Nothing in the editorial is necessarily false. It is true that our library system has some problems. New books are taking weeks to get onto the shelves. There are computer issues, leaving some libraries with public terminals that are out of service. There are questions about the library system's use of funds to contract with consultants and advisers. There are personnel issues - some about which I've been extremely vocal. But there are also good, competent employees who are doing their jobs well. Those folks sometimes get lost in the complaints and end up feeling like they aren't being appreciated. This is how it happens, not only in nonprofits but in businesses, too.
What I do take issue with is the branding of this problem as a "war." Libraries, just like any large organization, will experience growing pains and rough spots from time to time. In Lancaster County, this is our 3rd time around so it does seem a little excessive. However, you cannot build a mansion atop a framework that is damaged. Therein lies the problem.
I want to preface my venting with the caveat that I do not have experience with libraries outside of Pennsylvania. All I know is what happens within my state. There are several issues that contribute to this issue, and you can't understand the big picture without understanding the pieces that put it together. All of these opinions are mine - not necessarily held by my board, other library directors, staff members of the library system or library system board members. It is just me.
First...the standards. Librarians throughout the state take time out of their schedule each year to file for waivers. Basically, what this means is that their individual library cannot meet the state standards for state funding so they have to file paperwork to explain their situation in order to receive their funding. Librarians throughout the state are lobbying for a change in the state library law to lower standards. I, on the other hand, believe that standards should be raised and, if libraries cannot meet those standards, they may want to consider becoming a branch. For instance, libraries have to be open a certain number of hours per week depending on the size of their service area. If they cannot afford to do this, they file a waiver. From my understanding, the waiver is almost always granted and that library continues to fail in their responsibility to meet the standard. Imagine if this kind of excuse-making was allowed in other places in the nonprofit and commercial world.
I know that not all communities can afford a full-service library. I would rather see those small libraries become specialized branches who can survive and thrive with excellence. I have not met 1 librarian who agrees with me on the raising of state standards so maybe I'm completely wrong and just don't understand the implications. In my heart, though, I think I'm correct.
Charging for Services? I hear it all the time - why don't public libraries charge for their services? Well, the first reason is that it's just wrong. The public library as it exists is one of the last bastions of true democracy. You can walk in the door - no matter who you are or what your circumstances - and get reliable, unbiased information from trained professionals whose primary concern is accuracy. Access to public libraries should never be limited, nor should anyone have any hurdles to the wealth of resources they provide. If you disagree with this idea, just close your browser now and move on. If you don't stand by this idea, you don't get it and, no matter how much I explain and preach, you will never understand.
Second, libraries are not allowed to charge for services in Pennsylvania if they want to receive state funding. So it's a mute point.
State Money. You basically need a degree in economics to even begin to understand the funding formulas in Pennsylvania. First, the state has a funding formula, but they don't run it because there isn't enough money. That's what they tell us, even though I can't really understand why it can't be run. This is my own fault because I don't have an extra 100 hours to dig into things to find out why. The "second tier" funding is on a system level. Some systems are a county, others cover more than one. The state hands the system a pile of money and it is the responsibility of the system to figure out how to disperse it. You can only imagine the conflict that happens here.
Recently, our Library System negotiated a new funding formula. This formula is performance based, not population based. I believe this is the correct distribution method but others do not. In particular, the Lancaster Public Library feels very strongly that population should be a part of the formula. The Lancaster Public Library faces a lot of challenges. First, they are an urban library, which incurs expenses that other libraries do not have to cover - like security. I completely respect the management of the library and feel like they are doing the absolute best they can with what they have. They are very aggressive about seeking out new funding sources and do amazing things to serve their urban population. And they do have a large population. However, this is the sticky part...many of their residents chose to visit other libraries. If those other libraries are serving their population - and population is a part of the formula - then those other libraries are providing services and not being reimbursed. That is exactly why I believe that performance-based funding is a fair way to go. However, Lancaster Public Library does not. I see their point, but I don't agree with it. So the state money is a problem, too.
County Money. Lancaster County also hands over a stack of money to the library system. The system keeps the majority of it to operate countywide services like IT and cataloging. However, just like any other entity that gets taxpayer money, there is quite a bit of disagreement about how that money should be spent. The local libraries do not agree on much, except that IT and cataloging are extremely important. So when there is a 3 week lag on books reaching our shelves, this becomes a very big problem. Of the $2+ million that is given to the system, less than $200K trickles down to the local libraries in cash. The rest is used for services. Some of these services are outstanding and some are inferior. A good place to start in fixing these problems is to take a good, hard look at the services that aren't working and immediately eliminating them. There seems, though, that cutting services is very difficult for the system, though I don't know why. Without getting rid of "incompetent" employees, the truly capable and committed get pulled down with them. So the county money is a problem, too.
Local Money. Each library in our system is completely independent, with the exception of 3 branches that are connected to their main libraries. We each have our own board, our own philosophies and our own vision of what libraries should be. We rarely all agree on anything. The county is divided up into service areas. These areas are poorly divided and are ultimately more about geographic convenience than about who the library actually serves. In my case, 45% of the patrons who walk through our door are from out of our service area. What this means is that we are serving someone else's patrons without the benefit of the local money. That money goes to the patron's "home library," even though they may never set foot inside the door.
