

Coupling their fundraising and political acumen with their deep belief in society’s demand for an agency like the library offers a glimpse of the kind of leadership the field will require going forward.

John Berry

This article was published in Library Journal's February 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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