I am incredibly lucky. I have four municipalities in my service area and they believe in library service. In particular, the Borough of Ephrata is, I believe, one of the most library-supportive local government entities in the county. Not only do they give us money, they also do things like mow our grass. We work closely with them to do things like train their employees and provide value-added services for the residents in their community. However, I cannot say to a patron - well, you're from Lancaster so we're not going to let you take advantage of this awesome stuff we're doing."
At times, local municipal officials will ask me why they are paying for something that is essentially being given to someone who lives somewhere else. Without going into an hour explanation, I cannot even begin to tell them the frustration that I experience with this issue. Some libraries have municipalities in their service area that don't give them one cent. I have no idea how they justify this decision, but public libraries are not mandated in Pennsylvania - another problem - and municipalities are not required to donate anything. So the local money is a problem, too.
Fundraising. As you can guess, the majority of money keeping our libraries running is donations. Library directors and board members spend a ton of time fundraising. If I had adequate funding and didn't have to fund raise, the things I could do for the community would be amazing. But, alas, that's not the case. Libraries have found all kinds of creative ways to raise additional dollars. Some have passport offices. Some have golf tournaments. My library actually has a government contract to be a village post office.
The system's board decided last year that they wanted to do fundraising for the system. Of course, they'd be doing that in Lancaster County and it may very well affect the money given to local libraries. The money they raise would not be distributed to local libraries, but would instead be used by the system to improve services. However, there are still those who argue that they aren't getting the services they need and/or that they system has priorities that do not match those of the local libraries. There is much debate about how this would work and how it would affect local libraries but the truth is that nobody will ever know until they do it and right now they're not going to do it because it's just an issue that has led one library to publicly threaten to leave the system and others are considering it in private.
This is a mess. Not only is the county dealing with the debate about the distribution of state funding, but also the distribution of county money, the fundraising "rights" of local libraries versus the countywide system and how the system is spending their money. On the outskirts of this debate are the issues of how to define "service areas," whether libraries can limit certain services to those who live outside their service area and a variety of other small issues that could, in the current environment, explode into yet another debate that ends up in the newspaper and, ultimately, degrade the public perception of public libraries in our county.
I respect each and every library director in the county. When we meet each month, I am constantly amazed at the wealth of knowledge and commitment that these people have for library services in the county. (Standards dictate that library directors need their master's degrees for most of the libraries. Some do not, but they still work hard to run a quality organization. See waivers above.) What we need at this point is some library version of "The Nanny" where someone comes in and cleans house. Of course, that can't happen. There is over a decade of baggage we all carry. This is our third system board, our third system administrator and our third attempt to get this thing right. And we're not doing such a good job.
The Solution, From the Perspective of a Guerrilla Librarian:
First, let me just lay it out here that I don't really have a solution. There are too many variables, too many directors, too many independent boards, too many opinions, too many issues and too many people who have been burnt in the past and no longer trust.
So all I can do is tell you what I think would make things a little bit better. First, the library system needs to fix themselves. While there has been a concerted effort for transparency, I often feel like I don't have much of a choice. (This is a whole other issue about how decisions are made and the weight each library's vote should have.) This is what I want immediately in the ideal world:
- Staffing on a System Level: I want professional visionaries who not only know how to do their jobs, but try every single day to go beyond the norm. I want examples of excellence. I hate to say it, but if an employee is unable to meet the standards, they should be dismissed - immediately. There has been enough time and consultants to train anyone. At this point, if they are not providing excellence, it is because they are unable or unwilling.
- Priorities: It has been discussed until we have no breath left - the two main priorities for the library system is information technology (IT) and cataloging and acquisitions services (CAS). In the short term, every available resource should be dumped into these services, even if it comes at the expense of other services. The system also has a hefty reserve fund that could be used.
- Action! We have spent the past two years discussing things - visions, missions, priorities, strategic plans, outcomes, etc. If, at this point, we do not know what is needed, we never will. I want to see some results - quickly, efficiently and correctly. Those 2 important departments have the skills to do this, but they are clearly not getting enough resources. (Money dump.)
- Transparency: Transparency is such a snazzy, fun word. Hey, we're transparent! What does that really mean? Does it mean simply cc'ing people on our emails or does it mean sincere, honest, respectful discussion. Transparency means being willing to accept you're wrong; transparency means not being territorial; transparency means giving the opinions of others as much weight as your own. Most importantly, however, is that transparency means not lying and telling people what they want to hear situation by situation. This is a problem.
- Respect: The current "war" has more to do with respect than you may think. I've been trying in this entry to not point fingers, but in this case, I will. System board members have been openly rude and demeaning to library directors and board members. This makes it very hard to work collaboratively. I have personally asked for more than one apology - not for myself, but for other directors who have been openly mistreated - and as far as I know, it's never happened.
- The Front Line: One of the things nobody has discussed is that everything we do is for the benefit of the residents of Lancaster County. I would be willing to bet that none of the players (with the exception of library directors) have spent any time whatsoever on the front line in longer than they can remember. I have asked repeatedly that system staff members (and even board members) be required to spend some time at the local libraries. They need to interact with the public we serve in order to really understand what this "war" is really about.
- Players: Every single one of the players in this "war" needs to take a step back and reevaluate their maturity and motives. Every single one, myself included. Sometimes, we want our way so badly that we forget who and what it is we are fighting for.
I have no solution to this mess. I do have ideas, though. I have opinions. My board of directors values these opinions and I value theirs. Some of the time, the staff at the system values them as well. At this point, none of my opinions have been listened to or respected on a system board level. That being said, I don't think 1 entity is the problem. I think we're all the problem. And that, my friends, is the problem.